Most days, you just want a cup of good coffee. Nothing fancy, but something better than the office Mr. Coffee. You can’t walk down most city streets today without seeing a cafe styled in exposed metal and brick, maybe with a fixie or cafe racer in the window. It can be intimidating, though, stepping in there: all those single-origin beans written on a chalkboard, people pouring water into these weird-lookin’ spouts or surrounded by steam from gleaming pipes. How do you know you won’t pick something you won’t like? You don’t want to screw it up. If all you want is a tasty cup of coffee, you’ll probably just go to Starbucks. I did.
As a kid, I wasn’t a big fan of coffee. But a 7:30 am freshman engineering class and a 5:30 am lifeguard shift left me with little option but to replace my blood with Java. I figured I might as well drink something enjoyable. At the time, the only place that consistently served tasty coffee was Starbucks.
It’s actually pretty tricky, making good coffee. Roasting the bean, grinding it, passing water through the grounds—there’s a lot of variables. Sure, you can get amazing beans from places like Intelligentsia or White Pine Roastery, and it’s so satisfying to use a Chemex or Aeropress at home. But some days, it’s just an added hassle. Also, it’s really early, you’ve had a long night and need to get to work, let’s just stop at Starbucks.
Same goes for cars.
We enthusiasts are the people at home, with burr grinders and goose-neck kettles. It’s annoying, sometimes, but it’s what we enjoy. But for every person savoring the vibrant notes of a Miata, there’s at least ten who just want to chug a 2016 Hyundai Sonata. Because while reliable, consistent quality may not be exciting, it’s still a worthy accomplishment.
[Full disclosure: Hyundai wanted me to drive this car so bad I rented it from Hertz while my Miata was in the repair shop.]
Design disclaimer 1: I read Robert Cumberford’s design analyses in Automobile much like my mother reads her espresso machine’s manual—I can read the words, but zero comprehension.
Design disclaimer 2: I like the Lexus grille.
Keeping those things in mind, the best thing I can say about the Sonata’s exterior is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.
I’m not calling the car I drove ugly, by any means. The lines are solid and sharp. The grill is a comforting, stately slab of metal. I especially like the curving, fluid details of the headlights. And, as you’ll see in a moment, the thin pillars make for excellent visibility.
But it’s bland. Forgettable, especially in this bluish steely silver mine which blends perfectly with the Michigan winter sky. This car’s design isn’t busy, or fussy (like many describe a certain Honda), but it’s too simple and generic.
Simplicity can be a boon. Many designs survive because of it. Constantin Brancusi’s Golden Bird, for instance, or the sandwich. I get the feeling people could be driving the 2016 Sonata for quite a few years, and it wouldn’t look terribly dated. I also feel like Hyundai did that on purpose.
On the other hand, there’s nothing exciting about the Sonata. It isn’t attractive, but it also isn’t unattractive. When I walked up to it, my heart rate didn’t increase, I didn’t have an extra bounce in my step. I didn’t even feel disgusted, or morose. I was just glad to have personal transportation. The Sonata just...blends in. I’m annoyed, but I can’t be too annoyed, because again, an inoffensive design was what Hyundai wanted.
The one real gripe I have about the exterior—besides its intentional lack of energy—is how high the window sills are. From the outside, they don’t seem out of place; many new cars have high sills. But on the inside, it’s a different story.
I will freely admit that my biggest issue with the interior comes from the fact that I daily-drive an NB Miata. However, it’s an issue that crops up when modern cars are reviewed.
I can’t tell where the hood ends. The dashboard and sills are so tall, and I’m far back enough from the windshield, that it’s tough to gauge how close I am to the crossover I’m parking next to at Kroger. But I’ll get back to this when I start driving.
Apart from the sills, though, it’s tough to really find faults in the Sonata’s interior. With the latest models starting at $21,950, I wasn’t expecting open-pore, 100-year-old wood, but I was pleasantly surprised by the materials and design. The car’s exterior is simple, but too blah; the interior, on the other hand, is much more stylish. The center console doesn’t feel cluttered, and all the buttons and gauges are clean, crisp, and easy to read. I also like how the car’s interior looks at night, lit up in blue.
Yes, there are some hard plastics here and there. One of the door trim pieces, some of the trim around the radio display, and the silver-colored pieces on the center consoles. But the rest of the dash features soft-touch plastics that have a quiet, dignified quality about them.
Behind one of those silver pieces is a storage pocket with a USB port, an auxiliary input, and two 120-volt charging ports. The space isn’t terribly large, but I was able to plug in my Galaxy S8 and close the cover to hide both phone and cable. The hinges were smooth and quiet, the cover latching with a softly satisfying click. And, in a welcome touch, both the auxiliary input’s and USB port’s outlines light up when you turn on the headlights.
In fact, the Sonata’s interior is full of neat little touches that show just how far Hyundai has progressed in interior design. When you shift out of Park, you hear a distinct click. There are little lights above the sun visor mirrors that only turn on when the mirror cover slides open. The rear passengers have their own 120-volt charging port. The doors have red lamps that illuminate your surroundings when the doors are open. Even the key slot has an illuminated ring around it. Then there’s the digital display nestled in-between the gauges.
This display is one of the Sonata’s neatest features. Every time you open the doors or the trunk, the screen shows a full-color mini-Sonata with that same door open. After you’ve turned the car on, you’re able to choose what kind of information you’d like to have appear from one of four sub-menus: a normal mix of trip information, average fuel efficiency, and current speed; a tire pressure read-out; a music info display; and finally, a menu from which you can customize various vehicle settings, like the announcement chimes. In addition, every time you change your wiper speed or switch your headlight mode, the mini-screen will display which speed/mode of those available has been selected.
All of these sub-menus are accessed via the steering wheel controls; the wheel also houses the buttons and switches for the Bluetooth and cruise control. I don’t miss many modern features in my NB, but I do miss the ability to change radio stations and volume without having to take my hands off the wheel. I like how Hyundai put the button for the gauge display screen’s menu-cycling on the wheel, instead of at the end of the light stalk like Chevy did in the Sonic. It’s a small, well-thought touch that makes accessing relevant information easier for the driver.
I might’ve had to use the Force to drive into parking spaces, but I didn’t have to reach out with my feelings when I had to back out. Unlike the Sonic I reviewed a few months ago, the Sonata’s pillars are fairly thin, which makes the whole car much easier to see out of; the 2017 SE’s (base trim) standard rear-view camera should make it even easier.
This may be another quirk from driving my NB, but the whole cabin felt very airy, with great visibility. I never lacked for headroom, and unless you’re Shaq’s Lyft driver, you won’t hear any complaints of squashed knees from backseat passengers.
But if they do complain, there’s always the cavernous trunk.
Seriously, I may have found the perfect car for someone trying to ditch the bodies from a crime scene. Who’d suspect a Sonata driver of hiding anything?
Admittedly, my expectations may have been a touch low. I hadn’t realized how competitive the sub-$25,000 segment was, or how far Hyundai had come in the past few years. I drove an Accent two years ago, which wasn’t bad by any means, so I should’ve expected materials and design a level above that. The Sonata’s cabin will never be a Bentley or Lexus rival, but for $20-25,000, it’s some good stuff. Like the exterior, there’s nothing that particularly stands out; instead, it feels like Hyundai set out to make a well-executed, quality interior that wouldn’t disappoint. The Pikes Peak Blend of interiors.
Considering that, as well as the Sonata’s price-point, the few remaining faults I noticed were basically nitpicks. The steering wheel rim could be a little thicker. Also, when changing the intermittent wiper speed, there’s a little bar that appears in the display which ticks down from shortest-to-longest interval; the rest of the wiper speeds follow a similar bar, but in reverse. Yes, I recognize this is ridiculously specific, but again, nitpicks.
Speaking of ridiculously specific, you can’t access the individual settings in the settings sub-menu on the gauge display screen if you aren’t in Park. From a safety standpoint, this makes sense. But, if you’re going to block access to it when the car isn’t parked, why not just remove that sub-menu from the display entirely? This seems like something that could be solved with a few lines of code.
What could also be solved with some additional coding is the radio display. You can change the station as well as input source with several dedicated buttons—as well as turn off the display entirely—but the title of the song playing on the radio isn’t displayed. Weirdly, that doesn’t happen when you play a CD. My 07 Sentra could display song info from the radio station, so why can’t a new Sonata? Thankfully, this seems to be a case of “rental spec”: the 2016 Sonata had a standard full-color display, with the 2017 model adding Android Auto & Apple CarPlay on top of it.
But why does a mid-size sedan like this have a Drive Mode button?
Driving the Damn Thing
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata I drove, like the 2017 model currently on sale, had a 2.4L four-cylinder, making 185 hp and 178 lb-ft, matched with a six-speed automatic transmission. Both suited this car’s mission very well.
While I couldn’t verify the 7.8 second 0-60 run recorded by Motor Trend for the 2015 Sonata—and I strongly suspect the actual numerical value would be of little interest to many of the car’s buyers—this car could definitely keep up with Woodward Avenue traffic. Revving it past 3000 RPM, it actually pushed me back in my seat a little. And that was in Normal, one of the three modes—along with Eco and Sport—that can be called on via the Drive Mode button.
But because you have to rev it a bit to get decent power, and because I was taught to drive by a man with a lead foot, my observed mileage was quite a bit worse than the EPA’s rating. I drove 125 miles, roughly 85% of those being off the highway, and re-filled the tank with exactly 6.5 gallons. That works out to 19.2 mpg; the EPA rates the 2016 Sonata at 25 mpg city & 38 mpg highway. Although the lack of fuel efficiency is dis-heartening, if not unsurprising, the accuracy of Sonata’s measurements was a pleasant surprise. When you turn the car off, the gauge screen briefly displays your trip distance, the average fuel efficiency during your trip, and range left. The Sonata gave me an average fuel efficiency of 19 mpg, only a 1% difference from the observed efficiency.
I tested Eco Mode briefly, and the car spit out a fuel efficiency of 20.4 mpg during mostly city driving. Obviously, your mileage will differ, but this does suggest Eco Mode has some tangible benefit.
Those benefits don’t carry over to the the driving experience, though.
The best part about Starbucks coffee is that it’s never explicitly bad. The worst part is that it’s rarely amazing. Such is the Hyundai Sonata.
While I am a devout member of the Cult of the Clutch, a manual wouldn’t match well with the Sonata’s intended audience or mission. It’s meant to be a reliable, mildly upscale commuter car. The six-speed auto fulfills its role perfectly. It’s programmed mainly for efficiency, but it won’t relentlessly up-shift in Normal mode. The shifts aren’t dazzlingly quick, but they aren’t glacially slow, either. What they are, is smooth. This is one of the most polished-feeling transmissions I’ve ever encountered in a car at this price. You literally can’t feel it shift. It may not be exciting, but it definitely adds to the level of perceived refinement.
The ride quality also helps. Hyundai approached Lotus Engineering a few years ago for some pointers on giving the Genesis a premium ride, and I’d say those lessons have been well-applied. Even over Metro Detroit’s crater-marked roads, I rarely heard any suspension impacts. The Sonata is well-dampened, especially for a commuter car. Dare I say it, it’s kind of taut. It makes the car feel up-scale, more precise than it actually is. It may be a bit on the stiff side for some people, but it definitely isn’t uncomfortable.
Sadly, the engine isn’t quite as refined. Oh, it’s nowhere near as thrashy as the Chevy Sonic’s engine, or even the Accent’s, but revving for more power also leads to moaning from the engine bay (with a hint of coarseness, it must be said). I say “moaning” because you can barely hear the engine from inside the car. You can hear when you get back on the gas, but it’s just this vaguely white-noise sound. The cabin as a whole is a fairly serene space, broken only by tire noise (noticeable, but not necessarily annoying), as well as random rattles and squeaks from some of the interior trim.
My car may’ve been a rental, but it’d only done about 24k miles. And yet, the passenger-side A-pillar rumbled, especially when I passed a truck or over rough roads. There was also a weird hum coming from the steering column. I thought it might’ve been the keyless entry remote rattling, but that wasn’t it. It seemed to occur most often when I braked slowly to a stop, but not always.
The brakes themselves were a bit of a mixed bag. They weren’t as grabby as the Sonic’s, but modulation was difficult at first because there’s little to no feedback from the brake pedal (courtesy of modern brake systems). Like learning how to make a good espresso, it takes some time to be delicate with the brakes. Your first few days with the car will probably find you in some overly-dramatic stops.
The steering wheel could’ve used some of that espresso. The steering is...well, the Sonata’s a modern sedan, which means steering effort is fairly light, and the wheel provides as much useful feedback as the average Steam review. You can tell the wheel’s connected to something, and that’s about it. That’s part of the reason turning into parking spaces was so nerve-wracking.
You also can’t feel any torque steer. No, this car isn’t particularly powerful, but even at full-crank on snowy side-roads, when the traction control light flickered, the steering wheel divulged no secrets and provided no resistance.
Pressing the Drive Mode button improved it. Slightly.
Eco Mode, not surprisingly, dampens the throttle response and tells the transmission to upshift sooner and slightly quicker. It makes the car feel even smoother. Sport Mode, predictably, does the opposite: slightly sharper throttle, and you can hang on lower gears. The steering is also affected, getting heavier and stiffer in Sport Mode (weirdly, Eco Mode also has slightly heavier steering). But feedback remains an elusive quarry.
But hunting corners isn’t this car’s game. Think of that Drive Mode button as the special ingredients Lindt adds to their chocolate. Sport being chili pepper, and Eco is...sea salt, maybe? Anyway, the different modes just highlight different aspects of the car, rather than transforming it into something else. The Sonata is still good chocolate on its own. But as tasty a stocking stuffer as Lindt chocolate is, I don’t scour grocery store shelves looking for it.
Having bought my parents an espresso machine last year, I wanted to make some for my mom when I visited for Thanksgiving. She asked me to use these “espresso grind”, dark-roasted beans someone had given her, and against my better judgement, I agreed. I poured her a cup, and decided to see what it tasted like. Half a second later, I was pouring down the kitchen drain.
It tasted almost like drinking liquid charcoal. There was more of it in my parents’ drip machine. Took a sip—same thing. I wondered aloud if maybe the beans had been burnt during roasting, and my mother asked, “Is something wrong with the coffee?”
My parents just aren’t into coffee. My pretentious pour-over ass isn’t going to convert them. My dad drinks several cups of it a day, but as long as it perks him up and he can add some half-and-half & sugar to it, it doesn’t matter what it is. Same thing for my mom. So, when they want their caffeine a little more upscale, they go to Starbucks.
And that’s the appeal of the Sonata. It was designed to be the perfect commuter car, refined and unobtrusive. I bemoaned the lack of feedback in the Chevy Sonic, but it isn’t as annoying in the Hyundai Sonata (the poor fuel economy is, though). The Sonic felt like it was marketed as a grown-up mild hatch, and its flaws just let it down. The Sonata, on the other hand, feels like Hyundai was deliberately going for a pleasant sedan that didn’t break the bank, and they nailed it.
Obviously, the Sonata isn’t a car I’d recommend for a car enthusiast; not everyone prefers the intensity of espresso. There is some hope, though: the Kia Stinger has shown that Hyundai is beginning to take driving dynamics more seriously. Kind of like how Starbucks has begun opening up a series of Reserve Bars, filled with all the copper, exposed tubing, and Mid-Century Modern wooden design a hipster could want. There’s a cup of
tea coffee for everyone.