Pros: Great fuel economy, strong base and turbocharged engines, adventurous styling, big trunk (except Hybrid), plenty of features for the price.
Cons: Hybrid's not quite ready for prime time, exceptionally numb steering, marginal rear headroom.
The 2012 Hyundai Sonata marks the second year of Hyundai's bold family-sedan gamble. Before the current Sonata debuted, family sedans were mostly known as generic-looking appliances that were good at getting lost in parking lots. Hyundai saw an opportunity: no one was building distinctively styled cars in this class. But styling is a tough thing to get right, and there can be huge consequences if you get it wrong. Small wonder that no other successful automaker had been willing to take the risk.
Nonetheless, Hyundai threw caution to the wind with last year's completely redesigned Sonata, presenting a family sedan that seemingly consisted entirely of curves and creases. At first blush, it looked too radical for the Camry-or-Accord crowd. But the sales charts told a different story, as the Sonata was a hot seller virtually from the moment it hit the market. Now entering its second year, the Sonata appears firmly entrenched as a family-sedan favorite.
The Sonata sees a few changes for 2012, notably the addition of the Blue Link telematics system and a higher-resolution navigation screen, but it's largely the same car we were so impressed with last year. That means it still comes with your choice of a regular four-cylinder engine, a four-cylinder turbo or a hybrid drivetrain. And, of course, it's still got that daring style. Altogether, the Sonata's clearly at the head of the family-sedan class. Two years in, Hyundai's gamble seems to be paying off quite handsomely.
Comfort & Utility
The non-hybrid 2012 Hyundai Sonata models are offered in three trim levels: GLS, SE and Limited.
The GLS starts with 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers (16-inch alloys are optional), full power accessories, air conditioning, cruise control, a tilt-telescopic steering wheel, a trip computer, cloth upholstery, a height-adjustable driver seat, the Blue Link telematics system and a six-speaker audio system with satellite radio and iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.
The SE adds 18-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, dual exhaust pipes, automatic headlamps, fog lights, chrome exterior accents, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with paddle shifters, hybrid cloth/leather upholstery and an eight-way power driver's seat with lumbar. Specifying the turbocharged engine brings standard dual-zone automatic climate control.
The Limited dials it back to 17-inch alloy wheels and ditches the SE's more aggressive touches like the paddle shifters and sport-tuned suspension (the turbocharged Limited keeps the 18s and the paddle shifters), but it gains a sunroof, leather upholstery, piano-black or woodgrain interior trim, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front and rear seats and a seven-speaker, 360-watt audio sound system.
Some of the higher trims' standard equipment can be added to the lower trims as options. Offered on Limited only is a nine-speaker, 400-watt Infinity audio system. The SE and Limited are eligible for a Navigation package that includes a 7-inch touchscreen, a rearview camera and of course a navigation system.
The Sonata Hybrid gets a somewhat different equipment roster, starting with standard 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlamps, LED accent lights, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless entry with push-button start, electroluminescent gauges, a trip computer with a Hybrid-specific 4.2-inch display, Blue Link telematics, cloth upholstery, an eight-way power driver's seat with lumbar and the six-speaker sound system with iPod/USB and Bluetooth from the GLS/SE.
There are two notable Hybrid option packages: the Leather package adds leather upholstery and heated front and rear seats, while the Ultimate package consists of the Leather package plus a panoramic sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, the nine-speaker Infinity audio system and the navigation system that's optional on the SE/Limited.
Hyundai seats tend to be on the soft side, and that tradition continues with the Sonata's front chairs, regardless of upholstery. We appreciate the long-distance cruising comfort that they provide, even if lateral support for aggressive maneuvers is lacking. The Sonata's deeply recessed standard gauges are bright and legible, but the Hybrid's Lexus-like electroluminescent gauges easily win the prize. We'd like to see them offered across the lineup.
The Sonata's stylized dashboard features mostly high-quality materials, standing the Sonata in good stead relative to other family sedans. The central controls are an ergonomic mix of buttons and knobs, with the unusual addition of a Volvo-inspired human figure that you press to change the airflow setting.
The back seat provides plenty of legroom and a nice high bottom cushion, but headroom may be tight for passengers with long torsos-that's one of the prices you pay for the edgy styling. Trunk space is quite generous at 16.4 cubic feet, though that drops to just 10.7 cubic feet in the Hybrid.
Even the base GLS comes very well-equipped in the technology department, providing all the connectivity you need via its iPod/USB and Bluetooth hookups. But perhaps the most notable standard technology feature is the Blue Link telematics system, which includes voice-recognition software that converts your spoken words to text messages (compatible smartphone required), monthly reports on vehicle performance and maintenance, emergency roadside assistance at the push of a button and point-of-interest searches for nearby restaurants and such.
Optional on higher trims is a navigation system that gets a crispier display screen for 2012. We still don't find the graphics of this system particularly inspired, but the larger, sharper screen does make a difference.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Sonata GLS and Limited start with a 2.4-liter inline-4 rated at 198 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, while the base SE gets the same engine with ratings of 200 horsepower and 186 lb-ft. This engine is unusually strong for an entry-level offering, and it's reasonably refined, too. The GLS can be equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, but that's a rare sight in these cars. Most Sonatas will have the extra-cost six-speed automatic, which shifts quickly yet smoothly-we like it. Fuel economy is a superb 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway either way.
The SE and Limited are eligible for an upgrade to a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 that cranks out 274 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque through a willing six-speed automatic. This is one of the most impressive engines in any midsize sedan today. It's got a ton of low-end torque for effortless highway passing, yet it keeps on pulling at high rpm, and it's quite civilized all the while. Plus, you still get 22/34 mpg, which is truly extraordinary at this level of performance.
As for the Hybrid, it pairs a 2.4-liter inline-4 with an electric motor for a total output of 206 horsepower. In an unusual twist for a hybrid, since most have CVTs, this Sonata gets a six-speed automatic, albeit one without a torque converter. We wish the Hybrid's drivetrain came up roses like the others, but alas, this one needs more time in the oven. The power delivery isn't smooth or linear, and the six-speed automatic is slow to respond. At least fuel economy is excellent at 35/40 mpg, though other midsize hybrids are even more frugal.
The 2012 Hyundai Sonata comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, active front head restraints and six airbags (front, front-side, full-length side-curtain).
In government crash-testing, the Sonata received a perfect five-star overall rating, including five stars in every category except frontal protection, for which it received four stars. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Sonata its highest rating of "Good" in all categories.
The Sonata's suspension tuning marks a paradigm shift for Hyundai. Whereas previous Sonatas-indeed, Hyundais in general-prioritized a soft ride above all else, the current Sonata is more like a Honda Accord in the way it keeps the driver connected with the road. The ride is still compliant, but the Sonata now feels like it has some athletic ability in corners, especially in the SE's tighter state of tune. Alas, the Sonata's steering is numb and vague, a Hyundai tradition that stubbornly lives on. Also, road noise can rise to objectionable levels on certain surfaces, though the Sonata's cabin is otherwise quiet.
Other Cars to Consider
Kia Optima - The mechanically similar Optima has a bold styling language of its own, and we prefer the Kia's interior. Definitely worth comparing with the Sonata.
Toyota Camry - Like the Sonata, the new Camry has hit the gym, and it's actually genuinely engaging in SE trim. The Camry's V6 is one of the few engines in this class that can give the Sonata's 2.0T a run for its money.
Volkswagen Passat - The Passat offers an intriguing engine lineup of its own, and it's got a restrained German aesthetic that serves as a compelling alternative to the Sonata's exuberance.
We think the turbocharged engine hits the sweet spot for power and fuel economy, especially at its base price of around $25,000. We'd make it a base SE 2.0T to keep the cost in check. That's a lot of car for 25 large.