2015 Hyundai Sonata First Drive
Significant Changes Equal Significant Improvement
As the brand ambassador for Hyundai, the Sonata midsize sedan is perhaps the most important car in the corporate lineup. It's certainly important for Hyundai's bottom line, with even the long-in-the-tooth 2014 model capturing 27 percent of the brand's 2014 sales year-to-date, second only to the smaller Elantra's 32 percent. The Sonata is also Hyundai's warrior in the bloodiest battleground in the industry, so what it doesn't need is dud ammunition.
But the car's no dud. In fact, from an aesthetic standpoint, the 2015 car is a hit. It successfully transitions away from the previous generation's eye-catching but superfluous styling. Contemporary, crisp lines replace the swoops and waves of the older model; Hyundai says the new car appears more mature, and I couldn't agree more. Thanks to the new styling, the car's drag coefficient has dropped from 0.28 to 0.27, which undoubtedly helps fuel economy too.
Like the exterior, the interior is heavily influenced by the recent Hyundai Genesis redesign. Out is the old wave-form dash, shiny plastic and gimmicky human-shaped climate controls, replaced with softer matte finishes and a clean, clear layout. The center stack is wider than in the outgoing model and has a distinctly BMW-like, trapezoidal design, with either stereo controls or a touchscreen display at top (5 or 8 inches depending on whether navigation is included) and switchgear organized in rows beneath. The 8-inch display looks especially nice, and Hyundai says that it is both Apple CarPlay- and Google Android Auto-compatible, with an update slated to come later this year that will be retro-compatible to all 2015 Sonata and Genesis sedans.
The 2015 Sonata is slightly larger than its 2014 counterpart. Hyundai says it's an inch wider and longer, with a 0.4-inch wheelbase stretch. The increased overall dimensions translate to an additional inch of rear legroom and a touch more headroom both front and rear. With 122.4 cubic inches of total interior volume, the EPA apparently now classifies the Sonata as a large car instead of midsize. Placing my 5'11" frame in the rear seat, the changes aren't enough to make the Sonata feel limo-like, unlike the current Volkswagen Passat and Honda Accord, but legroom is noticeably improved and I was able to get plenty comfortable.
Changes also come to the Sonata's suspension, the geometry of the front struts having been revised and the change made from a single- to dual-lower arm setup in the rear multilink suspension. The steering system was given a larger-diameter column and increased rack stiffness to improve precision and on-center feel. All models feature column-mounted electric power steering, except for the 2.0T Sport which gets its EPS system mounted on the rack for improved steering feel.
A total of five basic versions of 2015 Sonata will be available by this fall. The SE is the new base model (previously called GLS) and that, along with the Sport (previously SE) and Limited models receive the familiar 2.4-liter GDI inline-four engine and six-speed automatic transmission. That engine is revised slightly with new electrically actuated valve timing and a retune to push power lower in the rpm range at the consequence of a slight loss of peak output (down a few points to 185 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque). The old 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 continues to serve in the 2.0T Sport model, and receives a few changes. New variable flaps in the intake manifold are aimed at saving fuel when decelerating and more efficient exhaust flow to and from the twin-scroll turbocharger helps efficiency and low-end torque, though the car is down to 245 hp and 260 lb-ft (a drop of 29 hp and 9 lb-ft from the year before). The 2.0T engine is mated to the same six-speed auto as the 2.4 GDI, with a lever-actuated manual mode. A 1.6-liter twin-scroll turbo I-4 makes its way into a new Eco model which also receives Hyundai's new seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission. The new gearbox was designed in-house and is still being tweaked for optimum response and efficiency ahead of August production. The Eco model is estimated to produce around 177 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, or a little less power and a little more torque than the base 2.4, while offering better fuel efficiency. EPA ratings are estimated at 32 mpg combined for the Eco, while the SE manages 29 mpg combined and the 2.0T Sport, 26 mpg combined.
I drove several versions of 2015 Sonata around the Southern country roads outside Montgomery, Alabama, the first being the 2.4 Limited. The example I drove was well equipped with standard brown leather seats and quality-looking faux wood trim that contrasted well with the matte silver finishes elsewhere. On the road, the car seems to ride with a little more composure than the 2014 version; body movements are better controlled and while the ride is still on the sporty side for the segment, even the larger 17-inch wheels on 215/55/17 Kumho tires allowed for a fairly comfortable journey. There isn't much evidence that outright power is lost, the new car being down around 5 hp and 3 lb-ft on the older model, but the power does seem to come in a touch stronger at low rpms, as Hyundai suggests. All 2015 models get a drive mode selection button, which toggles from Eco to Normal to Sport at the user's command. As these things tend to go, the Eco setting will likely only be used once by new owners, the retardation of the throttle response and demand for high gear being too frustrating in most driving situations. Normal mode works just fine for 95 percent of daily driving, while the Sport setting boosts throttle response further, holds gears longer and weights up the steering from a touch light to a touch firm (again, as is usually the case).
Next up was a 2.0T Sport with 18-inch wheels and 235/45/18 Kumho tires. A weak point of the older 2.0T was always its somewhat dogged performance for its segment, despite impressive-looking power figures. Though output is claimed to be reduced, the new twin-scroll turbo does help generate boost quicker than before, giving more immediate power delivery. While Hyundai says that measured acceleration time should be roughly the same, the impression from behind the wheel is much better. The 2.0T Sport also gets 1 mm-thicker anti-roll bars front and rear, along with revised spring rates, though in normal driving, I was hard-pressed to find much of a difference in the way the 2.0T Sport rode versus the 2.4 Limited. The 2.0T Sport is also the only model fitted with paddle shifters (instead of just a lever-actuated manual mode), though they're plasticky in feel and manual shifts still come a bit slowly to be considered sporty.
In a very brief, end-of-day drive, the Eco 1.6T proved to be the surprise of the day for its fun-to-drive nature. The smaller-displacement engine was smoother than either the 2.4 or 2.0T, zipping to redline more eagerly than its siblings. The Eco felt at least as quick as the 2.4-equipped Limited, thanks to an extra helping of torque that masked its slight disadvantage in horsepower. There were no wheel-mounted shift paddles for the new dual-clutch transmission (this is the Eco model, after all) but I came away fairly impressed with its response. Lever-actuated manual shifts came noticeably quicker than with the six-speed auto, and left to its own devices, the DCT was mostly smooth and seamless in its gear changes. I'd still like to see a little adjustment for even quicker manual changes, but that likely won't come until the gearbox finds a home in a sportier model. Nevertheless, the Eco I drove is what you'd call pre-pre-production (a pilot car, in Hyundai terms) so there are bound to be a few changes before production starts.
Overall, the 2015 gets some serious improvements in styling, ride quality, interior room, and steering, while gaining a bit more responsiveness across the model range. With a base price set just below that of the 2014 car, the new Sonata represents good value too. Watch this space -- we won't be able to resist a side-by-side comparison test against the current segment leaders for long.
|2015 Hyundai Sonata|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINES||2.4L/185-hp /178-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4; 2.0L/245-hp/260-lb-ft DOHC turbocharged I-4; 1.6L/177-hp (est)/195-lb-ft (est) DOHC turbocharged I-4|
|TRANSMISSIONS||6-speed automatic; 7-speed twin-clutch auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||3250-3600 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||191.1 x 73.4 x 58.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.5-8.0 sec (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||23-28 / 32-38 mpg (est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||120-147 / 89-105 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.68-0.74 lb/mile (est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|
|* MT Estimated|