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2018 Hyundai Sonata first drive: Finally looking the part

July 17, 2017 at 4:29 PM

Beauty is no longer merely skin deep when it comes to the 2018 Hyundai Sonata.

Last year's dowdy model has given way to a more evocative, interesting design for 2018. It's a study in restraint—both fiscal and stylistic. The 2018 Sonata's basic design dates back only a few years, to 2015. That means that this is what's known in the car industry as a "mid-cycle update."

Automakers use this as an excuse to allocate a few bucks to address minor concerns and to keep things looking fresh, but there's not enough to justify a full-scale redesign.

MORE: Read our full review of the 2018 Hyundai Sonata

That means it's even more impressive that Hyundai designers have managed to tweak things enough that the 2018 Sonata could have come from an entirely different lineage than the 2018. New front and rear bumpers add visual interest. Hyundai has taken its formerly rigid trapezoidal grille and tapered it inward toward the bottom. It's fresh, clean, and even somewhat dramatic in the way it curves. Higher-specification trim levels even feature attractive LED headlamps with a distinctive light pattern.

At the rear, Hyundai tucked the Sonata's license plate low in the bumper where it's no longer a visual distraction. That freed up some space in the center of the trunk lid to allow the brand to elegantly, and somewhat pretentiously, spread out stylized letters spelling the model's name. Tucked into the top of the brand's italicized "H" logo is a hidden button that serves as the trunk opener. An innovative, thoughtful touch. Models with the most powerful of three available 4-cylinder engines have twin tail pipes, but the wide single pipe found in most models is a little awkward.

Only the forgettable 17-inch alloy wheels fitted to most models let things down.

For most buyers, it's the new look that could lure them into showrooms. But there are some detail changes that add up to an improved overall experience.

All about the details

Most shoppers will find a carried-over 6-speed automatic and 2.4-liter, 185-horsepower 4-cylinder engine to be perfectly suitable. It's light on power with a full load or climbing large grades, but it's smooth, quiet, and perfectly adequate for the way most people drive their cars. A 2.0-liter turbo-4 rated at 245 hp is optional on Sport and Limited trim levels, and it's noticeably stronger throughout the rev range. It mates to a new 8-speed automatic and fired off smooth shifts in our brief drive, but we'll need more wheel time to really form an opinion on this gearbox.

We spent the bulk of our first drive around San Diego in a Limited with the non-turbo 4-cylinder. Its suspension is soft and its structure solid, imparting a high-end feel over rough roads. Only a little tire slap on grumbly pavement detracts, but even it is mostly kept in check. There's limited wind roar and the Sonata tracks arrow-straight at high velocities. For a highway cruiser at low-stress speeds, it's an excellent choice.

A 1.6-liter turbo-4 rated at 178 hp paired to a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission is exclusive to the Sonata Eco, a model that earns up to 37 mpg on the highway compared to 35 to 36 mpg for the 2.4-liter. We've not yet driven a 2018 with this powertrain. Plug-in hybrid and conventional hybrid versions of the 2018 Sonata are also due, but we'll have to wait to hear more about them.

READ: 2018 Subaru Crosstrek first drive: memories are made of these

Hyundai may have mostly left the Sonata's driving characteristics alone, but it did tweak its interior a bit. Some new materials improve the overall ambience and a silver trim ring now wraps around its 7.0- or 8.0-inch infotainment systems. Most models feature the smaller screen, but Sonatas with optional navigation get the upgrade to a brighter, larger display. All versions have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Integrated navigation may be well on its way to distant memory status.

Speaking of configurations, Hyundai has plenty of trim levels but few options: SE, Eco, SEL, Sport, and Limited grades are on offer. SEL's new for 2018, and it packages features like a power driver's seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, 17-inch alloy wheels, and heated front seats for around $24,000. Another $1,000 adds important safety features like automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane departure warnings. That's nice and all, but a lot of those features are now standard on key rivals like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima.

Where the Sonata will distinguish itself once again is its style. Hyundai's learned its lesson; the 2015 through 2017 Sonata was a wallflower. This modest update takes what was fundamentally a good car and should put it on many shoppers' radar just because it's so pleasantly attractive.

If you're smitten with its looks, you'll find most versions in showrooms by the end of this summer.

(c) 2017, High Gear Media.

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