2018 Hyundai Sonata

CHARLESTON, S.C. — In 2011 Hyundai brought its Fluidic Sculpture design language to its mid-sized Sonata sedan deviating from the pedestrian styling of many of the other mainstream mid-sized offerings with flowing, coherent lines, a large expansive grille and swept-back headlights. Interior styling was also groundbreaking. And the sixth-generation Hyundai resonated with buyers.

Hyundai headed in a more conservative design direction in 2015 with the seventh generation sedan, tweaking it in 2016 and 2017. But a Hyundai dealership sales manager we talked with a few months ago said that he thinks the current design  — what some people call "more mature styling" — has actually resulted in a sales slump for the Sonata. He was excited about the new Sonata that he said "couldn't arrive too soon."

There is probably more to the sales drop off than just the Sonata styling. Mid-sized segment sales have dropped from 16.1 percent in 2012 to 10.8 percent the first half of 2017 as crossover SUV sales surged.

Hyundai hopes it can buck this trend with the major mid-cycle refreshening because the Sonata is still the company's bread and butter vehicle in North America with 2.8 million units sold since the first of its seven generations came out in 1989. Among its line of cars and SUVs, the Sonata is king, senior product planning manager John Shon said at the drive event in Charleston.

“It accounts for over 30 percent of all Hyundais sold in the U.S. since it was launched here,” he said. “It also has the highest awareness of any of our models, and it is built right here in the U.S. and we are very proud of that.”

Hyundai’s California Design Studio decided for more drama in the latest generation’s mid-cycle redesign. While there’s some restraint, there’s also a return of some swoop in the redone nose, tail and lower sill in a body that matches last year’s length and wheelbase. 

“It was created to cater more to American tastes,” Shon said. “The front features Hyundai’s new signature cascading grill shape. The cascade refers to the curvature on the side and front of the grill. The front is more distinctive.”

In addition to the distinctive grille, the redesign works well on the Sport and 2.0T models that include gloss-black window trim, dual exhaust outlets and larger wheels for a more aggressive look.

“The moment the pen left the drafting paper I knew we had something special in this re-imagined Sonata,” said Chris Chapman, chief designer at the Hyundai North American Design Center. “Dynamic lines, strong graphics, and our new signature cascading grille come together in an athletic way.”

Under the new hood, no matter trim or model, lies familiar engines. Both the 2.4-liter inline four and 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder return without any performance changes. The 2.4-liter still pumps out 185 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque, while the punchier 2.0-liter turbo-four generates 245 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. While the 2.4-liter still makes do with the same six-speed automatic transmission, the 2.0-liter is now matched to a new eight-speed auto.

We didn't drive the 2.0T model, but we know from past experience its 245 horses are enough to make driving life fun and passing slow moving traffic a safe and effortless chore. We spent our afternoon behind the wheel of a well-equipped 2.4 liter model and never felt we were lacking the necessary power to do all chores of driving life whether it be on the tourist-crowded Charleston streets or out on the freeway and winding two-lane Low Country roads. We found the Sonata 2.4 not only a competent performer, but also quiet with a comfortable suspension that took on anything we drove over.

Inside, the reworked center stack and instrument panel match the exterior’s stylish new looks. The trend carries down to the gauge dial design and three-spoke steering wheel. Piano key buttons for audio and HVAC controls give a premium look and touch.

Passenger space is rather dramatic for a mid-sized sedan with stretch-out room for back-seat passengers and more than 16 cubic feet of trunk storage space. The Sonata is, indeed, designed for long-distance travel by four adults and their luggage.

The Sonata offers more safety features in 2018. In addition to seven standard airbags and a battery of safety systems, comes a standard Blind Spot Detection system with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert. Hyundai says the Sonata is the only mid-size car sold with this safety technology as standard equipment. And we applaud that decision because it's our belief all vehicles should have blind spot detection. There’s also a new Lane Departure Warning system with an enhanced Lane Keep Assist function available.

The 2018 Sonata is now on sale.

— Jim Meachen