From several angles, the Hyundai Sonata could be mistaken for a Lexus luxury sedan, or even a Mercedes-Benz, except for the flying H logos, of course. The similarity says something about the styling department's intentions with Hyundai's most popular sedan.
The Sonata is marketed as a mid-size, but its exterior dimensions push the larger limit compared to the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. Indeed, measured by total enclosed space, the Sonata sneaks in at the bottom of the government's large-sedan class.
Hyundai's designers throw around phrases like "fluidic sculpture design language" and "monoform side profile" in describing the Sonata's styling. They say their goal was a car that won't be mistaken for any other. Our phrase for Sonata's look might be "a bit busy." That doesn't mean it's not striking or pleasant, because it's both, and the fact that it's modeled after more expensive luxury sedans might be a good thing. It's just that the Sonata is not necessarily unique, and it's not as clean or sleek as the Kia Optima sedan, which shares its basic structure.
The front end on most Sonata models has a pinched nose look echoing the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Sculpted creases flow forward and inward from the A-pillars (the windshield's side frames), drawing the eye to the grin like grille and outsized Hyundai logo. Headlight housings start at the outer edges of the grille and wrap around the front fenders beyond the leading arch of the wheelwell, visually minimizing the front overhang. The lower fascia sports a wide mouth air intake flanked by squinting recesses for fog lights. The grille is body colored on the base GLS, and dark chrome on the SE and Limited.
The Hybrid's front end shows much of the same shapes and sculpting, but gets an entirely different and quite striking grille treatment, with an oversized, hexagonal opening split by an oversized horizontal bar. Hyundai wants everyone to know that this Sonata is something special. The Hybrid's headlights make a similar statement, highlighted with a string of LED running lights laced around the projector beam lenses.
The side view of the Sonata shows three sharply defined character lines below the roof. The roof itself tracks though a severely raked windshield and rear window and into a short trunk lid, minimizing the car's visual mass. The highlight is a chrome strip that starts at the headlight housing and runs along the car's beltline (where the side windows meet the door panels) all the way to the rearmost tip of the rear quarter glass. Below this is a knife edge crease sweeping up from the front quarter panel through the door handles, finishing as an eyebrow for the taillight housings.
Another knife edge crease cuts across the bottom of the doors just above the rocker panels, before leapfrogging the rear wheelwells to melt into the rear bumper. On the Hybrid, a chrome strip accents this crease. All three tire sizes fill perfectly circular wheelwells, giving the Sonata a balanced front to rear proportion.
The rear view might be Sonata's cleanest and best. It's an elegant look, with understated taillights, a minimalist chrome bar topping the license plate indent and a lower bumper element that mirrors the front fascia, down to reflectors framed to match the front fog lights.
In back, too, are details distinguishing different models. The SE sports a single, twin tip exhaust outlet. The Hybrid's taillights are intricately designed, with a pattern that looks something like electrons looping around an atom's nucleus.
Inside the Sonata, the general impact is more toward a luxury look and feel than the cost consciousness of Hyundais past. A re-alignment of features for 2013 means that all Sonatas feature Bluetooth telephone connectivity, while all but the base GLS come standard with heated front seats. The navigation system features a new, high-resolution WVGA touchscreen for 2013.
Our first impression of the interior is much like that of the exterior: busy. But then the swoops and angles and different textures begin to come together, and even more successfully than the sculpted, borderline over stylized exterior design.
The standard, metal-like plastic trim is muted, graceful and pleasing. The understated textured dash material kills daytime glare but still gives the surface some depth. The bottom of the line GLS has hard plastic door panels, but all other models get soft vinyl inserts that look like leather. Faux wood grain accents in the Limited are glossy but positioned in ways that ensure minimal distraction. Our favorite is the glossy black trim in Limited models with dark interiors, which looks like genuine piano-lacquered wood. Seats are comfortable with adequate bolsters, especially given the Sonata doesn't invite rambunctious motoring; its less-aggressive bolsters make getting in and out easier. An electric air bladder spreads the added lumbar support over a wide area, adding immeasurably to the comfort level. The cloth seat coverings feel and look durable. The optional leather is neither too slippery nor too supple, but it feels as if it would be cold in winter and clammy in summer. In a Goldilocks sort of way, the leather/cloth combo in the sporty Sonata SE combines the best of both.
The steering wheel has the right heft, as does the shift knob and both are covered with leather on all but the base model. The Shiftronic manual-shift slot is properly located on the driver's side of the shift gate. Oddly, the ignition key on the Sonata GLS is in the steering column, while the Start/Stop button on the Sonata SE and Limited is in the traditional place, on the lower dash to the right of the steering column. We think the ideal arrangement would be an ignition key on the dash.
Instruments are tastefully done and easy to read with a glance, save for bright sunny days when the hood fails to shield the bottom half of the tachometer and speedometer housings. The buttons and knobs populating the center stack of all three trim levels clearly communicate their function and are spaced properly for ease of use. The optional rearview camera's guidelines bend as the steering wheel turns, a very useful tweak that some high end sedans still lack.
Hyundai offers three sound systems in the Sonata. The base system has the usual multi media capabilities and six speakers and pumps out respectable sounds. The premium system wears the Infinity brand, adding a six disc changer (unless the nav system is chosen) and transmitting its entertainment through an Infinity speaker array with subwoofer and external amplifier. The sounds reflect the premium label, with crisp highs and lows and mellow intermediates.
Where the Sonata breaks new ground is with its mid grade system, adding an off-brand subwoofer and amplifier that boosts output to 360 watts. The clarity of its sound doesn't quite equal the Infinity's, but probably only to an unrepentant audiophile's ears. As for volume, it's easily a match. If you don't want to spring for the Infinity system, the mid-grade is a great compromise.
There's ample storage for carpooling or for long vacation drives. Every door has a map pocket with a molded in cup/bottle holder. The center console boasts two receptacles, as does the rear seat's fold down center armrest. That front console is a bi level unit, with a shallow bin directly under the lid and a deeper bin below that. There's a drop down bin in the base of the center stack for odds and ends. The glove box, while not notably spacious, will hold a few maps along with the owner's manual, and its door is damped with a little shock absorber, luxury-car style.
Rear passenger space? Compared to other sedans in this class, only the Honda Accord has more rear headroom than Sonata. The Sonata's front-seat legroom bests all in the class, but the payback is reduced rear-seat legroom. Here it comes in last, by almost four inches against the Toyota Camry, three inches against the Chevrolet Malibu and more than two inches against the Ford Fusion. The concaved backs of the front seats help some in providing vital knee room, but people long of leg will notice. In hiproom the Sonata effectively splits the difference with the others, trailing the Accord and the Altima and coming in ahead of the Camry, the Fusion and the Malibu. In short, the Sonata is great for long-legged drivers, but it's not so good for long-legged back-seat riders.
The Sonata's trunk, at 16.4 cubic feet, is the largest in the class save for the Ford Fusion's (inconsequentially larger at 16.5 cu. ft.). The trunk opening, however, is cramped, due to the abbreviated trunk lid dimensions necessitated by the stylists' craving for that sporty, long hood/short rear deck proportion. And the Sonata Hybrid's expansive battery pack reduces trunk volume to 10.7 cu. ft., compared to 11.8 in the Fusion Hybrid.