No one said upward mobility was the answer to all your problems.
Back in the Middle Ages when feudalism was the dominating social construct, warring kings settled disputes by marrying their children off to another king's kids. Nobody could have predicted that in 2018, auto giants like BMW and Hyundai would use a similar tactic to improve brand quality. It’s not that these two starkly different automakers want to form a partnership, that would be weird, but Hyundai has showcased its desire to raise its standards by mixing designers and engineers from BMW into its staff.
Unless you’ve managed to stay under a tinfoil hat and avoid the spell of brand marketing, you probably know BMW has a reputation for building top-of-the-line vehicles that would rather meet a crusher before being called cheap. Hyundai, on the other hand, may as well be known for the opposite but has decided to improve its standing by kidnapping BMW workers. There is, however, a method to the Korean automaker’s employee-poaching madness, and it all starts to make sense behind the wheel of the 2018 Sonata. At least that's what we gathered when we borrowed a Phantom Black Sonata from Hyundai for a week of driving through the subtle chill of an Arizona November.
We were in town this time of year for a wedding, so it was a good thing Hyundai’s yearning for the respect of luxury-seekers made it to the Sonata’s formal-looking facelift. On the exterior, not much has changed between the A-pillars and C-pillars but that only underscores how resourceful Hyundai’s design team was in order to accomplish such major visual overhauls without adding too much complication or expense. A sizable hexagonal grille gives metallic elements a larger stake of the front end and is enhanced by a large sliver of silver running the length of the bumper lip and underlining two side inlets that house LED daytime running lights.
Above those are new headlight designs that steal an observer’s eye before their attention shifts to the muscular lines of the reshaped hood. Hyundai used the same formula at the rear, pasting a new bumper, taillights, and a resculpted trunk lid to the Sonata’s badonkadonk. As a rolling billboard for Hyundai’s fresh design philosophy, stylists wanted to make sure those stuck behind the Sonata in traffic knew exactly what it was. Large letters spelling the Sonata name are glued onto the trunk lid and sit under a large Hyundai badge to solve that problem, which forces the license plate to take a new seat on the bumper.
Along with shiny brand lettering, a chrome lip on the rear bumper visually ties together the two metallic exhaust tips, though don’t think those were put in place because the engine needs large nostrils to breathe. For 2018, Hyundai gave our Eco-trimmed sedan the title of being the exclusive bearer of the Sonata's 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-four. That relegates the 2.4-liter inline-four to the SE, SEL (a new midrange trim level), Sport, and Limited models and leaves the top range Limited 2.0T+ as the singular owner of the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Owners of the 2.4-liter Sonata get a six-speed automatic transmission while an extra-special eight-speed auto is reserved for those who purchase the 2.0-liter turbo.
Possessing the most environmentally-friendly engine in the lineup, our Sonata Eco gets a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission to tease out more fuel economy. It fires shifts off quickly, relying on imperceptibility to convey smoothness. After digesting the exterior’s facelift and an interior that’s been updated with a three-spoke steering wheel and high-quality, visually-appealing materials for the new center stack, it is the human-machine interaction with that transmission that uncovers the next hint that Hyundai is serious about changing the way the public perceives its cars. Grip the shift knob and it responds with an affirming handshake that can only mean one thing: someone lost sleep obsessing over how shifting from Park to Drive feels like.
The engine’s 178 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque won't send the 16-inch alloy wheels up front shrieking, but the at least the seven-speed delivers upshifts that can make an engaged driver wish for paddle shifters (the Limited 2.0T+ has those). Throw a perpetually late human into the driver’s seat who knows a thing or two about drive modes and apexes and happens to be late to a tuxedo fitting where he’ll be joined by judgmental friends from his high school years and you’ll quickly encounter a chassis that kills the mood. Blame the comfort-oriented ride for that. Obviously the Sonata Eco will not be in throttle response-killing and high gear-seeking Eco mode during such a scenario.
Comfort mode will not suffice either, but at least Sport mode gets with it and shifts hard to reveal somewhat adequate acceleration—this thing does have a combined EPA mileage rating of 31 MPG. In Smart Mode, the car tries to guess what mode it should be in based on how the driver behaves with the throttle. Using it removes the awkward step of having to put the car into Sport mode when an itchy lead foot combines with aggressive music and a slow car in front—which makes us wonder why a setting like this isn’t in all cars with variable drive modes. Drive modes aside, it’s the comfort-oriented suspension, ever-present body roll, and feedback-free steering that destroyed dynamics during our week driving the Sonata Eco.
On the bright side, the smooth ride soaked up bumps on eroding roads and eased s headache during the morning after the bachelor party. In fact, it’s plausible to spend an entire hangover without considering an Advil buffet thanks to the quiet cabin and the Hyundai-Kia joint venture that resulted in the Sonata’s intuitive and non-infuriating infotainment system. It wasn’t just Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility that made frantic phone calls and text messages between groom and tardy groomsman a breeze, the 7-inch touchscreen also allows for fast switching between satellite radio settings to Apple Maps. Having these tools on hand made a stressful week easy.
But like a rented tuxedo, there was always the feeling that something was missing from the Sonata. Look in the $23,535 price tag and you’ll find it: the fact that small money only goes so far because when you buy an inexpensive ticket and take the ride, the thrift will show up somewhere along the way. As tactfully as the Sonata can pull off comfort—smooth ride, metal buttons, the whole shebang—that thrift shows up in its lack of soul. Somewhere, the Sonata’s personality was crushed so it could fit into a costume that’s more widely accepted by society. It shows up most in the seats. Nothing wrong with cloth seats—they’re preferable to leather once winter months vaporize and heat eagerly huddles in hide waiting to assault bare skin.
But the fact that everything aft of the center stack is reminiscent of, well, a $23,000 car, makes the seats stand out and allows them to become the blade that pops the bubble of illusory confidence. Better seats wouldn’t have changed a thing. Without sounding classist—severe wealth inequality is a terrible thing to further stratify, even on the philosophical level— but the Sonata does not stick to its ranks. It reemploys a willy-nilly personality that rolls over to expose its belly when a lawyer’s BMW is on its tail, and giving it a tux only makes it feel more submissive and less like a rebel who knows their roots. You could let that deter you, or you could stop analyzing cars as deeply as us nerds and enjoy the fact such a high level of comfort can be had on a car this cheap.