LA JOLLA, CA – How do you follow up a hit vehicle?
In the case of Hyundai, it pulled back.
Three years ago when the Korean automaker released the successor to its uber-successful ’11-’14 Sonata midsize sedan, it watered down the car’s alluring design. That proved to be a mistake as the shift in the U.S. market from cars to CUVs was under way and the last thing needed in that scenario was another bland 4-door.
Sonata sales tumbled from 233,605 in 2012 to 199,416 last year, WardsAuto data shows. This year, sales of the nameplate are down 30.5% through July, more than the 18.7% decline in the Lower Middle car segment home to most midsize sedans.
Hyundai officials now admit the error of their ways and have used the eighth-gen Sonata’s mid-cycle refresh to inject some style back into the sedan, hoping to recapture the magic of the earlier Sonata, which Hyundai says was its most successful vehicle ever in conquesting sales from other brands.
Will the refreshed and revised ’18 Sonata turn heads like the seventh-gen model? Probably not. The sedan ship has sailed, continuing to get battered and bruised by the CUV juggernaut.
But the refreshed Sonata is a much more eye-catching 4-door compared with the ’15-’17 version of the car, and it should at least help Hyundai maintain market share in the U.S. midsize-sedan segment, a key goal for the brand.
For the ’18 Sonata, Hyundai spent more money than is typical on a refresh to change all the sheet metal (read: more sculpting) and update the car’s front fascia, which now has a trendy, big front grille. The rear of the car also gets a thorough makeover. Notable is the shift of the license plate holder to the lower bumper, creating room for new, widely placed letters spelling out Sonata. Headlights and taillights are reshaped.
The interior goes upscale with piano-key-style buttons on the center stack and more thoughtfully placed faux metal trim to draw attention to tech-y features.
Especially attractive interior flourishes include cobalt-blue piping on seats and a new technical film, mimicking sound waves, in Limited 2.0T grades.
Mechanical changes are minor, but Hyundai does update the transmission on models with its 245-hp 2.0L turbocharged and direct-injected 4-cyl. from a 6-speed automatic to a less fuel-thirsty 8-speed auto.
Non-2.0T models, barring the Eco grade, keep the same powertrain as in ’17: a 185-hp 2.4L naturally aspirated and direct-injected 4-cyl. with a 6AT. The Sonata Eco grade, due later this year, also is expected to carry over its powertrain, Hyundai’s 1.6L turbo DI 4-cyl. with a 7-speed DCT.
We experience both the 2.0T/8AT and 2.4L/6AT versions of the car here during extensive drive routes and come away preferring the latter.
While the 8AT may offer extra off-line thrust, it doesn’t hold lower gears long enough for our taste, at least in Comfort and Eco drive modes. In Sport mode, upshifts are delayed, making for a more satisfying and fun-to-drive experience.
The 2.4L/6AT Sonatas feels more responsive, with lower gears held longer even in Comfort mode, and more agile.
Hyundai doesn’t yet report curb weights for the Limited grade with the 2.4L, but there is a roughly 200-lbs. (91-kg) weight difference between a mid-grade Sonata SEL with the 2.4L, not driven here, and the Limited 2.0T we drove.
Steering effort in the 2.0T also is greater, possibly due its bigger, fatter tires. 2.0T models ride on 18-in. vs. 17-in. tires on the 2.4L grades. The 18-in. tires also are 20 mm wider than the 17s. Turns-to-lock and steering ratio are identical across the 2.4L and 2.0T models: 2.78 and 14.3:1.
Hyundai makes several updates to the car’s steering system with the refresh, including upping torsion-bar stiffness 12% for improved feel and response and recalibrating for better on-center feel.
Both the 2.4L and 2.0T Sonatas maintain their MacPherson-strut front and multilink rear suspensions, but Hyundai now uses 21% thicker trailing arms in the rear for easier management of heavy suspension loads.
Ride-and-handling remains a nice blend of comfort and agility. We have no complaints on either metric, based on Southern California’s pristine roads.
Despite spending a lot of our time behind the wheel in Sport mode, we return a very good 29.5 mpg (7.9 L/100 km) in the Sonata 2.0T Limited, above its 26-mpg (9 L/100 km) combined rating.
In our leg in the 2.4L Limited grade, heavy on highway driving, we net 30.4 mpg (7.7 L/100 km), greater than the car’s 28-mpg (8.4 L/100 km) combined rating.
Interior Spiffed Up
The Sonata’s interior is comfortable and ergonomic, with controls within easy reach of the driver, minus the upper-right corner of the touchscreen.
Hyundai has one of the better infotainment systems in the industry, with large touchscreen buttons spaced widely. Graphics, including maps, are modern and crisp.
The car’s voice recognition system is better than expected. Asking for “SiriusXM Channel 25,” despite not needing to say “channel” per the instruction guide, delivers our station accurately and quickly. Added words tend to trip up many voice systems.
Not as pleasing is lane-keep assist, part of the optional Tech and Ultimate packages. Like many lane-keep systems, it picks up on some lines and not others. Solid white lines seem harder to recognize than solid yellow ones. It also has trouble detecting broken yellow lines.
Fit-and-finish is above average, with a typical minor bit of flashing in the corners of hard-plastic door pockets.
We continue to bemoan the cheapening of cupholders – the Sonata’s have no rubber bladders or retractable nubs to keep drinks in place. But if it helps pay for that cool blue seat piping, we’re OK with that.
The ’18 Sonata is on sale now at U.S. Hyundai dealers, ranging from $22,500 for a base SE grade to $32,450 for a Limited grade with the 2.0L turbo-4.
For ’18, Hyundai adds the SEL mid-grade model, which it says is the sweet spot for midsize sedan sales and an area where it was weak before. Pricing starts at $23,700.
Destination and handling adds $885. The Tech package is $1,000 and the Ultimate package is $2,900. Both have advanced safety systems, but the latter adds navigation, heated steering wheel and a 3-year free trial of Hyundai’s BlueLink Guidance software.
While CUVs now comprise 63% of U.S. light-vehicle sales, Hyundai stands a good chance of maintaining its 8% share of the Lower Middle Car segment. In a strange reversal, it now is one of the less polarizing entrants in the group given the boundary-pushing and polarizing exteriors of the redesigned Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
Non-hybrid versions of the Sonata continue to be assembled at Hyundai’s Montgomery, AL, plant. New versions of the Korean-built Sonata hybrid and plug-in hybrid are expected next year.
'18 Hyundai Sonata Limited Specifications
|Vehicle type||4-door, 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive car|
|Engine||2.4L gasoline direct injected 4-cyl., all aluminum|
|Power (SAE net)||185 hp @ 6,000 rpm|
|Torque||178 lb.-ft. (241 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm|
|Bore x stroke (mm)||88 x 97|
|Transmission||6-speed automatic with Shiftronic|
|Wheelbase||110.4 ins. (2,804 mm)|
|Overall length||191.1 ins. (4,854 mm)|
|Overall width||73.4 ins. (1,864 mm)|
|Overall height||58.1 ins. (1,476 mm)|
|Price as tested||$28,410, incl. $885 freight & handling charge|
|Fuel economy||25/35 mpg (9.4-6.7 L/100 km)|
|Competition||Honda Accord, Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, Kia Optima, Mazda6, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Passat|
|More stylish than before||CUVs more dominant than before|
|2.4L/6AT combo has spunk||2.0T/8AT doesn’t, barring sport mode|
|Jazzy interior elements||They come at a price|