CARS.COM — The mid-size sedan was once the bread-and-butter of U.S. car sales. That was even more the case for Hyundai with the Sonata sedan, which put the brand on the map in the U.S.
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But times have changed from as recently as 2012 when family sedans were the top of the heap, accounting for more than 1 in 6 vehicles sold. Pickup trucks and compact SUVs have poached buyers to where mid-size sedans are now fourth, says Hyundai, trailing even compact sedans (which declined, too, but less). Hyundai believes sales are stabilizing, and it has rolled out a refreshed, more stylish 2018 Sonata to defend its share of the pie.
The focus of the 2018 mid-cycle refresh of the seventh-generation 2015 Sonata was putting some pizzazz into the bland look. But the interior and chassis got small tweaks that nonetheless make the car more satisfying.
Significantly, Hyundai also has reconfigured the trims and equipment to double down on value, the Sonata's core appeal and — according to Hyundai research, the number one thing mid-size buyers shop for. But rivals have upped their game: After the Sonata's features for the buck helped the 2015 model beat nine rivals in Cars.com's $27,000 Midsize Sedan Challenge; the 2016 model finished mid-pack versus eight rivals in the 2016 Midsize Sedan Challenge. For 2018, there's a new, well-equipped SEL value trim level for budget-minded family buyers, which is expected to be the volume seller. Meanwhile, competition is heating up for 2018 with recently unveiled redesigns of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
I headed to San Diego to evaluate the refreshed 2018 Sonata around town and on winding mountain roads (per company policy, Cars.com pays its expenses for such automaker-hosted events). I drove the base-engine SEL and Limited Sonatas and a Sport 2.0-liter turbo version, all of which are on sale now. A higher-mileage turbo 1.6-liter Eco model returns for 2018 later this summer; updated 2018 versions of the Sonata hybrid and plug-in hybrid will arrive early next year.
Trying to Recapture the Magic
Hyundai says a design goal for the 2018 Sonata was to recapture some of the magic of the swoopy 2011 Sonata design that raised the bar for the appliance-like family sedans of the time. The 2018's front end is all new from the windshield forward. The side panel below the doors and rear end are redone as well.
A new version of Hyundai's "cascading grille," shaped to echo the pouring of molten steel, takes the Sonata's face in a more vertical direction, accentuated by vertical LED daytime running lights. The Sport gets its own mesh grille insert. Reshaped headlight pods stretch up and away, while a lower bumper Hyundai calls a "catamaran" design stretches down and away. Coupled with stronger sculpting in the hood, the overall effect may not be "wow," but it is stronger and more dramatic.
The reshaped LED taillights extend the strong line running the length of the car, while the lower bumper echoes the front catamaran look and has dual chrome exhaust tips for the Sport and turbo 2.0-liter models. It's a cleaner and more interesting look than the 2017.
Upgrades inside are subtler, and the design and materials continue to leave the Sonata mid-pack among rapidly improving mainstream sedan interiors. There still is a lot of grained plastic, and the trim seems downscale compared with design leaders such as the Mazda6 and (yes) the new Camry. Even the Subaru Legacy, no fashionista, has upped its game inside for 2018.
The front seats, however, were quite comfortable as the miles rolled up, bolstered well for winding roads. The Limited trim's leather looks and feels good, and the volume SEL's standard cloth also is good quality with interesting shaping and stitching (and the cloth was not unwelcome on a hot desert day). The rear seat, important for these family sedans, is comfortably padded and roomy, even if not the limo-like backseat of Volkswagen's Passat.
A small but pleasing change is the new center display and controls. The standard 7-inch touchscreen (8-inch with optional navigation) is slightly higher and better positioned to see and reach while driving. There also remains a welcome array of button shortcuts and audio and climate control knobs, but they now have a cleaner design and improved feel.
Open-air fans take note: Gone for 2018 is the available panoramic moonroof that could give the Sonata's interior a wide-open, airy feel — as well as high heat gain if you forget to close the shade. It's been dropped in favor of a lighter (and cheaper) conventional rectangle.
How It Drives
Regardless of trim or powertrain, the refreshed Sonata continues to be an impressively quiet and smooth-riding sedan in the city, on the freeway and on the rough asphalt of some rural desert roads. Enough so that you could find yourself telling the officer you had no idea your speed crept up that high.
The Sonata's carryover 185-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder base engine with six-speed automatic gets you around competently with no fuss but also without much satisfaction. Mileage is EPA-rated at 25/35/28 mpg city/highway/combined for most models. But if you enjoy driving at all and are OK with a modest mileage drop to 23/32/26 mpg, the choice clearly would be the 245-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter, another carryover engine newly mated for 2018 to Hyundai's eight-speed automatic with manual mode and paddle shifters. A 33 percent greater range of gear ratios over the former six-speed is a better fit for the turbo, with more punch off the line and quieter high-speed cruising. Downshifts were quick and positive, and the middle ratios were well-spaced for carving twisting mountain roads east of San Diego.
And the chassis invites you to enjoy that. The Sonata's no sports sedan — and buyers in this class aren't looking for one — but the Sonata feels agile and confident when pushed to the limit of the new Michelin tires on 18-inch alloy wheels (base-engine models get 16s or 17s). Upgraded rear suspension links and bushings have improved the ride and handling compromise, but the most noticeable 2018 chassis improvement is the steering. Increased component stiffness and new tuning delivers response, feedback and on-center feel that's good not just for a Hyundai, which has come a long way with steering, but good generally. Handling overall is nimble, even if not quite matching the tied-down feel of the Mazda6 or Ford Fusion. And this applies to all new Sonatas; the Sport 2.0T has a more "sport-tuned" suspension, but I frankly couldn't tell much difference.
Sonatas offer drive modes that alter gas-pedal response, transmission settings and steering: Eco, Sport, Comfort and (in 2.0T versions) Smart, which mixes and matches based on your driving style. Eco mode is best ignored; it can't save enough gas to justify its response. Better is the unfortunately named Comfort mode (what most makers tag Normal). Sport is most satisfying, without being intrusive or harsh, and was the go-to for me.
The Sonata Eco model was not yet available to test; my experience with the previous model found it, too, more fun than the base 2.4-liter engine thanks to more low-end torque and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. But it will be a niche model for budget buyers — Hyundai says it will continue to be offered only with the bare-bones SE trim.
Free Connectivity Services
The standard 7-inch touchscreen is sharp and fast. It includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, and the convenient device bin on the front console has USB connectivity and 12-volt power. A wireless smartphone charging pad is available. Sonatas also now have a USB connection in the rear seat.
The 2018 Sonatas also come with three months of free Hyundai Blue Link service for remote starting, locking and cabin conditioning via smartphones and now smart home speakers, such as Amazon Echo devices. Models with navigation get free map updates for three years as well. The service is a big step up from the 2017's three-month trial and then paid subscription for the services.
Safety Features at a Price
Blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert now are standard on all Sonatas, and Hyundai notes that its research shows these two safety technologies are most desired and most used by buyers. Their value is also the easiest to demonstrate. But more sophisticated safety tech, such as lane departure warning, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and a good front collision prevention system with automatic emergency braking (up to 37 mph) and pedestrian detection remain limited to option packages for the SEL (a $1,000 tech standalone) and Limited trims (In a $2,900 package with other features); they are not offered for the SE and Sport trims. Rivals such as the Camry and Accord are making a collision system standard on all trims for 2018.
Also available only on the Limited trim are the new LED headlights that might boost the Sonata's safety score with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Despite top scores in crash tests and for the optional front crash prevention system, the 2017 Sonata failed to get IIHS' top safety award because of a poor rating for the 2017's various headlight combinations.
The Value Play
Hyundai retains a well-earned brand reputation for value, and while the 2018 Sonata might be middle of the pack in many ways, its reconfigured 2018 pricing and trims help it continue to compete with the class leaders. The base model's price rose slightly to $22,935 including destination, but it adds standard blind spot alert and rear cross-traffic warning. And that still undercuts the 2017 starting prices for rivals such as the Camry ($23,955), Accord ($23,330) and Fusion ($22,995). And at the top end, a check-all-the boxes Sonata Limited 2.0T got a price cut of $1,850 from 2017 to $33,335 including the destination charge, flying well under the fanciest version of those rivals.
But positioned squarely in the value sweet spot is the new SEL with a bucket of features for $24,585, including 17-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, heated side mirrors with turn signal indicators, proximity key entry with push-button start, a hands-free smart trunk opener, a 10-way power-adjustable driver seat with lumbar support, heated front seats, a 4.2-inch LCD trip computer, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, smartphone integration, plus the three years of Blue Link app features and Hyundai's five-year/60,000-mile transferable bumper-to-bumper warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. Add $1,000 and you get the Limited's advanced safety technology along with the standard blind spot and rear cross-traffic warnings.
The refreshed Sonata may not beat the class at any one thing, but the refined ride and features for the dollar merit a look from mainstream mid-size sedan shoppers.