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2018 Hyundai Sonata: First Drive Review

You wouldn’t have a clue that sedans are taking a beating in the market by the enthusiasm for the 2018 Hyundai Sonata demonstrated by Hyundai types at the car’s recent media introduction in La Jolla, California. According to Vice President of Corporate and Product Planning Mike O’Brien, industry-wide, the midsize sedan market share dropped from 16.1 percent of total sales in 2012 to just 10.8 percent this year. It’s tough to get excited about a sedan’s prospects in such a declining environment. But, excited they were.

Backing away from fleet sales this year has lowered Hyundai’s overall sales numbers, but its retail sales are slightly up. One reason Hyundai continues to nurture the Sonata is that it is responsible for 18 percent of all of Hyundai’s conquest sales. That is, 18 percent of customers lured away from other brands to Hyundai buy a Sonata.

The Sonata continues to be a value story, but it really is more than that.

 Wow Factor

Penning the lines of the refreshed Sonata fell to Hyundai’s California Design Studio. Its roofline and size are unchanged; yet designers still wanted to recoup the wow factor missing from the styling of the current seventh-generation Sonata, which was released in 2015. Although the general feeling around the halls of Hyundai was that the Sonata was sufficiently appealing, its looks just didn’t move people to open their wallets.

They deemed a styling course correction was the answer. To achieve that, they directed most of their firepower to the front and rear ends of the car. Everything from the base of the A-pillar forward is new. The front-end styling morphed from horizontal to vertical. At its heart is the family’s new cascading grille, flanked by new headlights. The lower fascia is new, as is the more sculpted hood. Tracking around to the rear, designers relocated the license plate to the lower bumper, creating a clean canvas on the trunklid for the nameplate and Hyundai logo. A nifty design cue, the push button for opening the trunklid is cleverly hidden within the logo. New taillights mimic the shape of the headlights. See the 2018 Hyundai Sonata models for sale near you

 Hidden From View

While stylists were buffing up Sonata’s exterior, engineers were making some changes to the stuff that isn’t readily visible. Updating the electric power-steering system included tweaking the steering calibration. The end result is quicker steering response. Other tinkering underneath the car thickened the rear suspension’s trailing arms, making them stiffer. Engineers also replaced the steel inserts in the bushings with aluminum.

 Making It Go

A new 8-speed automatic transmission for the top-of-the-line engine is the big news under the hood. Hyundai says the 8-speed provides more liftoff at slower revs and smoother, quieter operation when cruising.

Leaving the Sonata hybrid out of the discussion, other versions of the 2018 Sonata generate thrust with the same three engines found in the 2017 model. A small 178-horsepower 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine is reserved for the Eco trim. All other grades use either the 185-horsepower 2.4-liter engine paired with last year’s 6-speed automatic transmission or the 260-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine teamed with the new 8-speed automatic transmission.

Of the two mainstream 4-bangers, the 2.0-liter provides the more satisfying experience. Setting the mode selector to Sport is rewarded with quicker shifts and throttle response. In other modes, the performance is capable, if not aggressive. Smart mode automatically switches among the modes based on whether you’re accelerating or just cruising. The 2.4-liter displays sufficient gusto when accelerating from a dead stop, but we found that it doesn’t have much left in reserve when trying to pass slower vehicles at speed. Most folks, we believe, would be happy with either choice.

Leading the chase in fuel economy is the updated Eco, with its 1.6-liter turbo mated to a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission coming later this summer. Of the two iterations we drove in California, the 2.4-liter takes top honors with a government-estimated 25 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway or, in the upper trims, 35 mpg hwy. Bringing up the rear, but still quite decent, is the 2.0-liter, at 23 mpg city/32 mpg hwy.

 Take a Load off

Sliding behind the steering wheel, we didn’t find the degree of revision inside that’s enjoyed by the exterior, but there are a couple of changes worth noting. A freshened center stack now hosts controls with a more upscale feel and look. Drivers will wrap their hands around a new 3-spoke flat-bottom steering wheel. Hyundai added a second USB port, strategically located for rear-seat passengers in upper trim levels.

Despite the mild coupelike slope of the roofline, rear-seat occupants enjoy plenty of head room. The cabin is roomy, easy on the eyes and comfy, too. For the most part, all the bits and pieces are high-quality and neatly assembled.

Standard in every Sonata is a standard 7-inch color touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. Other trim-wide standard features include full power accessories, 60/40 split-folding back seat, Bluetooth connectivity, seven airbags, a rearview camera, auto-on headlights, air conditioning and a 6-speaker audio system.

Choosing the SEL or Limited grades provides the opportunity to opt for the full suite of safety/driver-assist technologies like automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist and smart cruise control with start/stop. The good news is that blind spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert and lane change assist are standard on every 2018 Hyundai Sonata. A free three-year subscription is standard on trim levels with Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics system.

 Pecking Order

Hyundai rearranged the Sonata lineup for 2018, dumping the Base trim and adding an SEL grade for a total of seven versions filling out the 2018 Sonata batting order. Including the factory destination fee, pricing begins with the SE, at $22,935. This is just $100 more than last year’s Base trim. On the heels of the SE is the Eco, at $23,535. New for 2018 is the SEL grade, at $24,585, followed by the Sport at $26,085, the Limited at $28,285, the Sport 2.0 at $28,485 and the Limited 2.0 at $33,335.

 Final Word

Sedan sales may be cooling across the industry, but Hyundai has every reason to be optimistic about the Sonata’s chances. A solid value, upscale cabin, healthy engine/transmission selection and handsome wrapper provide plenty of appeal. It should have no trouble finding an audience.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle’s manufacturer.

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