First drive: 2018 Hyundai Sonata [Review]

We take Hyundai\'s updated 2018 Sonata for a spin.

Like most things, the auto industry is ever changing. One day you're on top and the next you're on the bottom looking up. That's just where the mid-size sedan finds itself today. After hitting a record market share of 16.1 percent in 2012 (making it the most popular vehicle type in the industry), the segment accounts for just 10.3 percent of the overall market today. Moreover, the mid-size sedan is now just the fourth best-selling vehicle type, trailing the compact car, compact SUV and full-size pickup truck.

But that drop off doesn't mean automakers are ready to give up on the segment (Chrysler and its 200 notwithstanding). On the contrary, automakers are working harder than ever to keep their footing in the segment. Enter the redesigned 2018 Hyundai Sonata.

Keeping it freshThe 2018 version of the Sonata represents the nameplate's first major update since being introduced as an all-new model in 2015. Although not a clean-sheet redesign, Hyundai put a lot of effort into the Sonata's 2018 update. The Sonata wears new sheet metal from the A-pillars forward, and the car's rear-end has been thoroughly redesigned. The interior benefits from a nip/tuck and the 2.0T model gains a new 8-speed automatic to help its peppiness.

Getting back its mojoTo say the Sonata is critical to Hyundai's success in the U.S. market is an understatement. In fact, Hyundai's recent sales boom can be traced back to the Sonata that launched for the 2010 model year.

That 2010 Sonata was an eyeopener for the entire industry — its stylish sheet metal and coupe-like roof line proved that a mid-size sedan didn't have to be boring. Customers that had never before considered a Hyundai were soon flocking to showrooms.

But over the years the competition countered with stylish sedans of their own, and typical sedan buyers began switching over to more practical crossovers. The Sonata's sales suffered as a result, with deliveries off by 27 percent so far this year. Hyundai is hopeful it will be able to lure back buyers with a more stylish version of the Sonata for 2018 that harkens back to the 2010 model that started it all.

The 2018 Sonata features a more authentic-feeling version of Hyundai's Fluidic Sculpture design language. Whereas the 2015 Sonata was somewhat straight-edged, the 2018 Sonata use organic lines with more curves and bulges.

The signature piece of the new Sonata is a redesigned grille intended to mimic a cauldron pouring liquid-hot metal. It's far more stylish than before with a 3D effect giving the car a more upscale appearance.

Shapelier headlights flank that new grille and can be outfitted with optional LED lighting elements. Just below on either side are Hyundai's new "air blades,” which serve several purposes. On a practical side they house LED daytime running lights and also funnel air around the car to give it a slipperier shape. Aesthetically, they point to the outside corners of the wheels, which gives the car a more planted look. A new lower bumper treatment is intended to give the same effect.

In profile not much has changed, but designers were able to rework the Sonata's rear end. Every Sonata comes with a new deck lid that features a more pronounced ducktail spoiler that gives the car a sportier appearance. The license plate area has been moved to the lower bumper, allowing for a bit more sculpting of the trunk and the centralized placement of the Sonata badge. Lights are thinner than before and can be upgraded with LED technology. As a party piece, the Hyundai logo now incorporates a touchpad for opening the trunk.

Although merely skin deep, the 2018 Sonata's changes do add a little spice to car's overall demeanor. If the old Sonata was scrambled eggs, this new one is huevos rancheros.

You'll have to have a sharper eye to notice the changes inside, but they are there. For 2018 the Sonata receives a more modern-looking steering wheel with a three-spoke design. The car's HVAC controls have been lifted slightly to give the dashboard a more horizontal orientation. Trim that formerly framed the center air vents has been moved to highlight the Sonata's large touchscreen display.

The result of those changes is an interior that has a Volkswagen vibe to it, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, interior quality doesn't quite feel up to VW standards — soft-touch materials are used sparingly and the Sonata's interior bits don't feel as substantial as they look. The Sonata's interior doesn't feel low-rent, but it doesn't feel as premium as some of its competition, either.

Luckily Hyundai didn't skimp on value. The new Sonata's base MSRP ($22,050) has inched up by just $100 despite blind spot detection with cross-traffic alert being added as a standard feature. Sonata Eco and SEL models are actually cheaper than before (by $475 and $650, respectively). Spring for a Sonata Limited with Ultimate Package or the Limited 2.0T model and you'll save about $2,000.

The Sonata's Sport models haven't avoided the price creep, however, with both the 2.4 and 2.0T models seeing a price hike for 2018. It'll now take $25,200 — $1,800 more than last year — to park a Sonata Sport 2.4 in your driveway while the Sport 2.0T requires $27,600, or $1,000 more than last year.

In a bid to better compete in the heart of the mid-size sedan market, Hyundai is adding a new SEL Tech 2.4 model for the new model year. It carries an MSRP of $24,700 and includes automatic braking, lane keep assist and smart cruise control.

Cars equipped with Hyundai's 2.4L naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine continue on with a six-speed automatic transmission while 2.0T models get an in-house designed eight-speed auto. All Sonata models benefit from a revised steering system with better response and an updated suspension for sharper handling.

Hyundai will eventually offer its latest Sonata in hybrid form (both as a conventional hybrid and as a plug-in), but eco-conscious buyers will have to wait until next year to score one of those. A 1.6T model is also on the way, but it won't launch until later this year.

Drive timeOur time with the 2018 Hyundai Sonata was spent in a Limited model equipped with the 2.4L engine. Our car was also equipped with the optional Ultimate Package, which added pretty much all the bells and whistles — automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, wireless charging and heated steering wheel, just to name a few.

Our first impression of the revised Sonata was good. The car feels substantial and planted to the ground, but not in an overweight and heavy kind of way. The changes Hyundai made to the Sonata's suspension are a clear improvement.

Steering was also a pleasant surprise. The overall feel is a bit muted, but the Sonata's new steering rack is precise with good weight. The Sonata handles itself well up until about 7/10th; after that the Sonata's handling characteristics will remind you that it's a mid-size sedan designed for commuting, not canyon carving. And that's just fine as most people don't expect a performance vehicle when shopping for a front-wheel drive sedan.

We found the Sonata's ride to be mostly comfortable, although wider expansion joints can send a jolt through the cabin. Tire noise was more excessive than we were expecting, but it wasn't overbearing.

Our test car's 185 horsepower engine did OK puttering around at lower speeds, but the four-cylinder feels under-powered in most other situations. Passing on two-lane back roads requires plenty of upfront planning. The six-speed transmission isn't much help as it prefers to be in top gear for best economy. The unit does, however, provide smooth shifts thorough the range.

A Sport mode is available via a console-mounted button, but it did little to liven the Sonata's poky performance.

The Sonata's 2.0T engine, with 245 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, is probably a worthy upgrade, but we're unable to definitively comment on that since we didn't actually get to drive one. Ditto for the new eight-speed transmission.

We found the Sonata's safety systems to work as advertised. Adaptive cruise control kept us a safe distance from the vehicle ahead and the lane keeping system did a good job keeping us centered in our lanes; we've found that many other systems on the market tend to "bounce” from lane line to lane line. Although not quite as important as those safety items, we feel it's important to note that the Sonata has some of the best seat coolers we've ever experienced.

Those interested in tech will be happy to find a standard eight-inch touchscreen display with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality. Moreover, that screen offers sharp resolution and is quick to respond to inputs. You can also link your Sonata to your smart watch or smart home speaker system via Hyundai's BlueLink, which is complimentary for the first three years of ownership.

The Sonata's gauge cluster isn't as high-tech, but its analog arrangement is at least straight forward and easy to read. A color LCD screen is located in the middle and severs as a vehicle readout for things like trip computer and vehicle settings.

The Sonata's front buckets proved comfortable over our day-long drive with good support and just the right amount of side bolster. Rear-seat legroom in the Sonata is generous, but its sloping roofline does eat into headroom for those over six-foot tall.

Leftlane's bottom lineThough not as revolutionary as the 2010 Sonata, Hyundai has succeeded in making a better Sonata for 2018. Styling has once again been moved to the forefront and the Sonata can backup those good looks with a long list of available features, not to mention the industry's best warranty.

We doubt this stylish Sonata will invigorate Hyundai's sales as in years past, but the 2018 version of the sedan should be enough to keep sales from sliding any further.

2018 Hyundai Sonata base price, $22,050; As tested, $31,310.Ultimate Package, $2,900; Carpeted floor mats, $125; Destination, $885.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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