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2018 Hyundai Sonata: Back in the Game

By Ted Orme

That applies to the car and the writer. By the luck of the draw at a local press introduction of the Hyundai Ioniq Electric and Hybrid, I was one of two lucky Washington Automotive Press Association members drawn from a hat to attend the introduction of the 2018 Hyundai Sonata at the luxurious Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California in July. “Yes, yes, oh boy,” was my response. 

Back in the day, when I was an active freelance auto writer, I attended many a “long-lead” new model launches in exotic locales. But I had to step away from that wonderful life to make a living. I took a real job and the junketing ended. So, after a lengthy absence, it was a very happy Teddy that boarded that flight to La Jolla to get back in the game.

For the next couple of days, over windy roads that that led us within sight of the border wall with Mexico and through a Border Patrol checkpoint to make sure we had no illegals in the back seat, we got to flog the thoroughly revised Sonata, which is also looking to get back in the game.

Sonata’s arena is the highly competitive but shrinking mid-size family sedan segment. With sales of trucks and SUVs surging, the market share of mid-size cars has shrunk from 16.1% in 2012 to 10.8% as of June 2017, according to Hyundai. So all sedan makers have their work cut out for them but even more so for Hyundai Motor Corp, which just posted its smallest quarterly net profit in five years after seeing sales slump 7.4 percent from January to June.  

To challenge the segment leaders, namely the all-new Toyota Camry and upcoming tenth-generation  Honda Accord, the seventh-generation Sonata (first introduced in this country in 1989) has make a number of significant improvements. Most notable is a bold new design.

As Sonata design engineer Edward Lee artistically sketched on a screen for us, the more muscular new cascading grille design and forceful lower fascia, new headlights and elongated front end are meant to convey a sprinter’s stance before exploding out of the blocks. 

Along with a thoroughly reworked rear – new trunk lid, tail lights, and rear bumper that now holds the license plate – Lee said the new design is all about creating more “wow” factor appeal that the fifth-gen Sonata had but the sixth-gen lacked. It did for me but I prefer smooth, Euro styling that the Sonata embraces. 

However, what make me go “wow” in this relatively staid segment is more likely to be, “Wow that new Camry is ugly!” Having adopted a lot of Lexus’ hideous trapezoidal grill and chiseled sheetmetal, the love it or hate it Camry will be the standout design in this class.

Sonata’s roomy interior gets a new center stack that features a 7.0-inch touchscreen monitor (8.0-inch on the Limited edition) and improved audio controls. The instrument layout proved to be intuitive and easy to use. There’s also a sporty leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel and comfortable, supportive leather seats to raise the quality bar a notch.

With the addition of a new SEL model, the 2018 Sonata will offer (gulp) eight different trim levels – SE 2.4, Eco 1.6T, SEL 2.4, Sport 2.4, Limited 2.4, Limited Ultimate 2.4, Sport 2.0T, and Limited 2.0T – ranging in price from $22,050 to $32,450.  A plugin and hybrid model with will be available next year.

Hyundai has also raised the content level in the 2018 Sonata. The new $24,585 SEL, for example, comes standard with a proximity key and push-button start, a power driver’s seat, and heated front seats. The touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, automatic headlights, and a blind-spot monitoring system are standard on all trim levels. Cars with the Navigation package get a 360-degree-camera view function.

Higher trim levels or the reasonably priced $1,000 Tech package add such active-safety features as automated emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control. You have a lot of choices, so a little research and caution is advised before heading to the showroom.

That includes powertrains. Engine choices remain the same trio of four-cylinder engines: a 178-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter, a 185-horsepower 2.4-liter, and a 245-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter. The Eco is the only model to get the 1.6-liter turbo, which is mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The 2.4-liter again pairs with a six-speed automatic. The big news is a new eight-speed automatic for 2.0-liter turbo. 

Over hill and dale and through the arid landscape southeast of La Jolla, both the 2.4 –liter and 2.0-liter turbo we tested performed admirably. Being a skeptic of multi-gear automatics, I had to admit the eight-speed had the edge in both smooth shifting and fuel economy. 

A new Smart mode automatically switches among Comfort, Eco, and Sport settings based on conditions and driving style. The transmission holds gears longer during lead foot launches but shifts quickly to higher gears for better fuel economy at cruising speeds. 

The 2.0T is EPA rated at 23 mpg city and 32 mpg highway – a 1 mpg improvement for both city and highway – while the 2.4-liter’s EPA ratings are unchanged at 25/36 mpg for the SE and 25/35 for higher trim levels. The 2018 Eco is unrated as yet but is expected to pick up 1 mpg on the highway for the current rating of 28/36 mpg.

None of these engines is going to snap your neck, which caused some grousing among the boy racers in my wave of writers. But I reminded these young hot shoes of who buys mid-size sedans: families. If you want a more sporting trip there are steering wheel paddle shifters to play with in the 2.0T, and 2.4-liter Sonata Sport, or you can set it in Sport mode and squirrel around to your heart’s content.

All the Sonatas we drove handled the twisties and Interstates with confidence thanks to ride and handling improvements, including increased torsion bar stiffness, thicker rear trailing arms and new bushings,  and recalibrated electronic steering calibration for better on-center feel and response.

But make no mistake; it’s the size, comfort, content and surprisingly refined ride that will sell this praiseworthy family hauler. For my money, it will also be the best style and value in its class that puts the Sonata back in the game and on any sedan buyers shopping list. 

As for me, if anyone is listening, I’m tuned up and ready to go again, too!

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