Hyundai fields a more athletic Sonata for '15
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- After shaking up the industry with the previous Sonata's swoopy sheet metal, Hyundai engineers focused most on improving driving dynamics for the mid-sized sedan's seventh generation.
The effort appears to have succeeded. While a rough, jittery suspension and vague steering dogged the outgoing version, a revamped suspension and stiffer body give the updated Sonata a more composed ride, while new steering systems provide greater feedback.
But the Sonata faces a major challenge in the marketplace. The segment is brutally competitive, and mid-sized sedan sales are down 3 percent through the first five months of the year.
The basics: The 2015 Sonata rides on a modified version of the platform underpinning the outgoing version. Hyundai stretched the car's wheelbase slightly for more front legroom and widened the car by more than an inch.
The geometry of the Sonata suspension's front MacPherson strut was revised while engineers redesigned the multilink rear suspension to a double control arm for better stability.
The Sonata's biggest powertrain news is the 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine combined with a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission in Sonata Eco models designed for fuel efficiency. Otherwise, the outgoing model's powertrains carry over with minor updates. The 2.4-liter base engine has adequate power, while the optional 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder provides strong acceleration.
Christopher Chapman, chief of U.S. design for Hyundai, likened the Sonata's tauter sheet metal to an athlete in a well-tailored suit. He said the Sonata is the second of four vehicles, including the 2015 Genesis, that will define a more understated, confident phase of Hyundai design. "We don't have to prove ourselves anymore," Chapman said at a media event here.
Notable features: In-car versions of Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile phone operating systems will be available on the Sonata by year end, according to John Shon, Hyundai's product planning manager responsible for the Sonata.
A suite of active safety features, including rear parking sensors, forward collision warning and lane departure warning, is new for the model year. The Sonata also gets adaptive cruise control, which can bring a vehicle to a full stop and accelerate without pedal inputs from the driver.
Some 51 percent of the Sonata's body is made from advanced high-strength steel, compared with 21 percent on the outgoing model. The result is a stiffer body that performs better under acceleration and a delivers a more solid feel on the road.
What Hyundai says: "We completely changed the chassis and body structures, more focused on driving performance and safety," said Hwang Chung-yul, vice president of r&d for Hyundai Motor Co. "By doing this we were able to address some of the issues of the previous Sonata and improve them completely."
Shortcomings and compromises: Despite the use of lighter steel, the 2015 Sonata gained weight because of reinforcements to the car's front end to improve crashworthiness and increased use of adhesives in the body for added rigidity and quietness, said Mike O'Brien, vice president for product and corporate planning at Hyundai.
High-gloss materials used on the instrument cluster look somewhat low-rent in the context of an otherwise clean, modern and well-organized interior.
The market: Dave Zuchowski, CEO of Hyundai Motor America, described the mid-sized sedan segment as "blood sport," with automakers competing fiercely for share on the basis of technology, design and value. After a few years of solid growth, the segment is down slightly from last year, as consumer tastes shift to crossovers.
Sonata sales are down 3 percent through May after falling 12 percent in 2013. The sales goal for the revamped Sonata is to return to the volumes enjoyed by the previous generation, he said.
"Our intent with this car is not to add 80,000 units of volume," Zuchowski said. "It's to get back to the volume levels we had with the [outgoing version] to gain back our share of the business. Fairly modest sales increases in a flat segment."
The skinny: Where the outgoing Sonata announced Hyundai's arrival with design, the 2015 model's best traits go beyond skin deep. The car's solid driving dynamics, advanced infotainment options and good looks should help it regain share and continue to keep big-name competitors up at night.
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