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 Hyundai Sonata gets an updated navigation system and slight adjustments to the standard feature list, depending on the model. The biggest news may disappoint driving enthusiasts, however: Unlike last year, the 2013 Sonata is not offered with a manual transmission.
The 2013 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'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 2013 Sonata lineup starts with the Sonata GLS, which retails for about $21,000 and comes with a full complement of power features, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity and more power than other cars in its class. Another $825 adds heated front seats, automatic light control, fog lights and 16 inch alloy wheels. 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, starting at about $26,000.
Sonata's standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder delivers 198 horsepower (190 hp in states using California emissions regulations), or 200 hp with a dual exhaust system in the Sonata SE. It's substantially more powerful than the base engine in competitors, but it runs neck and neck in the Environmental Protection Agency's fuel economy ratings, matched to a smooth shifting, well programmed 6-speed automatic transmission.
Sonata'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 speed with 274 horsepower and excellent acceleration on regular-grade gas. Yet it's EPA-rated 33 mpg Highway.
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 will 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 the other hybrids in this class have a gearless, continuously variable transmission, the Sonata Hybrid gets the same 6-speed automatic as the other Sonata models. It drives and sounds like the cars most of us know, with actual upshifts and downshifts instead of virtual gear changes created by computer software.
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.
Hyundai's designers throw around phrases like “fluidic sculpture design language” and “monoform side profile” in describing the Sonata's styling. They say their goal was a car that won't be mistaken for any other. Our phrase for Sonata's look might be “a bit busy.” That doesn't mean it's not striking or pleasant, because it's both, and the fact that it's modeled after more expensive luxury sedans might be a good thing. It's just that the Sonata is not necessarily unique, and it's not as clean or sleek as the Kia Optima sedan, which shares its basic structure.
The front end on most Sonata models has a pinched nose look echoing the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Sculpted creases flow forward and inward from the A-pillars (the windshield's side frames), drawing the eye to the grin like grille and outsized Hyundai logo. Headlight housings start at the outer edges of the grille and wrap around the front fenders beyond the leading arch of the wheelwell, visually minimizing the front overhang. The lower fascia sports a wide mouth air intake flanked by squinting recesses for fog lights. The grille is body colored on the base GLS, and dark chrome on the SE and Limited.
The Hybrid's front end shows much of the same shapes and sculpting, but gets an entirely different and quite striking grille treatment, with an oversized, hexagonal opening split by an oversized horizontal bar. Hyundai wants everyone to know that this Sonata is something special. The Hybrid's headlights make a similar statement, highlighted with a string of LED running lights laced around the projector beam lenses.
The side view of the Sonata shows three sharply defined character lines below the roof. The roof itself tracks though a severely raked windshield and rear window and into a short trunk lid, minimizing the car's visual mass. The highlight is a chrome strip that starts at the headlight housing and runs along the car's beltline (where the side windows meet the door panels) all the way to the rearmost tip of the rear quarter glass. Below this is a knife edge crease sweeping up from the front quarter panel through the door handles, finishing as an eyebrow for the taillight housings.
Another knife edge crease cuts across the bottom of the doors just above the rocker panels, before leapfrogging the rear wheelwells to melt into the rear bumper. On the Hybrid, a chrome strip accents this crease. All three tire sizes fill perfectly circular wheelwells, giving the Sonata a balanced front to rear proportion.
The rear view might be Sonata's cleanest and best. It's an elegant look, with understated taillights, a minimalist chrome bar topping the license plate indent and a lower bumper element that mirrors the front fascia, down to reflectors framed to match the front fog lights.
In back, too, are details distinguishing different models. The SE sports a single, twin tip exhaust outlet. The Hybrid's taillights are intricately designed, with a pattern that looks something like electrons looping around an atom's nucleus.
Inside the Sonata, the general impact is more toward a luxury look and feel than the cost consciousness of Hyundais past. A re-alignment of features for 2013 means that all Sonatas feature Bluetooth telephone connectivity, while all but the base GLS come standard with heated front seats. The navigation system features a new, high-resolution WVGA touchscreen for 2013.
Our first impression of the interior is much like that of the exterior: busy. But then the swoops and angles and different textures begin to come together, and even more successfully than the sculpted, borderline over stylized exterior design.
The standard, metal-like plastic trim is muted, graceful and pleasing. The understated textured dash material kills daytime glare but still gives the surface some depth. The bottom of the line GLS has hard plastic door panels, but all other models get soft vinyl inserts that look like leather. Faux wood grain accents in the Limited are glossy but positioned in ways that ensure minimal distraction. Our favorite is the glossy black trim in Limited models with dark interiors, which looks like genuine piano-lacquered wood.
Seats are comfortable with adequate bolsters, especially given the Sonata doesn't invite rambunctious motoring; its less-aggressive bolsters make getting in and out easier. An electric air bladder spreads the added lumbar support over a wide area, adding immeasurably to the comfort level. The cloth seat coverings feel and look durable. The optional leather is neither too slippery nor too supple, but it feels as if it would be cold in winter and clammy in summer. In a Goldilocks sort of way, the leather/cloth combo in the sporty Sonata SE combines the best of both.
The steering wheel has the right heft, as does the shift knob and both are covered with leather on all but the base model. The Shiftronic manual-shift slot is properly located on the driver's side of the shift gate. Oddly, the ignition key on the Sonata GLS is in the steering column, while the Start/Stop button on the Sonata SE and Limited is in the traditional place, on the lower dash to the right of the steering column. We think the ideal arrangement would be an ignition key on the dash.
Instruments are tastefully done and easy to read with a glance, save for bright sunny days when the hood fails to shield the bottom half of the tachometer and speedometer housings. The buttons and knobs populating the center stack of all three trim levels clearly communicate their function and are spaced properly for ease of use. The optional rearview camera's guidelines bend as the steering wheel turns, a very useful tweak that some high end sedans still lack.
Hyundai offers three sound systems in the Sonata. The base system has the usual multi media capabilities and six speakers and pumps out respectable sounds. The premium system wears the Infinity brand, adding a six disc changer (unless the nav system is chosen) and transmitting its entertainment through an Infinity speaker array with subwoofer and external amplifier. The sounds reflect the premium label, with crisp highs and lows and mellow intermediates.
Where the Sonata breaks new ground is with its mid grade system, adding an off-brand subwoofer and amplifier that boosts output to 360 watts. The clarity of its sound doesn't quite equal the Infinity's, but probably only to an unrepentant audiophile's ears. As for volume, it's easily a match. If you don't want to spring for the Infinity system, the mid-grade is a great compromise.
There's ample storage for carpooling or for long vacation drives. Every door has a map pocket with a molded in cup/bottle holder. The center console boasts two receptacles, as does the rear seat's fold down center armrest. That front console is a bi level unit, with a shallow bin directly under the lid and a deeper bin below that. There's a drop down bin in the base of the center stack for odds and ends. The glove box, while not notably spacious, will hold a few maps along with the owner's manual, and its door is damped with a little shock absorber, luxury-car style.
Rear passenger space? Compared to other sedans in this class, only the Honda Accord has more rear headroom than Sonata. The Sonata's front-seat legroom bests all in the class, but the payback is reduced rear-seat legroom. Here it comes in last, by almost four inches against the Toyota Camry, three inches against the Chevrolet Malibu and more than two inches against the Ford Fusion. The concaved backs of the front seats help some in providing vital knee room, but people long of leg will notice. In hiproom the Sonata effectively splits the difference with the others, trailing the Accord and the Altima and coming in ahead of the Camry, the Fusion and the Malibu. In short, the Sonata is great for long-legged drivers, but it's not so good for long-legged back-seat riders.
The Sonata's trunk, at 16.4 cubic feet, is the largest in the class save for the Ford Fusion's (inconsequentially larger at 16.5 cu. ft.). The trunk opening, however, is cramped, due to the abbreviated trunk lid dimensions necessitated by the stylists' craving for that sporty, long hood/short rear deck proportion. And the Sonata Hybrid's expansive battery pack reduces trunk volume to 10.7 cu. ft., compared to 11.8 in the Fusion Hybrid.
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, 198-hp four-cylinder engine remains 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. The upgrade 2.0T 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 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. A hybrid with a transmission that shifts gears just like in a real 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. The 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 74 additional horses and 85 pound-feet of torque over the base four-cylinder will push the speedometer needle well into the three digits.
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. The 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.
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 a 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 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 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 will 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 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.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from San Diego, with J.P. Vettraino reporting from Detroit.