The Sonata: A Forward Design with a Backward Glance

The midsize sedan segment may be down but it is far from being out. To make its midsize more appealing, Hyundai has made a “maximum refresh” for the Sonata.

A case could be made that a single car made Hyundai a contender in the U.S. market: the 2011 Sonata, the midsize car that, for years, in its earlier iterations, had seemed to have been designed with one eye firmly fixed on the Toyota Camry and the other eye on the Honda Accord, thereby coming up with a combination that was a little on the kludge side of things.

But with the “Fluidic Sculpture” design language that the ’11 spelled out in chapter and verse, the fortunes changed for the company. No longer was it all about “America’s best warranty,” but about the appearance of the Sonata.

As Mike O’Brien, Hyundai Motor America vice president of Product, Corporate and Digital Planning, points out, in 2012, when the Sonata was gaining its legs, the midsize car segment was the number-one category. With time, the vehicle has slipped from having 16.1 percent of the overall U.S. market (think of this: large pickups were at 11.5 percent) to 10.8 percent. (And, yes, the large pickup segment is in first place, as of June 2017, with 13.3 percent of the market.)

Although the midsize car market is, clearly, shrinking, O’Brien points out that today it represents sales on the order of 2.1-million units and that according to IHS Markit estimates it will be down to about 1.8-million by 2020—and O’Brien says that that is not a trivial number.

What’s more, he cites figures from Maritz that show that when midsize car owners are asked to name the type of vehicle that they’re going to buy the next time they’re in the market, “crossover” is mentioned—but a distant second to “four-door sedan.” Specifically, the sedan gets 62.9 percent and the CUV 18.9 percent. It is worth noting that when the compact CUV/SUV owners are asked about their next purchase, they, too, are architect-loyal, but in this case, it is 57.2 percent saying they’ll buy another CUV/SUV. And the four-door sedan fares between among them than the CUV/SUV among the midsize owners: 19.4 percent of the CUV/SUV owners say they’ll go for the car next time.

All of which is prelude to the 2018 Sonata. Admittedly, the ’18 is a refresh. But it is an extensive refresh of the seventh generation vehicle, which was introduced as a model year 2015 car. “We changed a lot of things about that car,” O’Brien says. For one thing, compared to the previous generation, gen seven is simply a bigger vehicle:

                            Gen Six    Gen Seven
Wheelbase:        110.0 in.    110.4 in.
Length:               189.8 in.    191.1 in.
Width:                  72.2 in.     73.4 in.
Height:                  57.9 in.     58.1 in.

For another, the sheet metal of the seventh generation, in the context of the difference between the fifth (model year 2006) and the sixth, was less expressive.

The Sonata is an important vehicle for Hyundai in the U.S., accounting for 31 percent of all of the Hyundai’s sold in the market. It is produced in the U.S., at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, in Montgomery.

O’Brien says, “One of the things that made the previous generation Sonata”—the MY 2011—“important for us is its head-turning design.” The expressiveness. He adds that the “what’s that?!” factor led to plenty of conquests. Through the first six months of 2017, the Sonata accounted for 18 percent of the company’s conquest sales, which is always important for a company. This is all the more so as the Sonata, like others in that midsize segment, is losing sales compared to 2016 (for the first six months of 2017, Sonata sales were off by 26.9 percent, so were it not for the conquests, things would have been not even that good).

Changes were made to the mechanicals of the car for 2018. Like in the steering system, where the torsion bar stiffness was increased by 21 percent (from 2.5 Nm/deg to 2.8 Nm/deg). Like in the rear suspension, where the trailing arms were made 21 percent thicker (from 2.9 mm to 3.5 mm) and ride compliance is enhanced through the replacement of a steel insert in the bushings to an aluminum insert).

There is a new transmission for the 245-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, an eight-speed that replaces a six-speed.

And while not mechanical, on the inside they redesigned the look of the instrument panel, with a greater emphasis on adding details like metal-look garnish around gauges and the standard seven-inch touchscreen and redesigning the orientation of the buttons for the HVAC and the audio (aligning them horizontally, using more of what is described as a “piano key” approach).

But O’Brien acknowledges, “We wanted to bring back the head-turning design.” So Chris Chapman, chief designer of the Hyundai Design Center in Irvine, California, went to work on reinterpreting the design for the 2018 Sonata, making what would otherwise be not much more than a midcycle refresh into something far more extensive, with sheet 
metal and polymer changes from the A-pillar forward (even extending the hood), along the sill, and around back with a new decklid and rear fascia. Chapman calls this a “maximum refresh.”

Overall, he says that what they tried to accomplish was to create a look for the vehicle that is analogous to a sprinter—but not a sprinter who is getting ready and still in the blocks, but actually one that has burst away from the blocks and is head up, with an assertive move.

In the front, he says that they worked toward “concentrating the power to the middle of the vehicle.” One way this is accomplished is through a new interpretation of Hyundai’s hexagonal grille. “We added a bit of cascade in the grille,” Chapman says, “harkening back to the fluidic sculpture, to the flow. It is like steel being poured out of a caldron.”

Around back, there is a clean appearance, with the rear spoiler integrated into the top of the decklid. The Hyundai logo is bigger, but it also integrates a soft-touch button that opens the trunk. Also enhancing the clean appearance is the positioning of the rearview camera. “The engineers wanted it high,” Chapman says. “We positioned it down where the rear license plate is. Much more inconspicuous.”

While the 2018 Sonata isn’t as conspicuous as the 2011 Sonata, in large part that’s because the 2011 changed the game. But the “maximum refresh” makes this car a strong contender.