The four door Hyundai Sonata accommodates five passengers in fine style and more than holds its own with the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion and other mid-size sedans. Sonata delivers excellent quality in all of its iterations, with great manners, fuel efficiency and features, all at a competitive price.
Sonata was completely redesigned for the 2011 model year. The 2013 Sonata got an updated navigation system. Changes are more considerable for the 2014 model year, including exterior design enhancements as well as new safety technologies. New 17-inch wheels are mounted on 2014 models, which get a refined grille, HID (high-intensity-discharge) xenon headlights, and LED taillights. A Driver Selectable Steering Mode is now standard on all versions. So is a tire-specific tire-pressure monitor. A sport-tuned exhaust is newly standard on the SE 2.0T sedan. Blind Spot Detection is optional on SE, standard on Limited. Also standard on Limited are a ventilated driver’s seat and fully automated temperature controls. SE models gain standard carbon fiber interior trim for 2014. A redesigned Sonata is being introduced for 2015.
The 2014 Hyundai Sonata comes in four models, including a hybrid that can be driven at highway speeds in full electric mode and an available turbocharged engine that is one of the most powerful in this class but still delivers excellent fuel mileage. Sonata uses front-wheel drive.
Sonata’s styling is busy for our taste and not as clean as its corporate sibling, the Kia Optima. Many other critics have praised Sonata’s look, however, and if it’s confused with any other sedan, it’s more likely to be mistaken for a Lexus or some other luxury model than for another mainstream mid-size.
Inside, features, materials and fit and finish are among the best in the class, especially in build quality and tolerances.
The 2014 Hyundai Sonata lineup starts with the GLS, which retails for $21,350 and comes with a full complement of power features, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity and more power than other cars in its class. Another $900 for a Popular Equipment Group adds heated front seats, automatic light control, a rearview camera, power driver’s seat, and leatherette upholstery. The mid-range Sonata SE satisfies sporty tastes with a firmer suspension and sharper steering, while the Limited comes nearly loaded, with full leather, dual-zone automatic climate control and audio upgrade, blind-spot detection and a ventilated driver’s seat, starting at $26,900.
Sonata’s standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder delivers 190 horsepower, or 192 hp with a dual exhaust system in the Sonata SE. It’s substantially more powerful than the base engine in competitors, but at 24/35 mpg City/Highway it runs neck and neck in the Environmental Protection Agency’s fuel economy estimates. The four-cylinder is matched to a smooth-shifting, well programmed 6-speed automatic transmission.
Hyundai’s upgrade engine led a trend in this class, eschewing a larger V6 for a smaller, efficient turbocharged four-cylinder. The 2.0T, as Hyundai calls it, satisfies America’s perceived need for performance, with 274 horsepower yielding excellent acceleration on regular-grade gas. Yet it’s EPA-rated at 32 mpg Highway. (Early turbo Sonatas were rated 34 mpg Highway, but Hyundai revised some fuel-economy estimates in late 2012.)
First introduced for 2011, the Sonata Hybrid features a full parallel hybrid system, allowing the car to be driven on its 40-hp electric motor at speeds up to 62 miles per hour. While such an occurrence would be rare in the real world, the Hybrid’s blended gas-electric operation still improves fuel economy, with higher mileage ratings than similar hybrids from Honda and Toyota. Moreover, while other hybrids in this class have a gearless, continuously variable transmission, the Sonata Hybrid got the same 6-speed automatic as other Sonata models. It drives and sounds like the cars most of us know, with actual upshifts and downshifts.
From several angles, the Hyundai Sonata could be mistaken for a Lexus luxury sedan, or even a Mercedes-Benz, except for the flying H logos, of course. The similarity says something about the styling department’s intentions with Hyundai’s most popular sedan.
The Sonata is marketed as a mid-size, but its exterior dimensions push the larger limit compared to the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. Indeed, measured by total enclosed space, the Sonata sneaks in at the bottom of the government’s large-sedan class.
Evaluated on the road, the Hyundai Sonata demonstrates something that has defined best-sellers such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord for years: balance. We wouldn’t rate the Sonata outstanding in any single area of driving or dynamic performance, but we consider it good in many areas, and that combination makes for an excellent package.
The Sonata’s standard 2.4-liter, 190-horsepower four-cylinder engine has been the most powerful base engine in this class. Yet, thanks to advanced controls and features, including high-pressure direct fuel injection, this engine also delivers some of the highest EPA mileage ratings among mid-size sedans. And while most competitors still upgrade with a larger V6 engine, Hyundai takes a different tack with Sonata. Its premium engine is a slightly smaller four-cylinder with a turbocharger. Hyundai’s upgrade 2.0T turbo meets or beats the V6s on power, and surpasses them in mileage ratings.
In the sporty Sonata SE model, the base engine makes two additional horsepower and two pound feet of torque, thanks to the standard dual exhaust. Most drivers won’t notice the difference, but the SE is nonetheless the sprightliest Sonata. What’s noticeable with the base engine is a curious free-wheeling that sometimes occurs when the driver lifts off the gas pedal, like on a mild grade, when a slowing of the car would be expected but doesn’t happen. It’s almost as if the shift lever is momentarily slid into neutral. It’s nothing that unnerves or lingers beyond the briefest of moments, but it’s still there.
Gear changes in the automatic occur smoothly: tangibly, but subdued, whether they’re selected by the driver via the Shiftronic manual mode or come in full automatic mode. Response to throttle pressure is prompt across the full line of Sonata models. Shifts necessitated by changes in load come almost imperceptibly, dropping down a gear or two without the driver noticing, except that the tachometer needle has jumped a couple thousand rpm. Kudos to Hyundai, too, for sticking with the same automatic for the Hybrid, in lieu of the gearless, continuously variable transmission the competition bolts into their hybrid systems. For many drivers, a hybrid with a transmission that shifts gears just like in a conventional car adds immeasurably to the driving experience.
Our real-world mileage was not terribly out of whack with the EPA ratings. During one leg of a test drive that covered 90 miles split about evenly between both types of roads (city and highway) in Southern California, a Sonata GLS returned 31 miles per gallon while averaging 65 miles per hour, including several extended runs at 75 and 80 mph. A Hybrid managed an excellent 47 mpg over a similar but shorter route, about 50 miles, driven much the same way.
The 2.0T, no surprise, is the most energetic, yet without fussy power surges. Its 84 additional horses and 90 pound-feet of torque over the base four-cylinder boosts performance considerably.
With mild differences in suspension calibration and different tire/wheel sizes, Hyundai has managed to deliver a different ride in each of the Sonata’s three trim levels, each fitted to its target buyer. The base GLS delivers a smooth, softer ride, though with some road noise and steering response that’s less crisp at modest speeds. The GLS steering feels light, needing corrections in gusty crosswinds.
Ride quality in the Sonata SE is firmer and the steering slightly heavier, the combined effect of different tuning of the power steering assist and shorter, stiffer tire sidewalls. Lower-profile tires sharpen the steering response. The SE’s thicker rear stabilizer bar keeps the car on a more even keel when it’s pushed along winding, two lane mountain roads. The SE’s mass wallows a bit more than that of the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, but the balance of response and comfortable ride is impressive for a sedan of this heft and price. The dead-pedal space to the left of the driver foot well provides good bracing for the left foot on twisty mountain roads.
Though sportier, the Sonata 2.0T models do not deliver Germanic, autobahn-competent sureness. At 130 mph on Hyundai’s high-speed track in Korea, we found the Sonata 2.0T showed some twitchiness and vulnerability to cross breezes. A Hyundai is not an Audi, though most of its owners would not expect it to be.
The ride in the Sonata Limited is more supple than gentle, but clearly not firm. Again, it’s the Goldilocks syndrome. To the naked ear, the Limited seems quieter, too, although that may be due to a higher grade of interior trim and materials. In this class, perhaps only Ford Fusion buyers will get a more comfortable and quieter ride or, if they pick the right model, a better-handling sedan.
Braking response is strong and linear on all Sonata models, except perhaps the Hybrid. With a system engineered to capture energy and charge the batteries as the car slows, the Sonata Hybrid can be less than smooth under casual braking, at times almost lurchy. It takes a bit longer for some drivers to consistently master smooth slow-down or stopping in the Hybrid.
Otherwise, the Hybrid is almost impeccably smooth. Transitions between motor alone and motor/engine combined are nigh impossible to discern. Hyundai claims the Hybrid can reach 62 miles per hour on battery power and 40-hp electric motor alone before the engine lights off and takes over. This is optimal, though, requiring all accessories to be turned off, pavement as flat as an Interstate in Kansas and the gentlest pressure on the throttle. In normal driving, with only minimal but conscious attention to throttle pressure, 30 mph on the motor alone can be achieved. A thoughtful, fuel-saving touch is a coasting function that shuts down the engine when there’s no pressure on the throttle, even at highway speeds.
Still, Sonata Hybrid buyers should consider the economics. As a social, political or environmental statement, the Hybrid makes a fine, functional automobile, but it’s a different story when it comes strictly to cost. Based on the EPA’s mileage ratings, comparing to the base Sonata GLS and pegging gasoline at $4 per gallon, a Hybrid owner would have to drive the car nearly 150,000 miles before the initial price premium is recovered in fuel savings. The break-even point will decrease if gasoline costs $5 per gallon, but the fact remains: most buyers will not recover the extra $5,000 or so in Hybrid purchase price through lower fuel costs over their span of ownership.
The Hyundai Sonata goes toe-to-toe with established leaders such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord with high style, excellent mileage ratings, expansive standard equipment lists and competitive prices. Hyundai has tuned the suspension differently for different Sonata models, so each has its own character, and there’s something for every preference. The base Sonata GLS handles Interstates and commuting with ease, while the loaded Limited focuses on luxury. The Hybrid covers the need for green-ness and the Sonata SE is most fun to drive, especially with the 274-hp, upgrade 2.0T engine.
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