Now it’s new again, in its seventh generation, the third built in Alabama. Once again, it competes against a squadron of well-qualified family four-doors–Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, and Chevy Malibu—as well as the VW Passat, Kia Optima, Chrysler 200, Subaru Legacy and Mazda 6. That’s a lot of rivals.
Hyundai’s answer is to calm the daring looks, and to raise refinement levels–because now, selling about 200,000 Sonatas a year, it has something to lose. The flamboyant styling inside and out is gone, replaced by a more even-tempered look; the powertrains have been massaged for smoothness and silence; the body’s been stamped and stuck together far more effectively; and in safety and features, where the Sonata always performed well, there’s simply more of everything.
It’s game on starting with the design. The Sonata’s extravagantly drawn curves are mostly gone; we think it’s a better reworking in the cabin than in the sheetmetal. it may end up aging better, and the few awkward passages are definitely gone, but most of the Sonata’s exuberance has been washed off, pressed and folded, neatly put away. The reorg works better in the cockpit, where the trapezoidal cues run along tracks laid by German sedans four decades ago. It’s more formal, for sure, and a bit more like the design used in the closely related Kia Optima. Skip the woodgrain: the carbon fiber and aluminum-like trims do a fine job of dressing up what’s become a sober den, toned down from its buzzy hangout days.
The Sonata has traded some strength for better refinement, and it’s a swap well worth making. One of the lighter cars in its class, the Sonata was also one of the first to move to an all-four-cylinder lineup, and it doesn’t want for more. This year, power ratings actually go down for both the base 185-horsepower, 2.4-liter four and the twin-scroll turbo’ed, 245-hp 2.0-liter four. They’re both less freewheeling, but more free-revving, much quieter and almost free of vibration, two bugbears of the last-generation edition.
In either case, you get a six-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic manual controls. In this front-wheel-drive sedan, the transmission has been fully reworked for quicker, more muted shifts. Sport 2.0T models get paddle shift controls, and all Sonatas get a three-mode driving selector that fiddles lightly with power steering assist, shift timing, and throttle delivery through Eco, Normal, and Sport modes. In Eco mode, the Sonata really dithers over downshifts, but the milder differences in normal and sport modes probably mean owners will play with the feature once before letting it go in default mode.
Hyundai enlisted Lotus Engineering to iron out the new Genesis’ handling, and those lessons have been applied also to the Sonata. The body’s much stiffer now, and that makes for an easier job damping bumps and taking direction. It’s more settled at any speed: the skittishness has been replaced by more compliance, and a lot less drama. Sport 2.0T tuning isn’t much different, with just a 1-mm change in stabilizer-bar thickness and moderately beefier P235/45R-18 tires. Electric power steering tracks better and maintains its sense of true, without much wandering or excessive weight. Even if it’s not talking back to you, at least the steering is listening.
As for the Sonata Eco, our brief exposure to it was mostly a good one. The new Eco is no mild hybrid–it’s a small-displacement turbo four mated to a dual-clutch transmission. With 177 horsepower and a booming exhaust note, it reminds us of Ford’s mid-line Fusion in its eagerness–and gas mileage is pegged at 32 mpg, putting it on the non-hybrid leaderboard. (The Sonata Hybrid carries over in the older body style for the 2015 model year; a new hybrid and a plug-in hybrid model are expected to replace it within a year or two.)
With a gain in overall length and in wheelbase, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata does a better job of accommodating passengers than it did last year, especially back-seaters. It’s still technically defined by the EPA as a large car, but the Sonata is marketed as a mid-size car, so it can be compared favorably to a Fusion or Altima, but shy of a Chevy Impala.
There’s very good space for six-footers in the front seats, and the seats are better than in the past Sonata–there’s more bottom cushion length and better bolstering on the Limited and Sport 2.0T models we drove. In back, I found plenty of knee room in the Sonata, enough to cross over a knee into a freestyle yoga pose/desk. The back-seat leg room isn’t quite as expansive as in a Passat, but headroom is like most of the cars in this segment–a little snug when the sunroof is ordered, fine for anyone smaller.
The Sonata’s positively awash in storage bins, perfect for hiding stuff from drivers and passengers. Trunk space is generous at 16.3 cubic feet, and it has handy seat-fold levers inside the trunk. And all the body work has paid off: For the first time in at least few years, the Sonata is so quiet at a good driving pace, I could hear front-seat conversations without straining.
The Sonata has earned five-star federal scores, as well as ‘good’ ratings from the IIHS in all categories except for small overlap. And it now offers blind-spot monitors, adaptive cruise control, a driver knee airbag, and lane-change assists.
Every mid-size sedan worth its salt fields some entry-level model for about $22,000. With the Hyundai Sonata, the base price of $21,960 is one of the lowest in the segment–but the cheapest version we endorse checks in at just over $23,000, an SE with a Popular package that also includes a power driver seat. All models have an AM/FM/XM/CD player; a USB port; and Bluetooth with audio streaming. The $24,085 Sonata Eco comes well-equipped, in essentially SE Popular trim, with options for pushbutton start, leather, heated front seats, and navigation.
A $23,985 Sonata Sport adds a color touchscreen audio system, 17-inch wheels, and heated front seats, while the $27,335 Limited adds woodgrain trim, a power passenger seat, and heated rear seats. Options include a panoramic sunroof, Infinity audio, and ventilated front seats. At the top of the base-price range, the $29,385 Sonata Sport 2.0T gets paddle shifters, a sport suspension, quad exhaust tips, and 18-inch wheels, among other features.
Infotainment systems have been upgraded in the 2015 Sonata. The navigation system gets a larger 8.0-inch screen, and smartphone-app compatibility for Pandora and SoundHound, and HD radio. Navigation-equipped cars get Apple Eyes Free Siri integration, and down the road, will offer a choice of Google’s Android Auto smartphone system or Apple CarPlay.