By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist Photo courtesy of CARICOS
Should Toyota be worried?
I think so, yes.
Because anyone who takes the time to cross-shop the new Hyundai Sonata will find it hard to justify buying a Camry — which though still a good car is no longer the obviously best car in this class.
And people are beginning to notice.
It’s not merely that the Hyundai costs less (though it does). Nor that it’s got a much better warranty (that, too).
The thing that ought to chill Toyota (and Honda and the rest of them) right down to their bones is that the Sonata’s a first-class ride, just as good (and in some ways, better) than the longtime got-tos in this class.
Let’s have a look.
WHAT IT IS
The Sonata is Hyundai’s mid-sized sedan, in the same general class (size and price-wise) as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord but leans more to the sporty side of the aisle where you’ll find cars like the Ford Fusion and Mazda6, among others.
Base price is $21,150 for an SE with 2.4 liter engine and six-speed manual transmission. A top-of-the-line Limited with a turbocharged 2.0 liter engine stickers for $33,525. A Sport trim features the same engine, plus — no surprise here — sporty-themed interior/exterior differences (including quad exhaust tips and a flat-bottomed, thicker-rimmed steering wheel).
Also available is a high-economy Eco version, which comes with a 1.6 liter turbocharged engine and a seven-speed automated manual transmission. This version of the Sonata can deliver almost 40 MPG on the highway, exceptional mileage for a non-hybrid (and gas-engined) mid-sized sedan.
Base price for this version of the Sonata is $23,275.
The ’15 Sonata is new from the wheels up.
Among the highlights — an obviously new skin and interior layout. Not as obvious: More backseat legroom (though still less than in Camry; this is one of the Sonata’s few remaining objective demerits).
Optional 1.6 engine delivers almost-diesel (and nearly hybrid) fuel efficiency, without sacrificing performance.
Nearly five inches more legroom up front than in Camry.
Available high-end equipment includes rear seat heaters, a cruise control system that can bring the car to a dead stop (if need be) and get it going again without you touching the gas or the brake; a “smart” automatic trunk opener that pops open for you automatically, just by standing behind it and “geo-fencing” (an electronic way to keep teenage drivers under your thumb).
Powertrain warranty lasts almost twice as long as Toyota’s.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Optional 2.0 turbo engine has been gelded a bit (245 hp now vs. 274 last year) and though its performance is still good, it’s not a big step up from the “economy” 1.6 liter engine’s.
Backseat legroom is almost four inches less than in Camry.
Some of the car’s high-end equipment (such as scroll-through information and various settings) can’t be accessed while you’re driving… because “safety.”
UNDER THE HOOD
Hyundai has expanded the Sonata’s range of available engines for the new model year. Two are familiar — though the specifications have changed a bit.
One is all-new.
As before, the base trim Sonata comes standard with a 2.4 liter four — not turbocharged and (as before) paired with a six-speed automatic. What’s different, 2015 vs. 2015, is the rated output of the 2.4 liter engine is down slightly — to 185 hp vs. 190 previously.
However, fuel economy is slightly up — to 25 city, 37 highway vs. 24 city, 35 highway last year.
Optional with the Sport and Limited trims is a 2.0 liter four — this one turbocharged and (as before and above) paired with a six-speed automatic. It’s the same size engine as last year’s optional 2.0 turbo four, but the power has been dialed back to 240 hp from 274 previously.
Weirdly, this engine is slightly less economical than last year: 23 city, 32 highway vs. 22 city, 34 highway previously. Perhaps because the ’15 Sonata — slightly larger than before — is also slightly heavier (3,505 lbs. now vs. 3,417 lbs. for last year’s 2.0T Sonata).
Newly available is a 1.6 liter four (also turbocharged) paired with a new seven-speed automated manual transmission. Although this engine is smaller — and on paper, much less powerful (170 hp)than the Sport and Limited’s available 2.0 liter engine — it is both an excellent performer and extremely economical: 28 city, 38 highway while also getting the Sonata to 60 in the high sevens. This is much quicker than the four-cylinder-powered Camry (Toyota only offers one four, with a V6 available optionally) which takes 8.3 seconds to get to 60 and only rates 25 city, 35 highway. To put a finer point on it, the 1.6 liter Eco Sonata’s highway mileage is only 1 MPG behind that of the Camry hybrid (39 MPG).
To be fair, the hybrid Camry does rate 43 in city driving. However, it also has a base price of $26,790 — $3,515 higher than the Sonata Eco.
Hyundai also gave the ’15 Sonata a comparatively large fuel tank: 18.5 gallons (the Camry’s is 17 gallons; the Honda Accord’s is 17.2). This plus the Eco’s near-40 MPG highway capability means you can trundle along for quite a while before pitting. About 700 miles, depending on how heavy your right foot gets. That’s diesel-esque highway legs, using a gas engine (which does not need to use diesel exhaust fluid — DEF — the stuff all new diesel-powered cars must be fed to keep their emissions within spec).
There are, however, a couple of things you can’t get in the new Sonata that you can get in a competitor: A manual transmission — and all-wheel-drive.
Ford’s Fusion can be had with both.
ON THE ROAD
The mid-sized “family car” segment doesn’t really exist anymore. Or is in the process of changing into (cue Jennings from Howard the Duck)…. something else. Even the Camry has gone sport sedan.
Or at least, sporty sedan.
The Sonata, too.
It is sleeker-looking, firmer-riding, sharper-shifting and responding.
This appears to be what people want — or rather, what the advertising and marketing people have convinced people they ought to want. Whether they need it — or are going to be able to make much use of it — well, those are separate questions.
The Sonata’s standard engine has more power (and delivers stronger performance) than the outright “sport sedans” of my ’80s-era high-school days and the optional turbo engine makes more power than a “Tuned Port Injection” 5.7 liter V8 Corvette offered back in ’86.
We truly live in the era of abundant power (which for the most part, we can’t actually use — at least, not without losing our licenses).
For everyday A to B driving, the base 2.4 liter engine is more than sufficient. It will — when called upon — get you to 60 3 seconds sooner than a Prius hybrid. Count it out. One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one thousand. It’s plenty.
For more than plenty, go with the turbo engine — but not the 2.0 turbo engine. Choose the 1.6 turbo. You’ll get similar acceleration potential — and fantastic gas mileage. Mid-sevens to 60 (nearly as quick as the Reagan-era Tuned Port Injection Corvette) while eating half the gas. The performance (and economy) of the 1.6 engine is so good it makes the 2.0T’s look bad. There’s too much overlap, acceleration wise — and not enough distance, fuel-efficiency-wise. The 2.0T Sonata isn’t slow. It’s just not quick enough relative to other Sonatas — and relative to the competitor models with their optional engines. Especially those that offer V6 engines, like Camry and Accord (either of which is capable of getting to 60 in about 6 seconds flat — or less — which is a solid one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand seconds quicker than the turbo 2.0 Hyundai). The V6-equipped competition is thirstier (21 city, 31 highway for the Camry V6) but the difference is not enormous.
I think what it comes down to is that Hyundai decided that most people would be more persuaded by the down-powered (relative to last year) 2.0 engine’s improved (but not much) fuel efficiency than dazzled by its performance. It (the 2015) is certainly sufficient. More than sufficient. See point already made about the relative performance of today vs. yesterday. You will not find yourself mashing the pedal desperately while watching that tractor trailer getting bigger and bigger in the rearview. A turbo 2.0 Sonata can hit 120 in its sleep and by the time one eye cracks open, you’ll be running (if you dare) as fast a TPI Corvette could have, maxxed out and given’ ‘er all she’s got, cap’n.
There are driver-selectable modes (Sport, Eco and the default Normal) that alter the transmission’s shift characteristics as well as how aggressively (or not) the engine reacts to your right foot. But the changes are not dramatic — or at least, I didn’t notice much difference in the way the car behaved during my weeklong test drive.
The Sport trim is firmest-riding of all the Sonatas, chiefly due to its short sidewall 18 inch tires (base trims come with 16s, the Limited gets 17s) but they all ride firmly relative to what was once par for the course in this class.
A decade ago, a car like the new Sonata would have stood out like the proverbial red-headed stepchild. Today, it is what people expect.
Whether they need it or not.
AT THE CURB
The ’15 Sonata is a larger car — on the outside — than the also-just-redone Toyota Camry. Overall length now stands at 191.1 inches (vs. 190.9 for the ’15 Camry — and 189.8 for the 2014 Sonata). The Hyundai’s wheelbase has also been extended slightly to 110.4 inches (vs. 110 for the ’14) and it is 1.2 inches wider through the hips (73.4 inches vs. 72.2 last year).
It’s a good-looking car that’s more angular than curvy now — the stylists clearly having been impressed by the Aston-Martin-ish themes of the Ford Fusion. Nothing wrong with that. Ford, after all, cribbed the Fusion’s look from Aston. Why shouldn’t Hyundai look over Ford’s shoulder, too?
Inside, you will find truly epic front seat legroom: 45.5 inches. The Camry’s only got 41.6 inches up front. But the Toyota fires back with full-size-car backseat legroom — 38.9 inches (exactly the same space as in a BMW 740i) vs. the Sonata’s 35.6 inches.
The Fusion splits the difference — with 44.3 inches up front and 38.3 in the second row.
Still, this is an uptick over last year’s Sonata (34.6 inches) and — unless you’re really tall — plenty spacious. A six-foot-three man (me) can sit in the Sonata’s back seats with several inches of air gap between my knees and the front seat. The Sonata’s meaningful deficit is backseat headroom — 38 inches — which will not leave much air gap between the top of your head and the car’s ceiling, if you’re a tall geek like me. This is a common problem with all the cars in this segment — even the Camry (which has only marginally more headroom in the second row, 38.1 inches). Because of the design trend toward “sporty” appearance — which typically means steeper-sloped windshields and fastback rooflines. It looks sexy — like high heels. But the same everyday-use issues apply, too.
You can fit the Sonata out executive style, with rear seat heaters (standard equipment in the Limited trim) which is a very unusual feature in the class. Ditto the Adaptive cruise control, which can bring the car to a dead stop and then resume the set speed without any input from the driver whatsoever. Hyundai’s BlueLink system (standard in all but base SE trims) includes automatic crash response and teenager monitoring features such as curfew limits and geo-fencing. An interesting feature that Hyundai (and corporate cousin, Kia) offer is a brake hold system that lets you press a button adjacent to the gear selector to automatically hold the car stationary without taking it out of Drive — or keeping your foot on the brakes. It’s handy for those long-red situations on your everyday commute.
The Sport trim gets a flat-bottomed/meatier-feeling steering wheel and quad exhaust tips, plus Xenon HID headlights. Limited trims get LED exterior lighting, upgraded leather trim and standard Blind Spot Warning and Rear Cross Traffic Alert. Major options include a full-length, panorama sunroof and manual side privacy screen, upgraded LCD touchscreen and a 10 speaker Infinity surround-sound system. The GPS system’s map is easily upgradable via an easily accessible SD card slot just above the CD slot.
The Safety Cult is a constant source of aggravation to people who aren’t idiots and don’t need to be “proofed” against it. For instance, some of the Sonata’s in-car information cannot be accessed unless the car is parked. Not merely stopped. This is done “for your safety” — on the assumption that you’re unable to use/adjust some of the car’s functions while it’s moving -w which kind of defeats the purpose of having them.
This is not peculiar to Hyundais, unfortunately — and Hyundai is far from the most preemptively nannyish. (That would be — of all brands — BMW. Which — believe it or not — won’t let you inch the car rearward with the driver’s side door open. If you try that, the computer will engage the parking brake and electronically take the transmission out of gear.
My teeth are beginning to ache.).
A big plus: Large (but not senior-citizeny) buttons for most major secondary functions (audio, climate settings) on the center stack. Easy to see — and use. Handy secondary thumb switch on the steering wheel to increase or decrease the audio system’s volume. Well-designed upholders (deep enough and wide enough to handle real-world-sized coffee cups) and a good-sized (and deep) center console storage area.
The available “smart” trunk opener is very cool. It one-ups the foot-swipe systems you may have read about that some other cars offer. The Sonata can sense your presence — no foot swipe needed — and will pop the trunk for you automatically if you just stand behind it for 3 seconds or so with the transmitter fob in your pocket.
Finally, there’s the warranty — both the “whole car” — covered for five years or 60,000 miles — and the “powertrain” (engine and transmission), which are covered for an incredible ten years or 100,000 miles. Toyota and Honda (and Ford) leave you on your own after just three years and 36,000 miles (whole car) and five years or 60,000 miles (powertrain).
THE BOTTOM LINE
Hyundai got where it is by offering slamming deals on cars that were credible alternatives to the blue chips. The latest Sonata (and other Hyundais, like the new Genesis sedan) take it up a notch. They’re still slamming deals.
But they’re more than just the value-priced alternative.