2015 Hyundai Sonata

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — More than four years ago Hyundai answered the criticism that all mid-sized sedans look the same by stepping away from the stereotypical styling with the 2011 Sonata, a car so daringly different that it set a new tone for the design future of the popular segment. It was a smash hit not only for its good looks, but for its above-average performance, generous standard features, and improved build quality.

After just four model years, Hyundai has taken an unusually fast track with the introduction of an all-new Sonata. (Most car companies stick to a five-year cycle, electing for a major refreshening around the fourth year.)

The big news here is that the South Korean automaker has gone off in yet another styling direction with a design that is more conservative, not as brash or bold as the car it replaces. Hyundai calls its new look — the first model out with this new design language was the 2015 Genesis — the second-generation of Fluidic Sculpture, called Fluidic Sculpture 2.0.

Hyundai's North American design chief, Chris Chapman explained at a recent press event, “For this class of car, we’re looking for dignity, we’re looking for respect, we’re looking for confidence.”

Although toned down, the exterior is handsome from every angle with the character of a more expensive car. The interior has also be rewarded with significant changes. It has a more horizontal layout enhancing the the feeling of spaciousness and the elimination of clutter on the centerstack. And to make things even more user friendly, steering wheel controls are now standard across the lineup.  Materials in all trim levels are tasteful and appear of higher quality than the outgoing generation.

Perhaps the biggest changes, however, are unseen and have to be felt on the road. The car is definitely quieter than the outgoing model, which lends a more luxurious experience; handling and ride quality are improved; and performance from the two engines configurations we drove seems improved.

Mike O’Brien, vice president, Corporate & Product Planning for Hyundai Motor America, recently said, “To stay competitive, we had to not only make improvements where we normally do (noise, vibration and harshness; lighter weight with high structural rigidity; and more features for the dollar), we had look at what was happening in the midsize segment, in the segment above and at what the customer wants/will want.” In other words, bold styling wasn’t enough.

At introduction two engine choices will be offered, a 2.4-liter direct-injected four-cylinder good for 185 horsepower; and a 2.0-liter turbocharged four rated at 245 horsepower ad 260 pound-feet of torque. Surprisingly, that's down 29 horsepower from 2014. We had the opportunity to "wring out" the turbocharged engine from 0-to-70 and it felt as strong — if not stronger — than the 2014 model, perhaps because  peak torque is available over a broader rpm range.

Regardless of what measured times will eventually show, the tuburocharged engine feels as strong as most competitor's V-6 entries. The real bottom line here is that it's rated at a very fuel-efficient 23 mpg city, 32 highway and 26 overall.

The standard four will probably be the choice of most customers and in addition to decent performance owners will be rewarded with gas mileage of 26 city, 37 highway and 29 combined.

Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. We applaud Hyundai for sticking with a traditional transmission over the ever-increasing use of continuously variable transmissions. Although CVTs are improving, we still favor the geared transmission.

Hyundai next year will introduce a third choice, the Sonata ECO with a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 177 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT). The turbocharged Eco motor is direct competitor to Ford Fusion's 1.5-liter EcoBoost, but has the advantage of a DCT. E
PA estimated fuel economy for this combination is 28 city/38 highway/32 combined, which is only slightly above the Sonata SE’s 25/37/29 EPA rating. Hyundai says the dual clutch automatic transmission is responsible for a 6 percent to 7 percent improvement in fuel economy when compared to a conventional automatic like the six-speed used on all other Sonata models.

We were impressed with the spaciousness of the cabin, especially the leg room for back-seat passengers. It rivals the Volkswagen Passat, which we consider the leader in the segment. Trunk space is also on the large size for the segment, measured at a very generous 16.3 cubic feet.

The Sonata is available in five trims, SE, Sport, Eco, Limited and Sport 2.0T. There's also a Sonata Hybrid, which for now continues on the previous-generation platform.

Prices start at $21,150 (not including destination charge) for the SE and rise through the lineup to $28,575 for the Sport 2.0T.

We see continued success for the new Sonata even against the formidable competition and excellent choices in the mid-sized segment. Even with its less flashy styling it stands out from the crowd as a well-rounded and feature-laden sedan. And, by the way, don't forget the 10-year, 100,000-mile drivetrain warranty that continues to follow all Hyundai products.

— Jim Meachen