Hyundai Sonata review: So backward, this may well be world's first gluten-free sedan

Written by New York Times | New York | Updated: Oct 19 2014, 02:07am hrs
Hyundai Sonata 2015Sonata adopts Hyundai?s evolving design language, which it calls Fluidic Sculpture 2.0.
After several so-so attempts, Hyundai broke into the big leagues of family sedans with its 2011 Sonata. How did the Korean company do it By going bold, with a swoopy design that seemed inspired more by four door coupes like the Mercedes CLS than by the precedents of typical family cars. Sure, the sixth-generation Sonata drove better than the previous versions. But the Sonatas expressive, ballyhooed styling helped to separate it from the midsize herd.

The 2011 Sonata actually went on sale in 2010, and promptly posted the biggest year-over-year sales gains of any car in America. Sales nearly doubled from 2009 to 2011, topping 225,000 in 2011 and 2012. Those figures remained well behind the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, but within striking distance of the Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima.

But while Fusion and Altima sales have since swelled to 300,000 and more, the Sonatas tally dropped more than 10% last year, to barely 200,000 cars.

It was apparently time for another change. But instead of going bold, this time Hyundai has veered toward the boring. Instead of aiming high, at design and performance leaders like the Accord, Fusion and Mazda 6, the new Sonata seems to point its harpoon at an easy target, the Toyota Camry, in the great white belly of the midsize class.

The new Sonata adopts Hyundais evolving design language, which it calls Fluidic Sculpture 2.0, an approach that paid off handsomely on the new Genesis luxury sedan. But not so much this time.

To my eye, this new design is a step backwards, so bland that the Sonata might be the worlds first gluten-free sedan.

The new Hyundai even manages to make the nondescript Volkswagen Passat look distinctive by comparison. At least the VW is recognisably German, whereas the Sonata appears to have been styled by a United Nations subcommittee.

Where the Hyundai isnt anonymous, its awkward. On the Sport version that I tested, dated-looking chrome strips ran above the rocker panels, just below the doors, with more shiny trim framing the side windows.

Inside, the previous models flamboyant shapes and waterfall-style centre stackthe central section of the instrument panel that flows into the consolewerent for everyone, but the cabin was bursting with personality. The interior is better in some respectsits quieter, with more comfortable seats and the latest features. But the conservative theme that works fine on the bigger Genesis is less felicitous on an affordable family car.

Sober enough for a Shaker dining room, the conventional sweep of the Sonatas dashboard leaves little for the eye to savour. The plainness only highlights the standard-issue feeling of the materials and switches.

I will say this: Hyundai has become a leader in useful, intuitive gizmos, and its navigation, multimedia and BlueLink app systems are as simple and easy to use as youll find.

Id be more willing to overlook the design, or ascribe it to my subjective tastes, if the Hyundais driving experience left any lasting impression. But again, the Sonata is as unwilling to make waves as a midlevel manager hiding in a cubicle.

The Sonata, at least, is one big cubicle, with a class-leading passenger capacity of 106.1 feet and an impressive 16.3-cubic-foot trunk, which ties the Chevy Malibu for class honours. The back seat is equally enormous; the EPA actually classifies the Sonata as a large car. Extensive use of high-strength steel, along with a reworked suspension, makes the Sonata more rigid and reduces upsetting impacts over big bumps, the biggest flaw of the departing model.

That 2011 Sonata set a family car trend in another area, eschewing a 6-cylinder option and offering only 4-cylinder engines. That philosophy continues, but theres not enough payoff: Hyundai has dialled back the horsepower of its top-selling versions, resulting in modest gains in smoothness and meagre improvements in fuel economy.

There's still a Sonata Hybrid, but it will continue to be built with the old body style until the middle of next year, when an all-new Hybrid is due to be released.

Unfortunately, I wasnt able to drive the Sonata Eco, a more mechanically interesting version with a 1.6-litre turbo making an estimated 177 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. Whereas other Sonatas get a somewhat leisurely 6-speed automatic transmission, the Eco adopts Hyundais 7-speed dual-clutch automated transmission.

Like the Genesis, the Sonata adopts an electric steering system mounted on the steering rack itself, rather than on the steering column. But the Sonata still felt strictly midpack in terms of steering and handling. In city driving, especially, the Sonata felt weighty and ponderous, the kind of car that struggles to stay out of its own way.

The Sonatas were at their best on highways, where their chassis and suspension improvements produced more stable, controlled handling.

With the previous Sonata, Hyundai earned a solid foothold in the family sedan class. That accomplished, the company now seems inclined to put its feet up and relax. For buyers who care to join them, the Sonata is as traditional a sofa as youll find.