Hyundai brings premium design touches to Sonata while keeping costs low

Industry

PHOENIX — Looks aren’t everything, but in the shrinking yet still competitive midsize sedan market, they sure can’t hurt. So Hyundai is bringing premium design elements to its mainstream Sonata using manufacturing innovations to keep costs in check.

“More and more, design is a powerful element of brand identity, and a strong communication tool for customers,” said Hak Soo Ha, head of the Hyundai interior design group. “Our mission was to design the most beautiful sedan in its class.”

But does style sell cars? It certainly attracts buyers to the showroom, Ha told Automotive News. And there is precedent for bold design elevating Hyundai’s midsize sedan: The sixth-generation Sonata surprised the industry with its sleek lines before giving way to the bland seventh-gen car. The 2020 Sonata, which goes on sale this month, draws inspiration from the popular 2011 model.

Compared with the current car, the new Sonata sits lower on its new platform, with a more coupelike silhouette. It includes exterior styling cues that were once limited to luxury cars because they required costly manufacturing techniques. On the Sonata, Hyundai has developed some innovations to bring those elements to a mass-market sedan at a modest price point.

“When I say innovation, it’s a relative term,” Ha said during a media presentation here last week. “It’s nothing new to the industry, because you see this in more premium or exotic cars. But to bring this level of engineering and execution to a mainstream car, that’s why we call it innovation.”

For example, the hood on the redesigned Sonata flows all the way down to the grille, without the need for a horizontal “cut line” between it and the front fascia. That makes the hood longer, a design element associated with Aston Martin. But it complicates the assembly.

Hyundai designers and engineers worked together on the flowing hood while minding costs. Ha said it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it because it sets the Sonata apart from competitors such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.

“We challenged every little detail like that to bring some special things to the Sonata,” said Ha.

During his 14 years at Ford, the Korean-born designer worked on the Fusion and Edge — vehicles known for their premium looks relative to rivals.

When Ford redesigned the Fusion for the 2013 model year, it incorporated elements reminiscent of Aston Martin, including the trapezoidal grille. The Fusion was transformed from a run-of-the-mill midsize sedan to a sleek, more premium-looking car.

Another challenge with the new Sonata was to reduce the size of the front fender to create a ground-hugging stance. Suspension pieces had to be redesigned while maintaining safety features such as the front crush zone to absorb impact in a crash. “When you see the car in real life, you notice that the fender is very low, almost to the level of exotic cars,” Ha said.

There’s much more: A chrome strip from the headlights to the rear door lights up when the car is on; the tail lamps are dominated by a circular “racetrack” that unifies the rear; and the dashboard, center stack and other interior elements are slimmer and lower to the floor, and there’s less button clutter.

And, of course, the car overall has been reengineered from the ground up to reduce noise, vibration and harshness, and to provide a smooth, sporty ride, plus improved fuel economy.

In a sea of cookie-cutter crossovers, Hyundai is hoping to draw buyers from other segments who are looking for a ride that stands out in a crowd. The 2020 Sonata may not hit the sales records set by the sixth generation — when sedans were still popular — but it won’t be for a lack of trying.

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