Hyundai Sonata — Now with a more conservative stance

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

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 (most car companies stick to a five-year cycle), Hyundai has taken an unusually fast track with the introduction of an all-new Sonata.

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 second-generation of Fluidic Sculpture, simply Fluidic Sculpture 2.0.

Although toned down, the exterior is handsome with the character of a more expensive car, especially if you like lots of chrome trim. The interior has also been rewarded with significant changes. It has a more horizontal layout enhancing the feeling of spaciousness and the elimination of clutter on the center stack. 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 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 seem improved.

The Sonata is available in five trims, SE, Sport, Eco, Limited and Sport 2.0T. Two all-new hybrid models will arrive later this year as 2016 models. Both a standard hybrid and an all-new plug-in hybrid, which is forecast to go 22 miles on an electrical charge, will make the Sonata lineup considerably more fuel efficient.

Three engine choices are currently offered with the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder being the most popular. Rated at 185 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque, the engine is as capable as four-cylinder motors found in competitors' sedans. It comes in the SE, Sport and Limited models.

In lieu of a V-6, Hyundai's "performance" engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four making 245 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Regardless of the measured times, which run in the neighborhood of 8 seconds from 0-to-60, the turbocharged engine feels energetic in all driving situations belying the published numbers. But if you are looking for top-draw performance, it does not replace a V-6. The real bottom line here is that it's rated at a very fuel-efficient 23-mpg city, 32-mpg highway and 26 overall, numbers that most six-cylinder engines cannot match.

The star of the show and new to the Sonata lineup is 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 a direct competitor to Ford Fusion's 1.5-liter EcoBoost, but has the advantage of the DCT. Both the standard 4-cylinder and 2.0T engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Ironically, the Eco is your best bet for both fuel economy and performance. It's rated at 28-mpg city, 38-mpg highway and 32 combined, which bests the standard four-cylinder, which is EPA-rated at 25/37/29. At the same time, the Eco is capable of finishing off a 0-to-60 run in around 7 seconds, a full second faster than the 2.0-liter turbo. Hyundai says the dual clutch automatic transmission is responsible for a six to seven percent improvement in fuel economy when compared to a conventional automatic.

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.

Prices start at $21,975 including destination charge for the SE and climb through the trim levels to $34,350 for the Limited 2.0T. Standard equipment across the lineup includes air conditioning, cruise control, full power accessories, heated mirrors, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and a six-speaker sound system with satellite radio.

The Sport and Eco (starting at $24,100) add automatic headlights, a rearview camera, eight-way power driver's seat and a five-inch touchscreen audio interface. Our test car was a Sport 2.0T with about $5,000 in options bringing the bottom line to $34,460.

Base price: $21,975; as driven, $34,460
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four
Horsepower: 245 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 260 foot-pounds @ 1,350 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 110.4 inches
Length: 191.1 inches
Curb weight: 3,600 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 16.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 32 highway, 23 city, 26 combined
0-60: 8.0 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry

The Good
• Good selection of engines
• Quiet and roomy interior
• Fuel efficient
• Excellent build quality

The Bad
• Swooping roofline compromises rear headroom

The Ugly
• 2.0T performance version lacks performance