With its redesigned 2015 Sonata sedan, Hyundai has focused less on distinguishing design statements, and more on a clean, timeless, sophisticated design with detailed engineering and thoughtful features.
I've been noticing myself becoming more sensitive to noise each year, and the new Sonata is a welcome relief, soothing my auditory nerves (unlike my three tween/teen daughters) with its noticeable improvement in sound levels. That's not its only enhancement, however; it also has a new look and feel, inside and out.
Compare the 2015 and 2014 models side by side here.
The 2015 Sonata is available in several versions, including SE, Sport, Sport 2.0T, Limited and Eco. I spent equal time in the Sport and the Sport 2.0T, with a brief stint in the Eco. Compare four of them side-by-side here.
Exterior & Styling
While I quite liked the smooth, sloping lines of the past-generation Sonata, both inside and out, this new Sonata's appearance takes some getting used to. It has evolved drastically into what Hyundai calls its fluidic design 2.0, which in actuality is no longer fluidic but rather much more linear, tailored and buttoned-up (think back to your move from the iPhone 3's curved corners and rocker plate to the iPhone 4's clean lines and corners).
While the crisp new design of the Sonata is a big change, I imagine that after a short period we'll all look back on the previous-generation Sonata and go, ''Aww, wasn't that just so cute?'' — like an adorable infant whose rolls of baby fat you're tempted to pinch.
The Sonata's new design is polarizing to our staff. One of our editors wished he could be as enthusiastic about the new styling as he was about the distinct look of the previous generation. He said the previous Sonata ''was a knockout, a 'look at me' design-challenge project that worked amazingly well,'' and that it was instantly identifiable — unlike the new car. On the flip side, another editor felt the previous design was just too much and didn't age well.
How It Drives
During our $26,000 midsize sedan shootout in 2013, which included the previous-generation Sonata, our editors said it suffered from poor powertrain refinement and a busy feel that didn't filter out ruts and bumps as well as others in the lineup. Hyundai has reengineered the 2015 Sonatas' powertrains in hopes of improving driver confidence. It appears to have succeeded.
One of our editors said the new Sonata has a completely different feel from the previous version, with a more sophisticated and refined chassis. He noted outstanding ride quality, even over broken pavement. He also mentioned that nothing upset the suspension or made the wheel ''do funky things'' (yes, that's our technical term). He also thought the new Sonata had far better steering feel than the outgoing Sonata.
While steering has in fact improved markedly across the board, its greatest improvement is noticed in the Sport 2.0T, which features a different power assist system, with the electric motor on the rack rather than on the steering column. Hyundai acknowledges the rack-mounted variety comes at a substantially higher cost, which is why it's not on all models. While the overwhelming majority of drivers wouldn't be able tell the difference between the two, most drivers will in fact appreciate the improvements in all the 2015s over the 2014.
I noticed a marked improvement in noise infiltration inside each of the three Sonatas I drove. I was told there's an improvement of about 2 decibels over the outgoing model, due in part to increased body rigidity and smaller holes through which wiring passes.
The base engine is a 185-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, paired with a six-speed automatic transmission (featured in SE, Sport and Limited models). Expected fuel economy on this engine is 25/37/29 mpg city/highway/combined. I drove this model for the first half of my day in the Sonata. With the standard Drive Select feature, I was able to toggle between Sport, Normal and Eco modes, which made minor modifications to the transmission, steering and engine. I felt quite comfortable in the 2.4, taking it easy as if I were out for a Sunday drive. It felt nice and smooth in all regards (accelerating, cornering and braking), but certainly wasn't mind-blowing in any one area. I might even describe it as slightly sleepy. Another one of our editors described the acceleration as ''adequate, but definitely not stellar.'' It's a good fit for the average consumer just looking to get from point a to point b. At the time, I was baffled as to why a couple of other Sonatas on the drive route tailed me and used any opportunity to blow past me. In hindsight, I realized they were driving the zippy Sport 2.0T with its turbo engine.
During lunch I took a quick spin in a pre-production version of the Sonata Eco with the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and exclusive seven-speed transmission. While I didn't drive it long enough to form a solid opinion, my first observation was that accelerating in this vehicle felt milder and more mellow, similar to the feel of a hybrid from a full stop. Another editor felt this one was pretty quick off the line, noting that the specs say it has more torque than the 2.4-liter — and at a lower rpm — which makes for reasonable around-town acceleration. He also mentioned that passing power is workable but not great.
Fuel economy in the ECO model is anticipated to be about 10 percent higher than in the 2.4-liter, at 28/38/32 mpg city/highway/combined.
After lunch, I jumped into the Sport 2.0T, which features a 245-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a six-speed automatic with paddles on the steering wheel to enable manual shifting. And just in time, I might add. I was starting to drag a little after lunch, but the noticeably more fun and sporty drive in the 2.0T was a welcome remedy for my afternoon brain fog. I instantly perked up and understood why others driving the turbo in the morning were antsy to get to some wide-open roads. Rather than feeling like a car that will simply get you from a to b, the 2.0T feels like a car you'd opt into by choice, for fun — maybe even for a date night out without the kids. It invites you to play, not just sit and drive passively (yawn). It felt more like a Volvo S60 than a Honda Accord, for example, and elevated itself to a different level in my mind.
One of our editors agreed, calling this model ''a rocket'' with instant power whenever needed. It's especially responsive in Sport mode. He commented that there was a bit more road noise in the 2.0T, probably thanks to more-aggressive tires. He also felt that this trim level's upgraded brakes were a little grabby, especially at low speeds; the slightest application, he said, brings the car to a far more aggressive halt than the driver may have intended.
The Sonata's interior used to center around the swooping waterfall design of the center control panel. You won't even recognize the new longitudinal, flat center panel and dashboard, which are angled ever so slightly toward the driver. One of our editors called this new design ''boring geometric efficiency that lacks any creativity.'' Ouch.
The rest of the interior is very straightforward. The center control panel has a covered storage bin at the bottom of the stack. A small compartment to the right of the gearshift can hold other small items, and two cupholders up front are accessible for the driver and front passenger. Narrow in-door storage pockets in all four doors have bottleholders, and a pocket on the back of both front seats helps rear passengers stay organized. A center armrest in the back, with two additional cupholders, can be folded down.
One editor gave the new Sonata major points for its standard height-adjustable front passenger seat, as well as for the operation of the optional hands-free automatic trunk opener, while also mentioning a major pet peeve: ''Yes, you now get more HVAC control in the Blue Link remote-start system, and the ability to choose a time before the engine turns back off. But you can't turn on the freakin' heated seats. Hello?''
Ergonomics & Electronics
Ergonomically, the controls are logically clustered, with air temperature controls placed at the bottom of the stack, visually separated from the clock cluster above them. Music and navigation are stacked at the top. Everything is easy to spot, even while going 70 mph down the highway.
One of our editors said the blue backlighting on the dashboard was a bad idea, noting that it's one of the hardest colors on which to focus while driving at night, especially for older drivers.
Three options for audio systems in the new Sonata include a base system, which includes standard USB and aux inputs plus Bluetooth audio streaming and hands-free telephone support; a 5-inch color touch-screen; or an 8-inch touch-screen with a navigation system.
Later in the year, Apple CarPlay will be available, which I'm more excited about than ever after playing with it in person. This feature lets Apple's tech experts fit simple and user-friendly technology into cars, leaving car manufacturers to focus on their area of expertise: the car itself. CarPlay incorporates more of an iPhone's functionality, going beyond some current cars' ability to let you browse and select songs stored on the phone.
CarPlay's in-dash menu for browsing is familiar, and the internet radio function is nicely integrated.
The one app that doesn't behave at all like the corresponding one on your phone is Messages; in CarPlay, that app allows for voice entry of messages you want to send and audible playback for ones you receive. One of our editors complained there were no message bubbles to look at, like on your phone. From a driver-distraction standpoint, we understand why they can't have a text message pop up on the screen for someone to read, but some people find it tedious to talk to the system to create a message. There's a possibility for distraction here — and a temptation to look at the phone, instead.
Several of our editors who also drove the new Sonata are fans of the idea of CarPlay (and its Android equivalent), but note that the details are still sketchy. At this time, it appears CarPlay will be available only with the top multimedia system, which means you'll be duplicating: Mirroring your phone's navigation on the dashboard when there's already navigation onboard — that you paid for — seems like a waste.
Another editor mentioned that the design of Apple CarPlay in the Sonata stays true to iOS7, with its very minimalist appearance. He appreciated the overall ease of use, as well as the large on-screen text and icons. On the flip side, he noted that Hyundai said the Maps function wouldn't support a pinch/pull function for map zooming at launch, and connecting your phone to the car doesn't enhance its reception, as happens in some BMWs. You're still relying on your phone's antenna.
Cargo & Storage
The trunk can be opened via a standard release button on the dash, to the left of the steering wheel. This pops the trunk release but doesn't actually raise it. The cargo area has 16.3 cubic feet of space, and it expands by folding the rear seats.
Similar to vehicles that open their trunks or liftgates when you — with the remote on you — sweep your leg under the rear bumper, the Sonata's Smart Trunk feature opens the trunk sans hands … and without the dance, which can be tricky when burdened with packages or children. Just stand directly behind the trunk and you'll prompt it to open after a brief delay — accompanied by a few beeps as a countdown so you don't open it unintentionally. It's optional on the Sport and standard on the Sport 2.0T and Limited.
A driver's knee airbag has been added to the lineup as standard equipment. A rear backup camera is available on the base SE model and standard on the others. Blind spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert and lane-change assist is available on certain models, as is a forward-collision warning system and rear parking sensors.
The Latch system in the new Sonata seems incredibly well-designed, but I haven't yet had the opportunity to install child-safety seats in it. The lower anchors are hidden under hinged covers that swing open to reveal the anchor itself. Booster seats might be trickier, as the two outboard seat belt buckles are flush with the seat bottom. We've found that this can sometimes allow a booster seat to wiggle over the top of the receptor, blocking it. The center belt buckle is attached to a flexible nylon strap, which might be difficult for younger children with limited dexterity to buckle independently.
Visibility in the new Sonata remains a weakness, but it's a common one in aerodynamic cars. Specifically, the A-pillars extend far out in front and the trunk is very high.
See all the standard safety features listed here.
Value in Its Class
Hyundai remains at the top of its class in terms of feature offerings at this price. However, consumers who once gravitated toward the Sonata's aggressive and unique design may be put off by the new Sonata's more conservative look. This is already proving to be a polarizing piece of the puzzle (at least within the walls of our office) for the new Sonata.