Spacious and fuel efficient, the 2016 Hyundai Sonata is a worthy rival for America's best-selling family sedan.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata, now in its seventh generation, competes against a squadron of well-qualified family four-doors, including the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, and Chevy Malibu, as well as the VW Passat, Kia Optima, Chrysler 200, Subaru Legacy, and Mazda 6. That's some tough competition.
The Sonata was redesigned for 2015, and this generation has more conservative looks and higher refinement levels. The flamboyant styling is replaced by a more even-tempered look inside and out, and it may end up aging better despite media criticism that it's become too bland. The reorg works better in the cockpit, where the trapezoidal cues run along tracks laid by German sedans four decades ago. It's formal, and a bit like the design used in the closely related Kia Optima. Skip the wood grain, though; the carbon fiber and aluminum-like trims do a fine job of dressing up what's become a sober den.
Changes for 2016 include the use of several aluminum suspension components, the addition of emergency braking to the forward collision warning system, a new 7.0-inch touchscreen audio system with the Android Auto smartphone interface, and some equipment shuffling. The Limited trim also gets the Sport trim's more aggressive front bumper. In addition, the Sonata Hybrid is updated this year, and Hyundai offers a new Plug-in Hybrid. You can read about them here.
One of the lighter cars in its class, the Sonata was also one of the first to move to an all 4-cylinder lineup, and it doesn't want for more. The base 185-horsepower 2.4-liter inline-4 and the twin-scroll turbocharged, 245-hp 2.0-liter inline-4 are free-revving engines that deliver their power fairly quietly and almost free of vibration. With either engine, you get a 6-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic manual controls and quick, smooth shifts. Sport 2.0T models have paddle shifters, and all Sonatas get a three-mode driving selector that fiddles with shift timing, throttle delivery, and power steering assist through Eco, Normal, and Sport modes. In Eco mode, the Sonata really dithers over downshifts, but the milder differences in Normal and Sport modes probably mean owners will play with the feature once before leaving it in default mode.
Hyundai enlisted Lotus Engineering to iron out the 2015 Genesis' handling, and those lessons have been applied to the Sonata as well. A stiff body structure helps it damp out bumps and take direction. It's settled at any speed, and compliant. The addition of several aluminum suspension components for 2016 should aid both handling and ride quality. Sport 2.0T tuning isn't much different, with just a 1-mm change in stabilizer-bar thickness and moderately beefier P235/45R18 tires. The electric power steering tracks well and maintains its sense of true, without much wandering or excessive weight. Even if it's not talking back to you, at least the steering is listening.
As for the Sonata Eco, our brief exposure to it was mostly a good one. The Eco is no mild hybrid. It's a small-displacement turbo inline-4 mated to a dual-clutch transmission. With 177 hp and a booming exhaust note, it reminds us of Ford's mid-line Fusion in its eagerness, and gas mileage is pegged at 32 mpg, putting it on the non-hybrid leaderboard.
Space is a strength for the Sonata. It's technically defined by the EPA as a large car, but the Sonata is marketed as a mid-size car, so it can be compared favorably to a Fusion or Altima, but shy of a Chevy Impala.
There's plenty of room for 6-footers in the front seats, and the seats are comfortable, with plenty of bottom cushion and bolstering. In back, there is an excess of knee room, enough to cross over a knee into a freestyle yoga pose. The back seat leg room isn't quite as expansive as in a Passat, and head room is like most of the cars in this segment—a little snug when the sunroof is ordered, fine for anyone 6 foot or shorter.
The Sonata's positively awash in storage bins, perfect for hiding stuff from drivers and passengers. Trunk space is generous at 16.3 cubic feet, and it has handy seat-fold levers inside the trunk. The cabin is relaxed, too. It's quiet enough, even at a good driving pace, to hear front-seat conversations without straining.
In crash testing, the Sonata has earned five-star federal scores, as well as across the board "Good" ratings from the IIHS. It also offers blind-spot monitors, adaptive cruise control, a driver knee airbag, and a forward collision system with emergency braking.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata lineup is varied. With the 2.4-liter inline-4, it comes in SE, Sport, and Limited trim levels; with the 2.0T it is offered in Sport and Limited trim; and with the 1.6T it comes as the Eco.
The SE model starts at about $22,000. Standard equipment includes 16-inch alloy wheels, a rear lip spoiler, automatic headlights, cloth upholstery, an AM/FM/XM/HD/CD radio with a 7.0-inch touchscreen, satellite radio, Hyundai BlueLink telematics, Android Auto, a rearview camera, a USB port, and Bluetooth with audio streaming.
Equipment increases by model, and the Sport 2.0T models are delineated by paddle shifters, a sport suspension, sport-tuned steering, quad exhaust tips, a rear diffuser, 18-inch wheels, aluminum pedals, and sport seats, among other features.
The Sonata's infotainment systems comes with a large 8.0-inch touchscreen, smartphone-app compatibility for Pandora and SoundHound, and HD radio. Navigation-equipped cars get Apple Eyes Free Siri integration, and all models now have Google’s Android Auto smartphone system. Apple CarPlay is soon to come.
All three Sonata powertrains were built with fuel efficiency in mind, from the chart-topping Sonata Eco's 38 mpg highway rating to the Limited's highway legs at 31 mpg. There's really not a bad pick here.