Test drive: Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Sport Limited

Whatever doubts there were about the legitimacy of Hyundai’s seemingly overnight success were eradicated by the sixth-generation Sonata. It was the Korean automaker’s first truly viable alternative to the established midsize sedans, offering more style, a better warranty, and a 2.0L turbocharged 4cyl engine that made more power than those other sedans’ V6 engines. The American buying public responded by putting over 225,000 of them in its driveways when it went on sale in 2011. To put that into perspective, 308,000 examples of the best-selling car in America, the Toyota Camry, found new homes that same year.

Now, the seventh generation Sonata is here. It’s bigger and roomier and better equipped and it has lots of attention to detail. Improvements have been made; yes, they have.

However, no segment of the automotive marketplace in America is more competitive than that of the midsize sedan, and Hyundai’s rivals have not been resting on their laurels. Is the new Sonata still a contender the way its forebear was?

Hyundai’s Fluidic Sculpture design theme made the sixth-generation Sonata one of the best-looking midsize sedans ever. Though I never warmed up to the grill (I thought it looked a bit gaudy), it made the car look both unique and friendly, while the rest of the car looked, dare I say, timelessly good. The new Sonata, on the other hand, is styled more conservatively, with a more stoic demeanor. The grill is sized more proportionately, but it also conforms more to the status quo. The previous Sonata’s interpretation of the four-door coupe trend was excellent, with an elegant, yet distinct, transition from the roofline to the trunk lid. The new Sonata’s roofline extends just about to the end of the trunk lid and meets it at a harder angle, making a comparison to the maligned BMW 5-series GT not unwarranted. It’s a nice looking car, but it’s just not as attractive as the Sonata it replaced.

The positive effect of the new roofline, however, is the increase in interior room. Rear passengers in four-door coupes have been penalized across the board in headroom, but both rear headroom and legroom are plentiful in the new Sonata, as well as room for the front passengers. In fact, the interior of the new Sonata is the biggest improvement. Like the exterior, the new Sonata’s interior is more disciplined and businesslike. Gone is the hourglass shape of the center stack; in its place is a strategic arrangement of trapezoidal shapes that orient all the controls slightly towards the driver. The fancy recessed gauge cluster has been replaced by a single-plane blackout cluster that has more contrast, making the gauges more attractive and easier to read. Soft-touch material is everywhere, and no part of the interior feels plasticky or cheap, whereas parts of the old Sonata’s interior did.

The sheer number of cars that I test drive makes it hard for something small and relatively insignificant to stand out, but, the way the new Sonata’s doors open and close, for example, is a sensation that’s pleasurable enough to be noticeable. The mechanisms in the door that actuate when you pull on the handle work so harmoniously that you feel little else other than just the door opening, and while you can actually hear and feel the latch grabbing ahold of the striker when you shut the door in other cars, all you hear and feel is a purposeful thud as the door presses the weatherstripping perfectly against the body.

It’s evident, then, that Hyundai’s objective for the new Sonata was to set a new standard for quality perception, as well as to be taken more seriously as a global automaker. To put it more colloquially, they’re not screwing around.

Yet, my particular test vehicle was a 2.0T Sport in a rather brazen Urban Sunset color, a color that continued into the interior on the stitching of the leather seats, shift boot, and flat-bottom steering wheel. The Sonata 2.0T Sport also gets a slightly different front bumper and four exhaust outlets as opposed to just one on the naturally aspirated model. Did I jump the gun on calling this car conservative?

The 2.0L turbocharged 4cyl Theta engine used to make a very healthy 274hp and 269 ft-lbs of torque in the sixth generation Sonata and its Kia sibling, the Optima. Now the Sonata since 2015 and the Optima since 2016 have given up nearly 30 horsepower. With 245hp and 260 ft-lbs of torque, the Sonata 2.0T Sport has gone from being one of the fastest sedans in its class to one of the slowest. Mid 6-second 0-60 times were easy in the old Sonata, while the new one struggles to break 7 seconds. The quarter mile’s trap speed result was high at 98mph, but so was the elapsed time of 16.2 seconds. Those are slightly slower acceleration figures than those of a Nissan Altima 4cyl CVT model I tested in 2013, which was not even turbocharged.

The six-speed automatic transmission is at least smooth and makes for a calm and quiet highway cruise. Turning over at a mere 2250rpm at 80mph and 2500rpm at 90mph in sixth gear, the already quiet Theta engine has no trouble keeping the NVH levels way down at speed. But Hyundai still refuses to add downshift rev-matching to its manual shift mode, despite its increasing ubiquity in other cars, and that omission in a car that’s called a Sport is frustrating. Furthermore, the Sonata’s tall gearing may also be partly responsible for its disappointing acceleration figures, and while the gearing and horsepower deficit did improve the fuel economy, it wasn’t by much. I observed 24.1mpg over a 400-mile test drive with an even split between city and highway driving.

So, to answer my own question: no. Though I wish I had, I did not jump the gun. The new Sonata feels more restrained and cautious both in how it looks and in how it drives.

Thankfully, the handling was good enough to save the driving experience. Hyundai’s steering feel has never been great, but the new Sonata’s steering ratio is considerably quicker than the old model. Several suspension components have also been replaced with aluminum, which reduces unsprung weight and actually makes the curb weight 20 lbs lighter than the outgoing Sonata. Looking at the bigger picture, the chassis is steady and inspires an unusual amount of confidence for this type of car. Shoving it into a tight S-curve, even with the driver aids off, will cause a gradual and very manageable loss of traction at all four wheels, with no significant bias toward understeer or oversteer.

The most appealing aspect of the new Sonata, though, is the price. The average price of the new car continues to climb, to where even compact sedans can be optioned out to nearly $30,000. The as-tested MSRP of the Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Sport is $29,510, and while my test car wasn’t a Limited, meaning it didn’t have options like a sunroof, it’s good to see that an otherwise sensible and well-equipped midsize sedan that has such a hard-nosed focus on fit and finish can still be had for less than $30,000.

So, yes, the new Hyundai Sonata is still a contender in the giant midsize sedan segment and should definitely be cross-shopped with the Camry, Accord, Altima, Fusion, and Malibu. But it’s a shame that it gave up some of its style, character, and verve to try to stay one.

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Quick Stats:
Price as tested: $29,510
0-60mph: 7.9 sec
1/4-mile time: 16.2 seconds at 98mph
Lateral skidpad acceleration: 0.84g
60-0 braking distance: 122ft
Horsepower: 245hp
Torque: 260 ft-lbs
Weight: 3,505 lbs

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