Less spectacle, more substance - that's the formula Hyundai is hoping will prove a success for its redesigned Sonata midsize sedan.
When it debuted in 2011, the outgoing Sonata made a big splash not only for its V6-replacing turbocharged four-cylinder, but also for an evocative, standout design that helped to move the entire segment in a more stylish direction.
But unlike its predecessor, the 2015 Sonata is more about subtlety than shock and awe, with understated yet handsome sheetmetal that's intended to convey an upscale, Genesis-like air and hint at the more sophisticated cabin and technology within.
Will the strategy be enough to wrest buyers' attention away from Sonata's numerous worthy rivals? We headed to Montgomery, Alabama - where both the Sonata and Elantra are assembled - to find out.
Sculpture in Motion
Outside, the Sonata wears Hyundai's "Fluidic Sculpture 2.0" design language, which despite the name is less about fluid curves than crisp, straight lines and simple, purposeful detailing.
A chrome-ringed hexagonal grille is the centerpiece of the front end, joining narrowed headlights to create an appearance that bears more than a passing resemblance to the 2015 Subaru Legacy. Things are more Sonata-like on the flanks, where several cues - including a fastback-style roofline and a chrome "sabre line" between the headlights and side windows - reappear from the old model. Around back, Hyundai smoothed out the bumper and deleted the chrome strip that previously linked the taillights.
To our eyes, the overall look isn't as immediately eye-catching as that of the old Sonata - or the latest Ford Fusion or Mazda6, for that matter - but it's undeniably tasteful in a way that seems more mature and likely to age gracefully.
The same stylistic theme carries over to the interior, but here it conspires with upmarket materials and Genesis-inspired touches to create a cabin that feels significantly more premium than before. Angular lines and geometric shapes abound, including hexagonal button clusters and center console vents that clearly contain Genesis DNA. Plastics are pleasingly grained throughout, and soft-touch materials have been strategically deployed to further the upscale vibe.
The Sonata's length and overall width have both increased by roughly an inch, gifting the sedan with an extra inch of rear legroom and vaulting it into the EPA's large car category. It still isn't the roomiest car in the segment, but we doubt anyone except NBA forwards will feel cramped inside.
This being a Hyundai, a generous helping of standard content is part of the package. Trim levels have been reshuffled and now consist of SE, Sport, Eco, Limited and Sport 2.0T lines, with 16-inch alloy wheels, LED running lights, Bluetooth with audio streaming, satellite radio and cruise control standard on the entry-level, $21,960 SE (price includes destination). The SE can be further spruced up with a five-inch touchscreen display, rearview camera, 10-way power driver's seat and auto on/off headlights by ticking off the box for the $1,200 Popular Equipment Option Package.
Those after a little more visual sizzle will want to spring for either of the Sport models, which add a more aggressive grille and front bumper, racier rocker panels, upsized wheels and, on the Sport 2.0T, a stiffer suspension, bigger front brakes and extra underhood ammunition (more on that later).
Numerous option packages are available, with feature highlights such as an eight-inch touchscreen navigation system, a 400-watt Infinity sound system, ventilated front seats (along with heated thrones front and rear), and even an adaptive cruise control system that can bring the Sonata to a complete stop when necessary. An impressive compliment of safety technologies can also be spec'd, including Blind Spot Detection with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert and Lane Change Assist, Lane Departure Warning and Forward Collision Warning.
Of note, a retro-compatible update later this year will bring Apple CarPlay- and Google Android Auto capability to the eight-inch display.
The Engine Room
On the face of it, the new Sonata has taken a step backwards in terms of several of its powertrains, but the numbers hardly tell the whole story.
The volume engine remains a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, now making 185 horsepower and 178 lb-ft of torque - five ponies and 1 lb-ft less than last year. However, Hyundai has revised the mill so that maximum output arrives at lower rpm, with the net effect that the mill seems slightly quicker at the initial stab of the throttle.
While somewhat thrashy at the upper reaches of its rev range, the 2.4-liter is refined during more sedate driving and strikes us as plenty powerful for most normal drivers. Fuel economy is rated at 25 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway for the SE, while Sport and Limited trims drop to 24/35 mpg.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder also returns as the go-fast motor, though this time around it wears a smaller turbo and churns out 245 horsepower (down 29) and 260 lb-ft of torque (down 9). Again, tractability has improved, and the engine feels capable of running with the competition's sixes while still returning an estimated 23/32 mpg.
Both the 2.4-liter and 2.0-liter are mated to a six-speed automatic that goes about its business smoothly, without drawing much attention to itself.
New to the Sonata lineup are the Eco's turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. As the name suggests, the Eco is the one efficiency-focused buyers will want to spring for, with preliminary estimates calling for 28/38 mpg. We didn't get the chance to sample the Eco, which will be the last member of the Sonata family to launch when it arrives in September, but its 177 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque at just 1,500 rpm suggest it shouldn't sacrifice too much acceleration in the name of economy.
Charting the Chassis Changes
Though not quite a sport sedan, a revised suspension makes the Sonata a more willing dance partner than its predecessor. Up front, the MacPherson struts benefit from new geometry, while the rear control arms gain a second lower link. Body roll is commendably curtailed despite a cushier ride, but we would have liked to see more of a difference in the Sport 2.0T's dynamics compared to the standard chassis.
All Sonatas are equipped with a Drive Mode selector that lets the driver choose between a trio of throttle, steering and transmission settings - Normal, Eco and Sport. Predictability, Eco makes the sedan seem like it just popped a valium, while Sport caters to more enthusiastic drivers by holder lower gears and increasing the skinny pedal's responsiveness.
While a bit stingy with feedback, steering is well-weighted and precise no matter which mode is selected. A steering-column-mounted electric power-assist system turns the wheels of normal Sonatas, while the Sport 2.0T uses a rack-mounted setup that brings more responsiveness to the tiller.
Leftlane's Bottom Line
More mature in its design and execution, yet still well priced and generously equipped, the redesigned Sonata hits nearly all the right notes.
It's a well-rounded, quality-feeling piece that, thanks to a wide array of powertrains and trim levels, should appeal to a broader swath of midsize buyers than before.
2015 Hyundai Sonata SE base price, $21,960.
2015 Hyundai Sonata Sport base price, $23,985.
2015 Hyundai Sonata Eco base price, $24,085.
2015 Hyundai Sonata Limited base price, $27,335.
2015 Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T base price, $29,385.
Photos by Nat Shirley.