published Saturday, July 26th, 2014

Test Drive: New Hyundai Sonata raises stakes

2015 Hyundai Sonata SE
2015 Hyundai Sonata SE
Photo by Mark Kennedy.

FAST FACTS

• Model: 2015 Hyundai Sonata SE

• Exterior color: Phantom Black

• Interior color: Gray

• Engine: 2.4-liter, direct injection

• Horsepower: 185

• Transmission: six-speed automatic

• Fuel economy: 37 mpg highway, 29 mpg city

• Dealer: Long Hyundai

• Price (as tested): $23,764

It seems like only yesterday that a redesign of the Hyundai Sonata sedan set the auto industry abuzz.

The curvaceous 2011 Sonata caused palpitations in a normally conservative midsize segment with its dramatic new sheet metal and come-hither personality. You could almost hear Toyota Camry and Honda Accord owners sighing: "Wait a minute. We could have had a car that looks like THAT?"

But, alas, nothing in the car world stays the same; and for 2015 it was time for the Korean car brand to refresh one of its bread-and-butter vehicles.

After spending part of a recent afternoon in a 2015 Sonata SE from Long Hyundai, provided by product specialist Maurice Miller, we can report that the new car is more refined, both inside and out. If the outgoing Sonata was the homecoming queen, the 2015 Sonata is another class beauty who also happens to be the valedictorian and captain of the lacrosse team.

Actually, the Sonata, which is assembled in Montgomery, Ala., is a good case study for the home team, those building Passats here for VW. The Hyundai success formula has been to combine bold styling with class-leading value, which in the Sonata's case means a high content-to-cost ratio and an industry-leading 100,000-mile, power-train warranty.

More than anything, American car-buyers want reliable vehicles that they can also fall in love with. Heck, that's how we pick our spouses.

Our test car this week from Long Hyundai was in base SE trim and has a bottom line of $23,764 after options are added. The Sonata trims range in base price from $21,150 for the SE to $28,575 for a sporty, 2.0-liter turbocharged model. A smaller, 1.6-liter turbo-equipped model designed for improved fuel economy is in the pipeline. Meanwhile, our SE has a 2.4-liter, normally aspirated, four-cylinder engine that makes 185 horsepower. There are no six-cylinder Sonatas. But who needs one with a virtual Whitman's Sampler of four-cylinder variants available?

STYLING AND FEATURES

The 2011 Sonata was such a styling hit that the design team at Hyundai must have undertaken this redesign with a bit of anxiety. Taking a cue from its handsome cousin, the Kia Optima, Hyundai has dialed back styling on the 2015 Sonata to get a contemporary, but cleaner, look. The result is a car that looks more mature but also more upscale. I'd say Sonata is merely trying to grow along with its customer base -- not a bad strategy.

The Sonata's new skin includes fewer horizontal lines that dive here and dart there, the hallmark of the outgoing design. The old Sonata had creases that wrapped all the way around the rump of the car. The new car does have some daring touches, such as a strip of chrome that underlines the side windows and then unexpectedly flows forward to the headlamps. A new, bolder chrome grille -- which would look at home on a Mercedes Benz -- also adds a touch of class to the 2015 Sonata.

Inside, Hyundai continues to deliver unexpected opulence at a budget-friendly price point. Even our base SE tester had high-quality textured cloth seats. The space-saving dash is simple and doesn't intrude on cabin space. An oversized windshield increases forward visibility, although the hatch-like rear roof-line does pinch aft sight lines a bit. It's easy to find a comfortable driving position in the Sonata, and a well-crafted steering wheel makes the car feel solid and substantial.

Our SE Sonata included LED daytime running lights, 16-inch alloy wheels, remote keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity and a trip computer. Our car also comes with the "popular equipment package" ($1,200) which includes auto-dimming headlights, a power driver's seat, a five-inch touch screen and a rear-view camera.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

The 2015 Sonata comes standard with a 2.5-liter, direct injection engine that makes 185 horsepower. For most drivers, this power-train will suffice. On our test drive, the Sonata zipped in and out of Highway 153 traffic with ease. I was impressed with the car's light steering and overall ride quality. The 2.0-turbocharged version (245 horsepower) will obviously be the top choice for driving enthusiasts, but there have also been some good things said in the automotive press about the fuel-sipping 1.6-liter turbo. An updated Sonata hybrid will reportedly arrive at dealerships next year.

Even our Sonata SE has a driving-mode selector which has normal, sport and eco settings. Drivers can pick a mode that suits road conditions and the car's computers will adjust steering effort and throttle response accordingly. Only a couple of years ago, this a feature you'd only see on high-end luxury cars.

Fuel economy in the new Sonata is stellar, with the government estimating you'll get 37 miles to the gallon on the highway and an impressive 29 miles per gallon in city driving.

BOTTOM LINE

The success of the Sonata is a compelling story. Hyundai has refused to sit on its hands, and its R&D efforts on such signature products as the new Genesis large sedan are showing up in its mass-market lines like the Sonata.

Keeping customers loyal to the brand, while nibbling away even more market share, is a tough job; but the 2015 Sonata will more than pull its weight.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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