Before the rise of crossover and SUV sales, midsize sedans reigned supreme. In 2012, midsize sedans accounted for 16.1 percent of automotive sales. Fast-forward to June 2017 and midsize sedans’ sales figures are just 10.8 percent, a stark decrease. At the same time, SUV sales have risen from 8.6 percent in 2012 to 12.7 percent today.
Midsize sedan drivers are migrating to crossovers and SUVs for various reasons, including all-wheel-drive capability, practicality and safety features. Hyundai believes it can draw consumers back to sedans. In fact, it thinks it just might have a few aces up its sleeve. For starters, the automaker is putting a lot of trust in its design team — Hyundai’s research found customers rank aesthetics before fuel economy, value and ride comfort.
Hyundai’s design team took what it believed were the best cues from its golden child, the sixth-gen 2011 Sonata, and amplified them. Edward Lee, the new Sonata’s designer, wanted to create something special, something to wow drivers.
To meet its goal, Hyundai redesigned the front and rear ends. Most notable is the new cascading grille, coming on the majority of the automaker’s cars in the near future. In other words, get used to it. The elongated hood, aggressive front end with new headlights and stacked components come together for a good-looking design.
Hyundai says it tried to accentuate design from its 2011 Sonata with this redesign.
The redesign looks especially good on Sport and 2.0T models, featuring bespoke front and rear fascias, gloss-black window trim, dual exhaust outlets and larger wheels for a more aggressive look. Like Lee says, it’s a harmonious design, a middle ground between the automaker’s past, blander offerings and the 2011’s hate-it-or-love-it approach.
Under the new hood, no matter trim or model, lies a familiar engine. Both the 2.4-liter inline four and 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engines 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. Hyundai makes it in-house and says it’s the first time it’s been stuffed into a front driver.
All the changes, even the minor ones inside, are meant to make the Sonata stand out in the $25,000 to $26,000 range. Hyundai believes it’s the most competitive. The number of offerings has been simplified as well, with potential customers now choosing from just nine trims. The base SE 2.4 costs $22,935, while the range-topping Limited 2.0T trim comes in at $33,335.
Midsize sedans are, and always have been, do-it-all vehicles. They’re supposed to be good at completing lengthy road trips, the school run — even the occasional joyride on a back road. That’s asking a lot. Compromises must be made somewhere. We drove both the Limited and Limited 2.0T on San Diego highways and incredibly windy roads.
Sliding into the Limited 2.0T reveals just how sporty Hyundai has made the upper-level turbo models. The car has nicely bolstered leather seats with just the right amount of snug. The flat-bottomed steering wheel is thick and chunky, and the steering is nicely weighted, with good feedback.
Merging onto traffic is easy with the 2.0-liter turbo. While 245 hp doesn’t sound sky-high on paper, it’s more than enough to get the Sonata up to highway speeds in short order. The eight-speed is impeccable, shifting smoothly and effortlessly.
The 2018 Sonata has four drive modes: sport, comfort, eco and smart.
At speed, the car is louder than expected, and while it takes smaller bumps in stride, it can shimmy and shake over larger ones. We thought this was strange, considering Hyundai fiddled with the suspension, increasing front torsion-bar stiffness and fitting thicker trailing arms and new bushings in back.
Pulling off the highway and onto something with curves gives us some time to play with the Limited’s 2.0T’s drive modes. There are four: sport, comfort, eco and smart, altering steering feel and the way the eight-speed gearbox shifts. Sport quickens throttle response and adds steering weight. Smart really takes advantage of the transmission’s smarts, responding to driver inputs. Aggressive driving puts you in sport, while driving in an efficient manner puts it into eco, without having to manually change the mode.
When a good road beckons, you want sport. The steering gets slightly heavier, the throttle pedal is much, much touchier, and the car handles the windier stuff well. Feedback comes readily through the wheel; the transmission shifts up and down quickly and smoothly. Once you look down at the easy-to-read gauges, you’re quickly traveling at high speeds, prompting a quick stab at the brakes. They have great feel and come on progressively.
The Sonata’s 2.0-liter turbo four cylinder makes 245 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque.
The 2.0T is clearly for those who enjoy driving. It likes being flung around corners and is thus fitted with stickier Michelins. The 2.4-liter-equipped lower-end models are the exact opposite. The 2.4-liter-equipped Limited with the six-speed automatic gearbox we tried underscored how it caters more to the mainstream driver. Unlike the 2.0-liter turbo, the 2.4-liter needs to be abused to get things moving. Even then, it struggles to be much fun.
At about 3,300 pounds, the Sonata isn’t exactly a featherweight, and 185 hp just doesn’t feel like enough. The windy roads we enjoyed in the Limited 2.0T are suddenly a hassle — the Sonata makes its weight more apparent. Even going through the driving modes (2.4-liter-equipped models only have three: sport, eco and comfort) doesn’t seem much help. Sport doesn’t bring about a discernable difference with the steering wheel or the transmission, for example, but at least it alters throttle response.
The non-turbo car is better on the highway than on the tighter, windier roads. The tepid engine isn’t as noticeable, and keeping the drive mode in comfort or eco is fine on the freeway. Besides some cheaper interior touches, the Limited’s interior isn’t a bad place to be. It has plenty roomy inside — even in the back seat, where my 5’10” frame finds good legroom. Oh, and there’s also a massive trunk. Hyundai claims its 16.3 cubic feet, and we believe it.
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While other automakers are zagging, Hyundai zigged and took inspiration from the sixth-generation Sonata to create a good-looker. The 2.0-liter turbo-four, the eight-speed transmission, the sport-tuned suspension and steering all come together in the 2.0T for an enjoyable sedan, and not just in a straight line. Unless you’re serious about saving a few dollars on gas, spending a little more money on a 2.0T model is well worth it. The car should surprise plenty of drivers.
On Sale: Late July
Base Price: $22,935 (2.4-liter) / $28.485 (2.0-liter turbocharged)
Drivetrain: 2.4-liter GDI four-cylinder, six-speed automatic, fwd/2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, eight-speed automatic, fwd
Output: 185 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 178 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm (2.4-liter)/245 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 260 lb-ft @ 1,350 to 4,000 rpm (2.0-liter turbocharged)
Curb Weight: 3,250 lb (2.4-liter) / 3,483 lb (2.0-liter turbocharged)
Fuel Economy: 25/36/29 (2.4-liter); 23/32/26 (2.0-liter turbocharged)(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Familiar package, handsomely designed
Cons: Cheap interior trim, 2.4-liter Sonata is unathletic
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