The 2021 Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry battle it out to find out if they’re really as similar on the road as they are on paper.
Last year Toyota sold roughly four times as many Camrys as Hyundai did Sonatas. This year they’ve updated the Camry to try and snatch even more buyers from other brands. Nevertheless, the 2021 Hyundai Sonata is by far better than it’s ever been and, when compared on paper to the 2021 Toyota Camry, shouldn’t be losing the battle 4-1. The question is, can the Sonata really be as good as the most popular car in America over nearly 2 decades? We’ve taken a look at each and dug into the details to find a winner. It’s not as close as you might think.
Considering that these are meant to be inexpensive people carriers, we’ve selected the 2021 Toyota Camry LE and the 2021 Hyundai Sonata SEL for our comparison. The Camry is priced at just $26,853 while the Sonata costs a few bucks more at $27,429. That’s close enough that we feel comfortable about customers cross-shopping them and shouldn’t give the Sonata an outright advantage even though it’s one step up from the base model.
We’ve also decided to use the SEL since the base Sonata, the SE, costs just $25,185. A considerable amount less than the base Camry LE tested here. Both vehicles come equipped with a four-cylinder gas-powered engine. The Camry makes 203 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. The Sonata makes more torque, 194 ft-lbs, but far less horsepower at 180. The Camry manages mpg ratings of 28 city and 39 highway, whereas the Sonata falls just short of that with 27 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway.
Considering how similar these cars are in terms of power and the fact that they weigh only 50lbs or so different, you’d think that they would feel the same on the road for the most part. That’s not the case though with the 2021 Toyota Camry being considerably more apt to soak up bumps and bruises on the road surface. Driving these cars back to back will make the Camry remind you of mid-90s American cars for how soft the suspension seems to be. Steering is fine, but not particularly noteworthy. Braking performance from the Toyota will be predictable and pleasant. Reassuring is another word we might use for it, though there is more noticable noise from the brakes than on the Hyundai.
The 2021 Hyundai Sonata is remarkably fun to drive when the road conditions are excellent. Sadly, once the sedan gets to a less lovely patch of asphalt things can get a bit bumpy. At this price point, it shouldn’t be a shock that getting both an uber comfortable ride and one that can corner on rails isn’t really going to happen. Something surprising is that the Sonata has quite a bit more communication than you’d expected in terms of steering and braking feedback. Where others have reported experiencing a pulsation, we interpreted it like the Sonata was telling the driver what the road surface was like through their right foot. The steering wheel is equally verbose and seems to brilliantly indicate when and where the car could be pushed a bit harder without a loss of traction.
Your reviewer for this comparison is a taller person and so the 2021 Hyundai Sonata wins the day thanks to increased headroom and legroom. Take one look at both interiors and you’ll notice that the Sonata looks like it’s as up-to-date as any other interior in the business. Meanwhile, the 2021 Toyota Camry seems to still be stuck in a Lexus funk from 5 years ago. The Sonata benefits big time from that more ergonomic and modern layout too, with controls that are intuitive but not cluttered. We bet that the only buyers who prefer the Camrys interior will be those who prefer a more traditional layout. Almost every material surface in the Camry will feel cheaper than in the Sonata as well.
The Sonata isn’t without its failings though. The door skins are just drab feeling and looking compared to everything else in the interior and the seating isn’t as comfortable as in the Camry. It’s good, but the Toyota has a slight edge here. We’re not totally sold on the steering wheel in the Sonata either. It’s a bit strange and perhaps 4-spoke wheels are coming back into vogue, but the more sporty wheel in the Camry has our vote. Rear seat passengers will be comfortable in both cars, but again, the Camry is a bit nicer to relax in despite being slightly more cramped for taller adults. That doesn’t mean riders will enjoy it more though, because when it comes to features, the Sonata has it beat quite handily.
First, let’s discuss what features our specific vehicles are sporting and then we’ll get into the optional extras. The 2021 Toyota Camry LE comes with a 7-inch touchscreen, a power driver’s seat, 17-inch wheels, Amazon Alexa, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto compatibility. It also sports automatic high-beam headlights, road sign recognition, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and forward collision mitigation. That’s a great standard package, but the Hyundai has it smoked.
Every 2021 Hyundai Sonata SEL gets an 8-inch touchscreen, a power driver’s seat, 17-inch wheels, and Apple CarPlay / Android Auto compatibility. It also has similar safety equipment like forward-collision mitigation, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keep assist. That’s pretty similar, but then the Hyundai adds a driver attention warning that alerts the driver when they’re getting tired. It also tacks on blind-spot warning with cross-traffic alert and a safety exit warning for the rear seat passengers that lets them know when a vehicle coming up from behind might hit a door if it’s opened. The feature improvements don’t stop there though. The Hyundai Sonata SEL also has heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry, a push-button start, and a hands-free trunk opener.
Now, the Camry is available with a couple of big improvements that you can’t get from the Sonata, namely All-Wheel-Drive and a powerful 300 horsepower V6 (not together mind you, who would want that). It seems like Hyundai is going to try and keep up with that V6 though with the Sonata N-Line set to debut later this year with a 2.5-liter 290 horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder. That’s a vital addition too, because the “upgraded” engine option for the Sonata currently has LESS horsepower than the base engine.
Both cars can be equipped with more luxury equipment as well. The Camry XLE for example gets almost all the features of our Sonata SEL, but adds a 9-inch screen, leather, and a wireless charging pad. Of course, it costs over $32,000 too. The XSE is a sporty version of the Camry with a sport suspension, special aero trim on the outside, and a unique set of 19-inch wheels. Camry customers can also get the TRD version which gets that big V6, even more sporty suspension, and a sport exhaust.
The Hyundai ultimately offers more when it comes to features throughout its multiple trims. For example, the SEL Plus, which costs just under $2,000 more, equips the 2021 Hyundai Sonata with a 12.3-inch touchscreen, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, 19-inch wheels, and a wireless charging pad. There’s also a cool feature called Digital key which allows drivers to use their Android smartphone as their key. Bump up to the Limited trim which costs $35,435 and you’ll get a truly luxurious vehicle equipped with a panoramic roof, navigation system, heads-up display, ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and more safety features like automatic rear braking.
While the Camry will likely continue to carry the sales crown in 2021, smart buyers will opt for the much more featureful 2021 Hyundai Sonata. While we liked the improved ride quality of the Camry and the great V6 is the best to ever be featured in the model, it falls short of the Sonata. Consider too that Hyundai has a 10-year powertrain warranty and a 5-year 60,000-mile Limited warranty which simply puts Toyota and its combo of a 5-year powertrain/3-year 36,000-mile Limited warranty to shame.