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First drive: 2015 Hyundai Sonata

Go stylish or go home. Value and real appeal are no longer mutually exclusive in the midsize sedan market.

Just four years ago, Hyundai raised the bar in the highly competitive midsize sedan segment. So dramatically styled was its redesigned 2011 Sonata – so svelte considering its price point and so alluring despite its mainstream nameplate – that competitors rushed to their respective sketchpads, anxious to match its appeal.

Sonata sales quickly skyrocketed, increasing by some 60 percent in the first year after its introduction. In the years since, each of the Sonata’s major competitors has brought forth redesigned midsize sedan models with an unprecedented focus on exciting styling. After years of playing the alternate to best-sellers from Japanese and domestic brands, Hyundai had become a leader.

Minutes before we boarded a tram to tour the clean and modern assembly plant near Montgomery, Alabama where Hyundai builds the Sonata, Dave Zuchowski, Hyundai Motors America president and CEO, explained the philosophy that underpinned the achievement.

“It’s okay to be dramatically stylish,” Zuchowski said of the 2011 Sonata. “And you don’t need a V6 engine. A four is fine if you have 200 horsepower.”

No time to wait

Instead of resting on its laurels, Hyundai has again reworked the Sonata for the 2015 model year. A focus on design remains, although its corporate “fluidic sculpture” design language is evolving toward a cleaner, more sophisticated look. Hyundai also aimed to improve driving dynamics and introduce new technologies to for both safety and comfort. A day of driving the rolling hills of Alabama in the 2015 Sonata suggests that Hyundai remains a leader.

2015 Hyundai Sonata

Of course, the Camry will all but certainly outsell the Sonata over the next year. But more than a few Camry (or Accord or Altima) owners will spot a 2015 Sonata and second-guess their purchase decisions.

Design evolution

The previous-gen Sonata decidedly fulfilled its mission of giving Hyundai an identity of its own. That, according to Chris Chapman, chief designer at Hyundai Design North America, was the goal of “fluidic sculpture”. With the introduction of the latest Hyundai Genesis and “fluidic sculpture 2.0”, the look becomes more grown up.

2015 Sonata offers some impressive technology features for safety and comfort.

Up front, the 2015 Sonata takes on a trapezoidal grille shape similar to the Genesis. The lower fascia is more aggressive than before and includes standard LED daytime running lights. In profile, the rear-biased greenhouse and fast rear glass remain. The chrome strip dividing the front fender from the hood stays, too. Below the beltline, a horizontal character line replaces a wedge-like fold on the previous model.

At the rear, the look is more contemporary, too. Where its predecessor is curvy, the new Sonata is straighter, more horizontal. If Hyundai was channeling Infiniti with its last car, its new muse is Audi.

Inside, the improvement in style is significant. Gone is the protruding center stack with its goofy human figure pictogram. Instead, HVAC and audio controls are organized into two neat rows on a center stack slightly angled toward the driver. Materials are appropriate to the class, as are fit and finish.

Acceptable performance

Rarely will a front-wheel drive midsize sedan from a mainstream automaker wow drivers with spectacular performance. Anyway, shoppers in this segment are not looking for stellar dynamics, and neither are they willing to lay out the thousands of dollars necessary to buy high performance.

With that in mind, the Sonata is adequate with either the base 2.4-liter engine or the optional 2.0-liter turbocharged mill. Both carry over from the 2014 Sonata, although revisions to intakes and engine management provide some additional low-end torque (at the expense of peak horsepower).

2015 Hyundai Sonata

Paired with a standard six-speed automatic and offered on SE, Sport and Limited trims, the 2.4-liter gets the Sonata moving. But, it’s loud and relatively coarse at higher RPM. The turbocharged motor is fitted to the Sport 2.0T and Limited 2.0T.Rated at 245 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque versus 185 hp and 178 lb-ft for the 2.4, the turbo is not only more powerful but also more refined.

Making the leap to the 2.0-liter turbo doesn’t come cheap. The lowest priced Sport 2.0T is $5,400 more than the Sport, although it is better equipped in other respects, too.

2015 Sonata takes on a trapezoidal grille shape similar to the Genesis.

Soon, Hyundai will add a third drivetrain option to the lineup. The 2015 Sonata Eco packs a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder mated to a new, seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. We drove a pre-production version of the car, although only briefly.

This may prove to be the sweet spot in the lineup when it arrives later this year. At 177 horsepower, it’s nearly as powerful as the 2.4-liter but delivers more torque at lower engine speeds. Plus, it’s incredibly smooth; at idle, I was almost certain the Sonata Eco used a stop-start system. It does not.

Heavy on the tricks

Aside from a robust navigation system with Apple Car Play and Hyundai’s Blue Link 2.0 telematics system, the 2015 Sonata offers some impressive technology features for safety and comfort. Forward collision warning, parking sensors, blind spot monitor, lane departure warning, and even full-speed-range adaptive cruise control are available. Sonata buyers can also opt for a panoramic sunroof, heated front and rear seats and ventilated front seats.

Hyundai expects the Sonata Sport to be its volume seller. That model offers dual exhaust, 17-inch wheels, a five-inch color display audio system with backup camera, power driver seat, heated front seats and Blue Link telematics.

2015 Hyundai Sonata

At $21,150, the starting price for the 2015 Hyundai Sonata is lower than that of competitive models from Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and Ford. A fully loaded 2015 Sonata Sport 2.0T with the Ultimate package comes in at $33,525.

“It’s okay…”

When Zuchowski told us “it’s okay to be dramatically stylish,” he said it in retrospect. That’s too easy. Of course it’s okay to be stylish; the problems arise when what designers think is stylish turns out to be unattractive to car buyers.

In the case of the Sonata, however, the gamble paid off. Now that Hyundai has dialed back the drama with a more grown-up Sonata, the outlook is even rosier than before.

Highs

  • Still stylish
  • Relatively affordable
  • Plenty of available technology

Lows

  • Coarse base engine
  • Pricey upgrade to 2.0T
  • Late availability for Eco model