FIRST DRIVE: 2015 Hyundai Sonata
Getting better incrementally.
Web2Carz Contributing Writer
Published: July 3rd, 2014
Four years ago, Hyundai introduced the 2011 Sonata, which proved that a mid-size sedan need not look boring, thanks to a flowing, swoopy exterior design. Still, there were flaws - namely ride and handling that weren't sporty enough, along with an interior that prioritized form over function.
Hearing the feedback loud and clear, Hyundai has tweaked the interior of the new Sonata to be a bit more conservative (and functional), toned down the exterior styling somewhat, and improved the ride and handling dynamics for 2015. Hyundai designers and engineers also increased the Sonata's length and passenger volume. They were so proud of their efforts that they flew journalists to Montgomery, Alabama, to tour the plant that builds the Sonata, before letting us get our grubby mitts on the car.
Did Hyundai succeed in their efforts? We'll get to that, but first, some basics.
First off, the trim levels have changed. Gone are the GLS, SE, and Limited from before, replaced by SE, Limited, and Sport. Those models retain the 2.4-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine, while opting for the Sport 2.0T gets you a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder.
There's one other engine choice: An "Eco" model comes with a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which is meant to save on fuel economy.
Hyundai's sales spiel is that a little bit of money will get you into a large car - the base Sonata will cost you $21,150, plus $810 for destination.
Hyundai knows how important it is to succeed in the highly competitive mid-size class, and while selling the Sonata as a value proposition is one way to do it, the only way the car will truly succeed is if it stacks up in categories beyond cost and size. Enough blathering - how does this Hyundai fare?
On the Road
You know that friend or co-worker of yours who takes feedback a little too seriously and immediately does what you suggest when he or she asks for advice? The Sonata's like that. After all that carping from the peanut gallery about lackluster driving dynamics, the steering seems tighter and the ride slightly stiffer. A "Sport" drive mode helps with this - there's a "Normal" and "Eco" mode, too - by firming up steering and throttle response nicely.
Switch to the Sport 2.0T and the sporting mission becomes more apparent. There are paddle shifters for the transmission and even in "Normal" mode the Sport 2.0T feels a tad high-strung, although not so much as to alienate buyers in this segment. The steering is reminiscent of an Audi or VW unit - a little light on center, but accurate in curves.
The 2.4-liter is now detuned to 185 horsepower from 190 (192 on the 2014 SE) and 178 lb-ft of torque from 179 (181 in the old SE). The turbo in the Sport 2.0T makes 245 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, down from last year's 274/269. Hyundai says the lower power numbers are meant to improve response at lower RPMs. Both engines continue to be paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. The Eco's smaller mill makes 177 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. Opt for this model and you get a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Both engines do feel more responsive at lower RPMs, but we'd like a tad more power from each. Our time with the Eco was limited to just a few minutes of urban driving, and we found it to be a bit lighter on power, but still acceptable for around-town work. As one would expect, the 2.0T felt punchier off the line than the 2.4 model.
As for the hybrid model, it carries over for one more year on the old platform before its replaced.
The ride was smooth and serene on peaceful Alabama roads, even in the tighter-wound 2.0T. The brakes are nice and linear with smooth progression.
When it comes to fun-to-drive factor, Hyundai still has work to do to catch up to the best in the class - the Mazda 6 remains more playful (perhaps the best handler in the segment), the Honda Accord more well-rounded, and the Ford Fusion offers more gravitas. But for the majority of mid-size buyers, who care only about getting from Point A to Point B in comfort, the Sonata will fit the bill just fine. Indeed, it's more fun to pilot than the Chevy Malibu or Nissan Altima, which Hyundai presents as two main competitors.
When we first saw photos of the 2015 Hyundai Sonata, we were underwhelmed. Too conservative, we thought, even if it does sorta retain the old car's side profile. We weren't fans of the new grille, which looks less aggressive to our eyes than the swoopy unit on the old car.
Then we saw it up close, and well, it works. We haven't tired of the old car's look, and we still prefer it, but the new Sonata presents better in person than in pics. It looks a tad more aggressive in the flesh (as it were) and the rear end, especially, looks attractive. We do think it will suffer in comparison to the Aston Martin-influenced Fusion (not that Ford will admit that) and the curvy Mazda 6, but not by much.
This Sonata will blend more than the outgoing model, but it won't go completely unnoticed, either.
Here's another example of Hyundai perhaps paying too much attention to feedback. Apparently, buyers of the previous car found that the interior prioritized form a little too much over function, so the new interior is meant to be easier to use, aesthetics be damned.
That's a bit of a letdown, since it's certainly possible to design a great-looking interior that's also user-friendly. Here, the interior is very user friendly - the gauges and nav/infotainment screen are all on the same eye-line, and the buttons and knobs are laid out logically - but the design of the center stack ends up looking a little plain. Oddly, it looks better from the shotgun seat.
There are nice touches in the cabin, though, such as the faux wood on our Limited tester. Soft-touch materials are in the right places, and the gauges are easy to read. The seats are all-day comfortable, and the super-sized cabin leaves plenty of headroom and legroom. Wind and tire noise stay mostly outside - where they belong.
Hyundai will be bringing Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto systems to 2015 models, possibly including the Sonata, and the company had one Sonata set aside for CarPlay demos. Both CarPlay and Android Auto are meant to bring a version of your smartphone's interface to your infotainment system once you plug your phone in.
This simplified interface is meant to cut down on distracted driving as well as the number of inputs you'll need to perform for certain actions. One of the key components of CarPlay (and Android Auto, we presume) is that it can use your smartphone's navigation system instead of the car's, which means customers may be able to forego paying for nav in the future. However, that's cell-phone-signal-dependent, unlike a car's GPS, which makes it likelier to crap out in a tunnel. Which is why our demo Sonata had its own nav system, as well.
Still, CarPlay seemed easy to use and intitutive. Plug in and push a touch-screen button and you're good to go. The future is here.
Hyundai got a lot right here in its quest to be better, but not everything's an upgrade. We're mixed on the exterior design and the look of the center stack, but we applaud Hyundai for taking a solid step forward in ride and handling, and for making the interior switchgear easier to use. Most importantly to the brand, the low price and big interior will be a big draw to mid-size buyers who prize price and practicality.
Whether that's enough to dethrone the Accord and Toyota Camry while also fighting off the Mazda 6 and Ford Fusion (not to mention the redesigned Chrysler 200) remains to be seen, of course. Despite the more conservative design direction, Hyundai did not step backwards with this car. But we're not sure if that big step forward is quite big enough.
Specs, Features, & Prices
Engines: 2.4-liter four-cylinder, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine
Transmissions: Six-speed automatic (SE, Limited, Sport, Sport 2.0T), seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (Eco)
Drivetrain Layout: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive
Power Output: 185 horsepower /178 lb-ft of torque (2.4-liter); 245/260 (2.0-liter turbo), 177/195 (1.6-liter turbo)
Fuel Economy (mpg): 25 city/37 highway (SE), 24/35 (Limited, Sport), 23/32 (Sport 2.0T), 28/38 (Eco, company estimate).
Base Price: $21,150 (plus $810 for destination)
Available Features: Bluetooth, USB port, infotainment system, satellite radio, heated and cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, panoramic sunroof, lane-departure warning system, forward-collision warning system, heated rear seats, keyless entry and starting, dual-zone climate control, auxiliary jack.
• For more information such as specs, prices, and photos of the 2015 Hyundai Sonata, click here: 2015 Hyundai Sonata.