Too much Muzak? Hyundai aims to recapture styling excitement with jazzed-up ’18 Sonata

2017 Hyundai Sonata

2017 Hyundai Sonata

What changes will make the 2018 Hyundai Sonata different?

Styling updates intended to recapture the impact of the 2011 Sonata. That car was a design breakthrough that made most rival midsize sedans look outdated. It was a sales hit, too. Not so its follow-up: the redesigned 2015 Sonata had merely a warmed-over look that contributed to a sales slump. The ’18 updates are part of a trend in which automakers perform more than just the usual midlife tweaks to correct styling, mechanical, or packaging flaws.

Why should I wait for the 2018?

To see if the excitement is back. The curvaceous 2011 Sonata inspired competitors to improve their styling to match its adventurous, upscale looks. The ’18 won’t be a full redesign. It’ll reprise engineering introduced with the 2015 model, though a more-efficient 8-speed automatic transmission will likely replace a six-speed automatic. The wheelbase – the distance between front and rear axles and a prime determinate in a vehicle’s interior space – won’t change. Neither will key mechanical specifications. But the restyling will be more than just a minor facelift.

Should I buy a 2017 model instead?

If you like its appearance and need a solid family-car value. The ’17 may be more staid-looking than its predecessor – or its 2018 successor. But it’s a clean design with a roomy cabin and the long list of features that make vehicles from this South Korean automaker attractive buys for the money. In fact, Hyundai cut prices on the ’17, although it also paired back available features on certain models. You’ll almost certainly pay more for the updated ’18, even though it’ll be mechanically unchanged. But buying a ’17 probably means you’ll be able to exploit inventory-clearing price cuts as dealers make room for the restyled ‘18s. The ’17 model range offers lots of variety, with a choice of naturally aspirated and turbocharged engines, a conventional gas-electric hybrid, and a plug-in hybrid.

Will the styling be different?

Yes. Expect a more flamboyant nose and tail, new wheel designs, maybe a modified roofline, and possibly some reshaped side-body panels. The facelift may well represent a move to reposition Sonata toward the near-premium strata. That’s a gap that’ll open in Hyundai’s lineup when the Azera sedan is discontinued after model year ’17 or ’18. Based on an elongated version of a Sonata platform, Azera’s been a sales flop in the U.S. Its absence would leave nothing between the Sonata and Hyundai’s true entry in the near-luxury class, the Genesis.

Any mechanical changes?

Other than the new transmission, none seem likely. All models will again use a four-cylinder engine, remain front-wheel drive, and be grouped by engine type. The 2.4L versions will repeat with a 2.4-liter of around 185 horsepower and come in Base, SE, Sport, and top-line Limited trim. The high-fuel-economy Eco should repeat with a turbocharged 1.6-liter of about 178 horsepower. Sport 2.0T and Limited 2.0T will have a turbo 2.0-liter that should again furnish around 245 horsepower. The Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid will repeat in base and upscale grades and will combine a 2.0-liter gas engine with electric propulsion. In the Hybrid, the two sources automatically work independently or in combination to provide the optimal blend of power and fuel economy. Net horsepower should again be around 193, regenerative braking will recharge the battery, and electric-only range will be negligible. The Plug-In Hybrid will again have a larger battery and will draw an initial charge from the power grid sufficient to travel 27 miles on battery power alone. After that, the gas engine kicks in an it operates like the conventional hybrid. Look for around 202 net horsepower. The Eco probably will again use a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Expect the other models to trade a conventional 6-speed automatic for Hyundai’s new 8-speed automatic, which should help both performance and fuel economy.

Will fuel economy improve?

It should, thanks to introduction of the 8-speed automatic transmission. The ’18 restyling could improve aerodynamics, but it might also increase curb weight. In any event, expect EPA ratings to rise compared to those of the 2017 models, a welcome increase that would elevate the gas versions from merely par in the midsize-car class. The ’17 EPA ratings were 25/36/29 mpg city/highway/combined for the 2.4L Base and SE models and 25/35/28 for the Sport and Limited. The Eco rated 28/36/31 mpg, the Sport 2.0T Limited 2.0T 22/31/26. The 2017 Hybrid ratings were 39/45/42 mpg city/highway/combined for the Base version and 38/43/40 for the upscale edition. Expect both Plug-In Hybrid trims to return with a rating of at least 99 mpg-e, the EPA’s calculation of an electric vehicle’s gas equivalency, and to rate around 40 mpg city-highway combined when running as conventional hybrids.

Will it have new features?

Maybe, but there’s not much to add to an already-long list of comfort, convenience, and safety items. The entry-level 2.4L model should again come with alloy wheels, heated mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity, and a 60/40 split/folding rear seatback. The SE would likely add automatic headlights, Hyundai Blue Link telematics with Android and Apple connectivity, and a 7-inch dashboard screen. Expect standard or optional equipment, depending on model, to include steering-linked xenon headlamps, regular-size and panoramic sunroofs, heated and cooled front seats, GPS navigation, and 10-speaker Infinity 400-watt premium audio with subwoofer. Limited models probably will continue with such amenities as leather upholstery and heated rear seats. Standard safety features would include a rearview backup camera, and among available driver assists would be blind-spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control that can maintain a set distance from traffic ahead. Lane-departure warning is also available, though Hyundai could supplement it for ’18 with automatic steering to guide you back into the lane.

How will 2018 prices be different?

Hyundai has on occasion withheld base-price increases on selected models – it actually cut prices on some versions of the 2017 Sonata, albeit with corresponding reductions in features. But the ’18 Sonata is likely to cost more than the ’17, although there’s probably no need to brace for huge jumps.

Expect a base-price span of roughly $22,700-$28,500 for the 2.4L range and $28,000-$35,500 for the 2.0T range. Look for the Eco to start around $24,500. We project the conventional Hybrids to start around $27,100 and Plug-In Hybrids around $35,700. Plug-In buyers should again be eligible for federal tax credits of almost $5,000, with additional local tax incentives possible. And note that these estimated base prices include the manufacturer’s destination fee; it was $835 for the 2017 Sonata.

When will it come out?

Expect an early 2017 release. Hyundai could seek to expand availability of the Plug-in Hybrid, which initially was available only in California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Passat. Note that the Kia Optima from Hyundai’s corporate partner shares Sonata’s basic engineering, powertrain, and features, but has different styling.

What change would make it better?

Sonata doesn’t need much help on the quietness and ride-quality front, and Hyundai’s worked diligently to bring its steering and handling to a level at least midpack in the class. Sonata buyers have demonstrated a preference for features and value over driving dynamics, anyway. They also evidently care how this car looks. So the automaker’s plan to recapture the excitement of the 2011 Sonata’s styling nails it.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]