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

2018 Hyundai Sonata

2018 Hyundai Sonata

What changes make the 2018 Hyundai Sonata different?

Fresh styling meant to recapture the impact of the 2011 Sonata. That car was a design breakthrough and made most rival midsize sedans look outdated.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 2018 gets a reshaped nose and a revamped the tail. It has enhanced safety features, a new trim level, and on top-line models, an eight-speed automatic transmission in place of a six-speed automatic.

The market will determine whether the changes reverse falling demand. But don’t bet on a return to the early part of the decade, when annual sales exceeding 230,000 ranked Sonata among the top 5 most popular midsize cars. In fact, don’t count on increased demand for any 2018 midsize car. The rush to crossover SUVs is devastating sales of all cars, regardless of segment. Still, Sonata has suffered worse than most. Sales were off 38 percent in the first quarter of 2017, a fall steeper than the 21-percent decline of the midsize-car class as a whole.

Why should I buy a 2018?

Because you believe the excitement is back. The curvaceous 2011 Sonata inspired competitors to improve their styling to match its adventurous, upscale looks. The 2018 revamp doesn’t alter this five-passenger sedan’s basic dimensions or under-skin engineering. It does inject some excitement into the milquetoast 2015 design. And the accompanying changes make Sonata a more attractive value.

All models now come standard with blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection, and autonomous emergency braking is more widely available. Hyundai claims improvements to ride and handling. The eight-speed automatic transmission in the Sport 2.0T and Limited 2.0T models promises better fuel economy and sharper performance. And you can now control some Sonata functions from your livingroom couch, via Amazon Echo.

All 2018 Sonatas continue with four-cylinder engines, and the lineup remains subdivided by powertrain type. In the 2.4L family, Base, SE, SEL, Sport, and Limited models use a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter engine. The SEL is new for ’18 and adds to the SE several popular features for not much more money. Also back is the fuel-economy-maximizing Eco model with a turbocharged 1.6-liter engine, as well as the performance-oriented Sport 2.0T and Limited 2.0T models with a turbo 2.0-liter. Sonata continues to offer a pair of gas-electric powertrains, too: a conventional hybrid and a plug-in variant, both in Base and Limited trim.

Should I wait for the 2019 model instead?

Probably not. It’s likely to be a virtual repeat of the 2018 model, but with potentially higher prices. And you’d be buying a car in the final year of its design generation. An all-new Sonata is expected for model-year 2020, meaning the ‘19’s look and features will have a shorter shelf life than the 2018 model’s. On the upside, you’d be able to exploit inventory-clearing price cuts as dealers make room for the redesigned ‘20s.

Is the styling different?

Yes, and it forecasts the look of future vehicles from this South Korean automaker. Most apparent is the larger grille with “cascading” horizontal elements on most models and a sportier diamond-mesh insert on Sport 2.4L and the 2.0T versions. The new grille is flanked by slimmer headlamps with vertical LED daytime running lights and by far more aggressive lower-fascia air intakes. Sport 2.4L and 2.0T models have some black exterior accents versus the brightwork of other models. Wheel designs are new, too, but alloys are again standard on all models and diameters remain 16, 17, and 18 inches, depending on trim level. In back are new taillight graphics, and the license plate holder moves to the bumper from the trunklid, which gains an enlarged Sonata logo. The lid’s Hyundai badge now houses the trunk-release button.

Inside, the dashboard vents are revised, the shift knob is new, and audio and climate controls gain upscale “piano key” buttons. The new three-spoke steering wheel looks and feels more upmarket, as do the redesigned gauges. Hyundai had not released full details on 2018 trim-level content, but expect all but the Base 2.4L model to again have a 7-inch central dashboard screen, now with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration standard. Overall, Sonata remains among the roomiest midsize cars, with generous headroom and plenty of rear leg clearance. Trunk volume is class-topping, at 16.3 cubic feet, although presence of the powertrain battery pack shrinks that to 13.3 cubic feet in the hybrid and plug-in hybrid models.

Any mechanical changes?

None to engines themselves, but all ’18 Sonatas should benefit from suspension revisions designed to improve bump absorption and control. Recalibrated steering aims for better turn-in response and on-center feel. We hadn’t tested an ’18 Sonata in time for this report, but apathetic road manners and imprecise steering have been a brand shortfall that Hyundai, to its credit, has been addressing across its range.

All ’18 Sonatas remain front-wheel drive, with 2.4L versions again generating 185 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque. That’s par for base engines in this class and, combined with the smooth-working six-speed automatic, is perfectly adequate for a family sedan of this stripe. The high-fuel-economy Eco repeats with a turbocharged 1.6-liter of 178 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. Overall acceleration is as spritely as on the 2.4L models, but the Eco uses a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that can frustrate throttle response in around-town driving.

Sport 2.0T and Limited 2.0T models have 245 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Hyundai positions their turbocharged four-cylinder as a substitute for V-6 engine available in rivals such as the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, and Honda Accord. It lacks a V-6’s smoothness, though, and while 2.0T Sonatas don’t qualify as true sport sedans, they’re quick enough to entertain. By adding a gear ratio at either end of the six-speed automatic’s span, the eight-speed automatic is intended to give 2.0T models extra thrust off the line and quieter, more fuel-efficient highway cruising.

The 2018 Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid models again 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 is again 193, regenerative braking recharges the battery, and electric-only range is negligible. The Plug-In Hybrid has a larger battery and can draw an initial charge from the power grid sufficient to travel 27 miles on electric power alone. After that, the gas engine kicks in and it operates like the conventional hybrid. It has 202 net horsepower.

Does fuel economy improve?

EPA ratings for the 2018 Sonata were not released in time for this report, but unless the revised bodywork provides some demonstrable aerodynamic advantage, ratings for all but the 2.0T models should repeat. That means fuel economy for most gas-only Sonatas would remain midpack for the class. Expect ratings for the 2.4L versions to repeat at 25/36/29 mpg city/highway/combined for Base and SE trims (and for the new SEL) and 25/35/28 for the Sport and Limited. Look for the Eco to again rate 28/36/31 mpg. Expect some improvement – perhaps 1-2 mpg – in the 2.0T models’ 2017 rating of 22/31/26 mpg.

The 2018 Sonata Hybrid should repeat at 39/45/42 mpg city/highway/combined for the Base version and 38/43/40 for the Limited. Expect both Plug-In Hybrid trims to return with a rating of 99 mpg-e, the EPA’s calculation of an electric vehicle’s gas equivalency, and to rate 40 mpg city-highway combined when running as conventional hybrids.

Does it have new features?

Yes, for safety, connectivity, and convenience. Blind-spot detection, previously available only on Limited versions, becomes standard across the board and is accompanied by rear cross-traffic detection. Also, Sonata’s lane-departure warning system is newly fortified with lane-keep assist, which automatically steers the car back should you unintentionally wander from your lane. However, the lane-departure and assist feature is optional only on Limited and SEL models.

More significant is autonomous emergency braking. It’s an option for the SEL model and again standard on the Limited trims. With the ability to automatically stop the car to avoid a frontal collision, autonomous braking is a prerequisite for the industry’s most coveted safety award, the Top Safety Pick+ label from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Despite being equipped autonomous braking, 2017 Sonata Limiteds earned the institute’s second highest award, Top Safety Pick, after testers deemed their xenon headlamps insufficient. For ’18, Hyundai has introduced steering-linked LED headlamps as an option.

Also for ’18 is wireless charging for compatible mobile devices as standard. A USB charge point is added for the back seat, and models with the available imbedded navigation system gain a bird’s-eye video view, plus traffic-flow and incident-data service free of charge. The SEL model builds on the SE by including as standard such high-demand features as a power driver’s seat, keyless entry, and heated front seats. Newly standard for the Sport 2.4L are a power moonroof and some features previously included only on 2.0T models, such as leather-bolstered sport front bucket seats, dual exhaust outlets, and a flat-bottom steering wheel with transmission shift paddles.

All ‘18s continue with heated mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity, rearview camera, and a 60/40 split/folding rear seatback. Standard beginning with the SE is Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics with the 7-inch dashboard screen. This Blue Link system now talks to Amazon Echo, allowing you to deliver from inside your home, or wherever the Amazon device is located, commands for remote engine starting, climate-system settings, lighting, and door locking and unlocking.

How are 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.

Our estimated base prices include the manufacturer’s destination fee, which was $835 for the 2017 Sonata. 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.

When will it come out?

Release date for the gas-only 2018 Sonatas is late summer 2017, with hybrid and plug-in versions following in early calendar 2018, though still as model-year ’18 vehicles. So far, availability of the Plug-in Hybrid is limited to California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Malibu, 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?

Wider availability of lane-keep assist and, in particular, of autonomous emergency braking. Sonata didn’t need much help on the quietness and ride-quality front, and we hope Hyundai’s 2018 tweaks to steering and handling elevate it above 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 moves 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]