Hyundai Buyer's Guide on The Auto Channel

2015 Hyundai Sonata Limited and 2.0t First Drive Review By Thom Cannell +VIDEO

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo) 2015 Hyundai Sonata Limited and 2.0t


By Thom Cannell
Senior Editor
Michigan Bureau
The Auto Channel


In 2008 Sonata put Hyundai on a minuscule list of irresistible cars. It had style and panache, the good looks that attract the eye and make moving to a new brand of automobile natural. There was a reason; Sonata introduced a signature Fluidic Sculpture design language and established Fluidic Sculpture so firmly in the public mind that a Google search of “fluidic” returns pictures of the 2009-2014 Sonata, not waterfalls or plumbing.

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So it is that a revised version of Fluidic Sculpture, version 2.0, defines a more mature car company and a cleaner, less frenetic expression of Fluidic Sculpture. The lines, folds, and angles describing the 2015 Sonata in many of its models (Sonata Hybrid is yet unchanged) are less brash or incisive, more discerning and analytical, less edgy yet equally appealing. Visually, the 2015 Sonata is well equipped to compete with chief rivals Camry, Accord, Fusion, and Altima. We wondered if true substance lurked beneath design.

All of what is new is under the sheet metal skin, below the paint and inside the doors. Sonata’s engines, while significantly improved, are unchanged. Hyundai defines the change as Beckham in Stephen Williams suits, Serena Williams in Michael Costello frocks, primal athletes in bespoke tailored clothing and it is an apt description. Visually, the 2015 Sonata is identifiable as Sonata, Hyundai, and new. It is leaner, with signature crisp lines melted into softer, more elegant gestures. In front, the nose is more expressive, retaining the trapezoidal grille, but wider and more expressive without any sense of cartoon and tightly bound by new jewel headlamps incorporating blazing Xenon HID lamps. Below, new corning lights feature LEDs that will remind you of Audi’s hockey stick. Their proportions pull the eye forward.

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New curves define longer sides beginning at headlamps and stretching to the rear of cabin glass and from wheel arch to tail lamp. Depending on model: SE, Limited, Sport or Sport 2.0t, chrome lower accents bring the mind to elegance or enhanced athleticism. Sport models feature dual exhausts, Sport 2.0t get four pipes for looks and power.

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We drove two of the new Sonata after a brief, interesting tour of Hyundai’s Montgomery, Alabama assembly facility which employs 3,000 and delivers Sonata and Elantra to US dealers. We began a lengthy evaluation drive through the sweltering Alabama countryside in a white Limited with every option, priced at $31,575 plus $810 destination. Immediately we thought its beige interior to be more full-sized than mid-sized and beige leather seats felt broad enough for any sized bottom, yet comfortable for all. The next impression was of quietness and freedom from tire noise despite driving on very coarse pavement. Those roads normally make a car hiss and crackle like open mike night at a comedy club. Wind noise was so absent that we didn’t even think about it. Rather we focused on the broad, three tiered center stack, large 8” navigation screen, and excellent Infiniti audio system.

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Hyundai has simplified the center stack so greatly its almost an oasis, nearly bland in its operational simplicity of horizontal divisions for climate control, infotainment buttons, and the 8” touch screen display which made functions instinctive and refreshingly simple. We did note a lack of details on the navigation screen deep in the Alabama heartland.

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Equipped with Apple Car Play and Android Auto, it was easy to invoke Pandora and cruise to Elektrotango club sounds and Rock and Roll icons. With an upgraded BlueLink system there are so many ways to reach into the cloud it’s difficult to pick. You can ask BlueLink for directions—it’s now powered by Google Search, enter them in the navigation system, or ask Siri for a destination. The system includes SiriusXM and 6 channels of rewindable content (plus other presets) plus traffic, sports scores, fuel prices, and many of those are available through Apple Car Play and Android Auto as well. There’s so much technology wrapped under the skin it’s easy to loose sight of simply listening to music. While Hyundai’s audio brand is good, the 400-Watt Infinity system is far better and worth the price. Don’t forget, Hyundai has a smart phone app with start, climate control, remote defroster and other features like scheduling service and maintenance information.

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Our next observations were of excellent material fit with the dash surface and instruments among the best in class. We didn’t care for the beige wood grain trim matched to our beige leather interior, yet, later, in the Sport, we had completely opposite reactions to its faux carbon fiber inserts. Chris Chapman, Hyundai chief designer, is a fan of firmer soft surfaces as more robust and comfortable on longer journeys—we concur. He also challenged designers to pare away those signature Fluidic Sculpture lines, leaving only necessary elements to create their signature look. That’s how you transport styling from brash to panache.

On the highways and two-lanes, equipped with a standard 2.4- liter (185 hp/178 pound feet of torque) engine, Sonata wanted to lope, to run, to glide ahead with little regard for speed limits. This year the power (torque) comes on earlier for the 2.4 and turbo models. Few really understand that it’s torque you feel, not horsepower, and Hyundai has left a few of those horses in the stable in return for more power leaving the stop light and accelerating up an on-ram, not to mention passing Good Sam RVs. Equipped with technology like forward collision warning (we did not try it out), blind spot detection, lane departure warning and rear cross traffic alert we felt more luxury than mainstream and why Hyundai remains a value brand, they call it valuable. One trick we didn’t try was the delivered by the handsfree key fob. Approach the trunk, wait three seconds and the trunk opens.

As Sonata is equipped with mode selection for the powertrain (ECO, normal, sport) we suggest ECO or normal to maximize fuel economy around town and on casual freeway commutes, sport for any two-lane excursions or if you enjoy a bit tighter steering and higher revving engine. Mode selection, with a console mounted selector button, modifies transmission shift points and steering effort, advancing or holding gear changes for more apparent passing power and driving precision. Oh, like a majority of new cars Hyundai equips Sonata with electronic power steering, Limited with a new column mounted device that is precise with plenty of on-center feel.

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Another driving note is that the car drove wonderfully, cornering with minimal concern for surface imperfections or angle of attack. It just drove and steered well, feeling larger and more stable than its class size, a car for the family, for the non-enthusiast, a car for most of us. Part of this stability is a widened and lengthened wheelbase, part is improved suspension with improved stiffness in the front MacPherson struts and new 4-link dual lower arm rear suspension. Though it went unmentioned, Hyundai has recently been validating their tuning with Lotus Engineering.

Playing, we opened the curtain on our optional sunroof. It was huge, seeming to reach from the windscreen to back window. And opening the sound absorbing panel did not increase wind noise even a tic. As sunroofs are so personal, Hyundai makes them an option on Limited models.

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Emotionally, the exchange of Limited for the Sport 2.0t was similar to swapping a comfy Burberry overcoat for skintight Under Armor gym attire! The difference in feel was so extreme that we failed grasp that it was the same sized interior. With darker leather seats outlined in russet stitching and piping, silver-gray faux carbon fiber (it really makes no attempt to resemble carbon, more like fish scales) and darker, smaller center stack, the Sport 2.0t felt like a wearable personal car. A true WOW! of difference, one that would, along with the engine, get our purchase contract. It’s priced between $23,175 and $26,625 with all available options.

The 2.0t is defined by several factors beginning with its twin scroll turbocharged engine, an engine that feels far stronger than its 245 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque would predict. It’s that torque curve again. Engineers delivered maximum torque at 1,350 rpm, barely off idle. This 3,500 pound car measures strongly versus V-6-equipped competitors in power and fuel economy. What you feel is a surge of power any time you wish thanks to the dual scroll turbo turbocharger and long, flat torque curve. Appropriately, there are stronger, larger brakes. They felt Germanic in their instance that you halt, even with modest pressure against the pedal. Another unseen addition is a change in the electronic power assisted steering. The 2.0t uses a different, more responsive system that mounts the power assist right at the steering rack for greater precision and driver feel at the steering wheel. We were surprised and delighted.

The reason for the quietness, solid ride and handling is due to Hyundai’s use of advanced high strength steel. It’s harder, lighter, stronger, which adds rigidity and crash resistance. Along with stiffer sub-frame bushings the effect is a far more solid car that delivers its premium feel almost subliminally. All Sonata models use the same chassis design, differing only in the way damping forces are delivered, stiffness of the springs, and larger anti-roll bars for the 2.0t.

For this drive we left the drive mode selector in sport, hoping for more challenging roads. Sometimes Sport mode means a stern and jarring ride, one that punishes your enthusiasm. Not so here. Together with standard paddle shifters–and we did play with them—the combination of ride, handling, brakes, and power created a genuinely sporting 4-5 passenger sedan. What was missing from our 2.0t Sport was the thunder of the Infinity sound system we’d come to enjoy. Not to worry, there is a technology package that includes Infinity with the same navigation system we’d had in the Limited.

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Later this year an even more fuel economical model, the 1.6t Eco model will go on sale. Equipped with a 1.6-liter turbocharged direct injected engine, it’s mated to a new 7-speed DCT or dual clutch transmission. DCTs are, effectively, automated manual gearboxes and deliver 2-7% better fuel economy than traditional automatic transmissions. All the cool kids—Audi, BMW, Porsche—offer them. Even though Hyundai has one of the better fleet fuel economy ratings they’ve built this model just for customers who want maximum fuel economy. Compared to the most fuel efficient Sonata, it delivers another 6-7% topping out at 25 City, 37 Highway and 29 mpg Combined. It’s a premium technology, so is priced a bit higher than SE models but delivers amenities more like the Limited. We’ll guess the price to start around the $26,000 mark with automatic headlight control, 5” touchscreen audio and all the usual iPod/SiriusXM/Bluetooth/Aux, 10-way power driver’s seat, and Yes Essentials stain proof fabric seats.

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In its presentations Hyundai suggested that the SE and Limited were Sonata’s you’d buy because you needed them, that the Sport you’d purchase because you wanted it. An apt and fitting description that does tell the tale of our experience. The Limited delivered competency, entry luxury features, and solid—if uneventful—performance. It was quiet, offered standard equipment above its competitors, and drove with grace. Comparatively the Sport 2.0t was a driver’s car possessed of similar quietness and competence, but delivered a few notches above the family focused Limited. Not that it’s sporting feel won’t fit a family, a young family of any age, but the more aggressive nature simply appeals to owners who enjoy driving. If cutting the apex and threshold braking are your style, it’s your car. If not there are other Sonatas to fit your needs, as well as wants.

2014 Hyundai Sonata NY Auto Show Press Conference