The Challenge of The Third Kind

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2016 Hyundai Sonata

It seems appropriate that at the end of our Fifth Anniversary celebration we feature a vehicle that has been a huge part of my automotive writing life.

The Hyundai Sonata is not just a mere mid-sized sedan. It is a showcase of what the brand can do to capture its share of this market through a car that has seen duty in various way. It is also the core of the Hyundai lineup, enabling the brand to expand into many different segments since its original introduction as a 1989 model year entrant.

For a car that has won two Victory & Reseda Vehicle of The Year awards – in 2007 and 2010 – it continues to present itself with a challenge every time I get behind the wheel of one. The NF generation – the first one built at the Montgomery, Alabama plant – might not be the most inspiring the look at, but they did raise the quality quotient and execution level for Hyundai. Then came the YF generation, with its groundbreaking Fluidic Sculpture design and a slew of benchmarks for the class. If one car completely changed the mid-sized sedan game – it was the last Sonata.

Both the NF and YF moved the bar for Hyundai in terms of sales. It is also a part of a one-two punch from the brand – now with the Elantra leading sales volume in this country. When it came time for a new Sonata, we were ready.

Turn to July of 2014. I was ready to check out the new LF generation Sonata. A meeting of the regional media association turned into a drive from Chicago to Ann Arbor in a couple of examples of the then-new mid-sized sedan. I came away impressed, even with some reservations.

Obviously, the Fluidic Sculpture generation Sonata wowed us in terms of design, engineering and value. Some were concerned that the latest iteration of the Sonata had gone soft. Both engines came in with less power and they introduced a smaller turbocharged engine with a dual-clutch transmission. We were wondering what happened to its edgy mid-sized sedan that brought Hyundai new customers through the first part of the 2010s?

2016 Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T

I was one of those skeptics. Then, I received a 2016 Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T. I guess I need to find out whether I am still skeptical about this generation of Sonata or not.

Well…let's start with the current design known as Fluidic Sculpture 2.0. Granted, it is not as dramatic as the previous model. Nor is it as edgy. However, I will argue that for this market, perhaps taking a bit of a conservative approach to exterior design may serve the Sonata better. Hyundai did retain a few elements from the previous generation Sonata onto the new one, such as the chrome strip line on the top of the front fender and the roofline. Yet, it is more handsome overall. Moreover, you can still tell it is a Sonata when you park it next to a Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion or Nissan Altima. What we have here is not just a handsome mid-sized sedan, but a very distinctive one.

Depending on which trim level you choose, there is a grille that sets off the front end well. In the case of this Sport model, I do prefer the aggressive three-bar, deep gray design overall. Lower bumper LED lamps set off the lighting package, which includes directional beams inside of the headlamp cluster. The roofline is more amenable, even with wide opening doors that are huge enough for anyone to go in and out. I will admit that this gives the Sonata a big car feel, something mid-sized buyers might be looking for these days. The trunk has a longer lid from the rear window, making things easier to manage for all kinds of loads.

I will admit that this Sport model is not as sporty as I liked. The grille and the rear spoiler were perfect, but I was hoping for more aggressive trimmings than the chromed rocker panels and the 18-inch wheels shod on this example. I'm thinking some darker gray chrome trim and some 19-inch wheels with high performance tires would make this Sport become a desirable package for Sonata customers.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T

Again, the same complaints were lodged against the interior – they went too conservative instead of the edgier previous generation's design. To be fair, I happen to like the instrument panel of this newer Sonata better. It is cleaner, more logical and easier to read and use. Not to mention the rise in quality overall. The instrumentation was cleaner, especially in the new backlit format with the switchable TFT screen in the middle. The placement and access to the new touchcreen for the infotainment system is spot on. Every control, switch and knob worked very well – save for a few, with excellent placement all around.

Driving the Sonata's technology are two elements – BlueLink and platform-driven mobile connectivity. As a telematics suite, BlueLink is much more improved than in previous models, considering it is now easier to use and offering more features for subscribers to use. With Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Hyundai makes it easier for you to use your mobile device while driving. There was great success tethering my Android phone with the Sonata, since it made for better navigation through Google Maps, excellent playback and interface with Pandora and the phone itself. The rest of the infotainment system is just as good, with great combined presets across all bands – including SiriusXM. Connectivity was excellent by Bluetooth, but phone and app usage is perhaps best via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

Every mid-sized sedan I review is measured by the cabin space. The Sonata has a huge space that fits five adults – period. Rear seat room is exceptional – almost like an extended wheelbase large executive car. There is both leg and head room abound. Front seat space is excellent with an abundance is positions to get comfortable behind the wheel in. The only vehicle I can think of that would offer as equal space in its class would be the Volkswagen Passat.

When I think of a trim level called the Sport, I would hope for something sporty in terms of front seating. I only wished for deeper and better bolstering to go along with the comfort and support of the seats. I am not asking for Recaro seats, but at least a bit more locking in of bodies to instill a sportier and more confident drive.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T

Most of my colleagues complained that by reducing the power rating on the 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine would not do the Sonata any justice. Remember they said the same thing in the 2014 Buick Regal? I think that engine was fine in the GS. In the case of the Sonata, the newer 245 horsepower version is suitable without all of the untamed drama one hoped for in a top-spec engine. The engine is very smooth and the turbocharger comes on almost immediately. This engine is matched well with its six-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels.

The rationale for reducing the horsepower on this engine is to gain more fuel efficiency from it. In my care, the turbocharged Sonata Sport earned an average of 27.1 MPG. Considering that more mid-sized family sedans are earning over 30 MPG on average, this might not be so bad after all. Perhaps, we could call this an improvement.

One thing I expect from a car calling itself "Sport" is a driving experience worthy of it. In the Sonata, you do get some "sportiness," without the harsh, firm suspension. To achieve this, a flip to Sport with the Drive Mode switch does the trick – a tad. Otherwise, it is a smooth riding big sedan that absorbs terrible road conditions and leftover construction spots. Handling is very controlled, though one would expect a flatter cornering experience. There is a bit of roll and lean through the corners, but not enough to scare families inside.

The Sonata's steering is OK, even though there is some road feel from this system. Turning is on the large side, but manageable in tight situations. On-center feel is pretty light, however. Braking is good, with solid pedal feel and response. Normal and panic stops were also good. This Sport had a rearview camera, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert for active safety features.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T

The entire 2016 Sonata lineup starts off with a SE sedan available with a base price of $21,750. This Sport 2.0T model came with only standard equipment at a complete sticker price of $29,760. Just added for 2016 is a Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid variant. These sustainable Sonatas top out at $38,600 for a Plug-In Limited model.

There is some talk of whether this is one of the better cars in its class. Well, yes, but I will also add that Hyundai certainly has hit its stride with the Sonata in terms of design execution, space utilization, advancing technology and balancing performance with efficiency. Although, some folks want more dramatics from the exterior and more integration of active safety across the lineup. I say…why not let it be for the moment? Let the consumers snap up every one of these at their respective showrooms!

Covering three straight generations of Sonatas show a story arc that has seen this car advance to new heights to today's example. Although the Vehicle of The Year award is now in the hands of some other entity…it is doubtful that Hyundai could score a third with this Sonata. It is good, but is it great enough to win you over? Good question…I'll leave that to you to decide.

Believe me, it is good – the best Sonata ever. Challenge complete.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Hyundai Motor America

All photos by Randy Stern

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