2013 Hyundai Sonata- The Underdog Strikes Back

DSCI0138Maybe it’s a personal preference, but I’ve always had an affinity for the underdog.  You know, the guy that has all the odds against them- who will more than likely walk away in shame and defeat.  I cheered when the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in 2004.  Was overjoyed when the little engine that could…. really could.  And cried when Urkel went to the prom with the love of his life, Laura Winslow.  Okay, maybe I didn’t react to any of those events (would I really confess to it if I did?), but I’ll admit to always having a soft spot for Hyundai.  The spunky Korean automaker that arrived on US shores in 1986 with affordable and cheery little cars that were cheap as chips but later garnered a reputation of bad quality.  The perceived quality was so bad that Hyundai almost fled out of the US market.  Unlike other automakers in similar situations, such as Alfa Romeo, Yugo, and Fiat, Hyundai tenaciously clung on and offered improved products and generous warranties to qualm any reliability fears.

DSCI0130This website tries not to be biased, but being the owner of two trouble-free Hyundais in the past, I can’t but help have some rapport with the manufacturer.  I took a chance on Hyundai back when they were still the butt of jokes on late night TV, and my risk paid off.  They turned out to be solid, if not somewhat bland, vehicles.  Any company, or anybody for that matter, that perseveres against all odds deserves my respect.  And to be honest, the Hyundai’s of old weren’t great, but they weren’t any worse than the small cars coming from Detroit at that time (think Dodge Shadow, or Chevy Cavalier…enough said)

Ohio 014The car you see here is the Sonata, Hyundai’s bread and butter model.  This bodystyle was introduced in 2010 and was the defining chapter of when Hyundai became a desirable brand to many who had never considered a Korean brand.  The original Sonata was introduced in 1989 as a value packed alternative to the Camry and Accord of the time.  The flavors were a bit off, and it lacked the finesse of those Japanese cars, but it was an amazing value compared to them.  It’s similar to the tactic used by the Japanese themselves- initially selling mediocre cars for less money than the Americans and improving quality as time passed.  Now the Koreans are following suit and the Sonata is on the radars of many midsize car buyers, and not just because of price.

DSCI0136The styling of the Sonata is what initially grabbed much attention.  The midsize segment is full of bland appliances with no soul, no passion…. and this car was the first daring design in the field since the 2002 Nissan Altima.  The coupe like profile does mimic the Mercedes CLS with its arching beltline and low-slung roof finished off by a short decklid.  This Sonata also introduced Hyundai’s latest styling theme, DSCI0132fluidic sculpture, which hints at the shapes being formed by the forces of water.  Indeed, the sheetmetal of the car is peppered with swoops and curves that seemed alien in the family car market three years ago.  Overall, it’s still an eye-catching and sexy design even though there are a few odd details.  The large, wavy grill is a little overdone, but luckily ours lacked the chDSCI0142rome trimmed snoz on higher level Sonatas, which makes it seem even more gaudy.  And the chrome strip running on the seam between the hood and front fender seemed like an afterthought and continually fooled me into thinking that the bonnet wasn’t fully closed.  Oddities aside, it is a brave, intrepid design and looks more expensive than it is (we’ll get to that later).

Ohio 001The adventurous theme continues inside- where the Sonata has a pleasing blend of futuristic shapes and common logic.  The  instrument gauge binnacles pop out from the dash like Walle’s eyes and the center stack is brimming with modern contours and textures.  Ventilation controls are straightforward and features what I have hailed the human shaped button as “ventilation man.”  It’s a Ohio 002replica of the one used in numerous Volvos for the past decade.  Not only is it ergonomic and tidys up the controls, but also makes for a good conversation starter.  It is a unique feature and the air flow through the vents is controlled by him.  Unlike the Volvos which have separated portions of his body to direct air to the feet and head, he is one individual button on the Sonata and it was a letdown to know that his Ohio 019head is just a decoration- it doesn’t operate anything.  Oh well, the Hyundai costs significantly less than the Volvos and ventilation man is still easy to use and a creative idea from the norm.  Radio controls are also simple to operate with twist knobs for the volume and tuning, and have a large, easy to read font on the display.  As with most Hyundai’s, the buttons are backlit in a very attractive and soothing blue.

Ohio 010Gauges are crisp and easy to read and the center info display between the pods informs the driver of fuel economy and other stats.  It also puts on a nice welcoming presentation during the start-up of the car.  The steering tilts and telescopes and has intuitive buttons for the cruise and audio that also light up at night.  It seems like Hyundai does pay attention to the little details like this- the Ohio 005blinkers are of the European variety and will flash three times if the turn stalk is brushed during lane changes, and the glove box opens gently with dampers and has sufficient lighting.  The overall build quality is tight and solid, and no pieces felt loose.  Plastics and textures on the dash top and center stack are soft touch and high-quality, although the bottom cowl of the dash has a cheaper and courser surface.  With dual level storage bins in the console, deep door pockets, a storage bin at the base of the stack along with AUX inlets, and generously sized cupholders both front and rear, there are plenty of cubbies to store all of your knick knacks.

Ohio 004When it comes to storing people, the Sonata is impressive.  Front leg room is amazing- I found myself, with my 6’4” frame, having to pull my seat forward a few notches to reach the pedals and steering wheel.  My equally tall fiance, who rode shotgun in the front seat, exclaimed that they couldn’t remember beig able extend their legs all the way out in a car since they were a kid.  And even with the seats all the way back, rear Ohio 011leg room was identically impressive.  There is tons of knee and leg room back there as well.  Front head room is sufficient, but due to the slopping rear roof line, taller passengers in the back seat could bump their noggins on the headliner.  Given the Sonata’s swoopy style and high beltline, it was surprising to find that the cabin was airy Ohio 012and with the exception of children in the rear seat, passengers will have a clear view around them.  Some other family cars, like the Chevy Malibu, have similar rising beltlines but seem claustrophobic in comparison.  Visibility for the driver was decent all around although the rear quarter windows are so small that they are rendered useless.  It’s another victim of style over functionality.  Regardless, parking was easy even though backing up could become a guessing game.  Thanks to wide swinging doors and commodious openings, entry and exit were easy front and rear.

Ohio 006Cargo volume is generous at 16.4 cu. ft., more than the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, or Nissan Altima, and the trunk is well-shaped and usable.  The opening is also large and the liftover is low to assist during loading.  However, the trunk hinges are the old-fashioned gooseneck variety and could crush larger bags when the lid is closed.  The seats do fold down 60/40, but the releases are in the trunk and the seats must be folded Ohio 013from within the cabin.  Having the releases within reach of the back seats would be more convenient.  The seats fold almost perfectly flat, but the pass through from the trunk is small and larger bags and suitcases may not fit.  Be sure to check it if you carry lots of gear, as it impedes on the usefulness of the folding seats. Unlike many Hyundai sedans, the Sonata does come with a spare tire under the cargo floor.

Ohio 008The Sonata is one of a crop of new family sedans that are offered solely with four-cylinders with no V6’s available.  Our GLS trim vehicle was equipped with the base engine- a 2.4 liter DOHC unit that puts out 190 horsepower (Sonatas that don’t call California home come with 198 horsies but lose their partial-zero emission moniker).  Like the recent Ford EcoBoost offerings, this motor has direct injection- which pressures the gasoline to a higher level and, opposed to a multi-port injection system, delivers the fuel to all of the combustion chambers via one common rail.  The end results are higher power ratings and fuel economy. True to its promise, the base Sonata felt quick for a family sedan.  While not exhilarating, the car did carry itself around with some authority and never felt strained on freeway onramps or climbing the steep mountain grades of Southern California.  At times it felt downright energetic and more power was always on tap whenever needed.  Engine noise was apparent under acceleration but the cabin remained quiet for the most part while cruising or on city streets.   For those wanting more power, there is a turbo-charged 2.0 liter, producing 274 horsepower.

DSCI0143Getting the power to the front wheels is a six-speed automatic.  For 2013, Hyundai has discontinued manual transmissions on the Sonata, leaving the six speed auto as the only choice on any trim.  It’s a good unit, with smooth shifts that are well-timed and mostly transparent.  Strangely, unlike some other fuel economy minded transaxles from other makers, this automatic tends to cling onto the lower gears longer than expected when passing, and did sometimes refuse to downshift when climbing hills.  The manumatic feature makes up for the deficiencies somewhat and can be fun to use.

The four-wheel independent suspension with multilink rear setup offers a ride that is absorbent and soaks up bumps well without feeling floaty.  Highway cruising was comfortable and the body isn’t jarred by larger bumps on rough roads.  It’s a competent setup.

DSCI0144The steering may very well be the Sonata’s weak spot.  The electric power steering replaced the traditional hydraulic arrangement with the last redesign, and Hyundai still needs to work on tuning it.  There is no communication to the driver and it feels as though the steering wheel is connected to  soggy English tea bags.  It just feels lifeless and doesn’t seem accurate or confidence inspiring.  Ford has proven, in its Focus and several other models, that electric power steering can indeed be sporty and fun.  There is still hope, but to be honest, most people who use the Sonata for its intended purpose, as a family hauler, won’t probably mind.

DSCI0133Once the driver adjusts to the comatose steering feedback. the handling itself isn’t that bad.  The Sonata felt stable and didn’t lean too much in turns.  The grip was sure-footed and it felt safe and predictable through some sharp corners in the mountains north of LA.  It was just a matter of getting enough confidence to push past the numb feel of the steering wheel.

DSCI0141The EPA rates the Sonata 2.4 liter at 24mpg city and 35 mpg highway. We blew past those numbers and acheived an incredible 38mpg on a flat 100 mile highway run and averaged 32mpg in a mix of city, highway, and mountain driving.  Those are outstanding results, for a large family sedan and were similar to the Nissan Altima that was tested last year.

Our Sonata had 3k miles on it and there were no creaks, rattles, or defects.  It felt solid and well-built.

Ohio 003Bargains have always been a Hyundai specialty and the Sonata is no exception.  The base price for a GLS model is $20,995, or about $600 less than the cheapest Accord and $1250 than the most affordable Camry.  And it’s well equipped with 16-inch steel wheels, keyless entry, air-conditioning, cruise control, full power accessories, heated mirrors, a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, a 60/40-split rear seatback, a trip DSCI0145computer, Bluetooth and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio, an iPod/USB audio interface and an auxiliary audio jack.  Our test car had no options and once the destination was added  the total MSRP on our shimmering white Sonata was $21,790.  For a base model, it didn’t feel spartan or bargain basement.  A comparably equipped Camry would be over $23,000 and satellite radio is only available on the EX-L trim on the Accord, which pushes it up to $27,995.  Throw in Hyundai’s infamous 10 year powertrain warranty and the Sonata comes across as a stellar deal.

DSCI0140There’s no doubt that the Sonata is one of my favorite family sedans, along with the Nissan Altima and now-deceased Suzuki Kizashi.  It does everything a family sedan should- being very roomy, easy to drive, and most of all, easy to live with.  And it does so while turning heads, saving gas, and protecting the family budget.    Unlike prior Sonatas, it’s not a car that you feel you must buy based on price, it’s a car that you want Ohio 009to buy regardless of the price.  If  the steering issues could be resolved along with some other little niggles, like rear headroom and cargo versatility, it would otherwise be perfect.  But this Sonata comes darn close, and deserves a dignified score of 4.5/5.0 boomerangs.   Well done underdog, well done.

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