July 24, 2014 at 8:25 am

Henry Payne: Hyundai refines Sonata's allure

Fluffing adds subtlety to sedan that's a leader in form and function

My wife’s sofas are littered with pillows inscribed with clever sayings. My favorite: “I know I’m efficient. Tell me I’m beautiful.”

The Hyundai Sonata reminds me of that pillow.

Efficient, affordable and reliable, the Sonata suddenly showed up in 2009 looking gorgeous. We gaped at it. We purred over it. We bought it. Dubbed the YF in Hyundai’s internal nomenclature, the midsize sedan wasn’t so much a sonata as it was a rock ‘n’ roll cantata. With a raked nose, open grill, and deep body creases that resembled hollow cheekbones, the Sonata arrived like Mick Jagger kicking in the stage door and singing “Start Me Up” at a violin recital. The docile, middle-aged, midsize sedan segment gasped. And then, irresistibly, they started to tap their feet. Start me up ... and don’t stop!

“The YF put us on the map in terms of volume,” says Mike O’Brien, Hyundai Product VP for North America.

Sales of the Sonata increased nearly 50 percent from 149,000 a year to 215,000. What’s more, it was Made in America with 3,000 Alabamans working at three-shift capacity in Birmingham to keep up with demand. But like ambitious musicians, car brands must evolve to stay relevant. Just as The Stones’ lyrics date them, so do the Sonata’s lines. Four years later, Hyundai is back with a new single — and it’s less rebellious, more mainstream.

“The last Sonata got us into the party,” says O’Brien. “The new one gets us invited back.”

A lot has happened since the 2009 model. To be specific, the Genesis happened. No, not the Genesis Coupe, but Hyundai’s sexy, Euro-styled, Genesis luxury sedan (why two different vehicles in Hyundai’s lineup share a name is a mystery). The Genesis moves the Korean brand uptown in the U.S. market. The last gen Sonata’s daring, slashing architecture inspired other, smaller Hyundai drones — Elantra, Accent — to ambush their segments as well.

Now the Sonata steps to the beat of the Genesis. Where the Sonata pioneered Hyundai’s “Fluidic Sculpture” design philosophy, the Genesis sets the tone of Fluidic Design 2.0. The rest of the lineup will surely follow.

The Sonata’s familiar, fluidic design riffs are still in evidence but have been tidied, tucked, trimmed. Like Jagger singing in a coat and tie at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the rebel is now the establishment.

Like the Genesis, the new LF Sonata’s grille is more upright. The deep, racy shoulder lines have been pulled straight. “Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 is more modern, more detail-oriented,” says O’Brien, a former Ford and Toyota engineer. “It’s elevated to a more premium level. If the YF was a big, showy diamond, the LF is a smaller cut of higher quality.”

The conservative upgrade is echoed inside the Sonata’s swept, coupe-like greenhouse. With rolling edges and a slashing, vertical console, the outgoing Sonata’s interior mirrored its loud exterior. The 2015 model is less busy, more harmonious. Piano-black keys and soft vinyl bring premium refinement across an intuitive, zen landscape. Like horizontal seams across a rock face, parallel lines unify the dash. Beginning left of the steering wheel, horizontally arranged driver assist buttons (governing traction and lane assist) give way to an elegant instrument panel. Seamlessly, the eye moves right to orderly radio and climate controls. A horizon of soft vinyl continues across the glove box, you ... are ... getting ... sleepy ... zzzzzz.

OK, so fans of the previous generation may want a little more interior pizzazz. But Hyundai has concentrated the new car’s innovation deeper under the skin.

Like Ford and its Fusion, Hyundai has nixed a V6 from its engine options. Not just banished it. Buried it. With an engine bay designed with only fuel-efficient, four-bangers in mind, the Sonata opens more space for the rest of the chassis to accommodate passengers. The result: the best interior room in class — a yawning 122.4 cubic feet. With the front seat back, I can stretch my 6-foot-5-inch frame to full length — yet the 6-foot-5-inch bloke behind me can still comfortably sit upright, his knees just touching the seat back in front of him.

The benefits extend to the also-roomiest-in-class trunk. Open it and you need a spelunker guide with a torch to find its nether reaches.

Back up, you say. What was that about no V6 option? How are you supposed to lug around all that acreage without upgrading the Sonata’s stock 2.4-liter and 2.0-liter engine options?

Okay, if you’ve come to the midsize class with performance in mind, you might want to keep on walking. The Mazda 6 has more nimble handling. Chrysler’s curvy, all-wheel drive 200 sports a throaty, 295 horsepower, 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 that will better slake your thirst for speed.

Still, the Sonata four-holers — 185 and 245 horsepower, respectively — provide plenty of giddyap. What’s more, you can flog the four hamsters with minimal intrusion into the cabin thanks to the Korean sedan’s superb chassis upgrade. With 40 percent more steel enforcement and a sealed underbelly, the 2015 Sonata barreled over the carriage-rutted roads of Ypsilanti Township with little clatter. Try that in the previous generation YF.

Which leads me to the Sonata’s last clever secret: a turbocharged, 1.6-liter engine offered only in the sedan’s so-called “Eco” trim.

Paired with a seven-gear, dual-clutch transmission, this little gem — combined with my lead right foot — terrorized Ypsilanti while still recording 32 miles per gallon. Yet, the Eco model — in typical Hyundai fashion — comes in at a surprisingly cheap $27,275. Hybrids should shudder at such performance — beginning with $32,785, 38 mpg Sonata hybrid. Do the math.

The crisp, elegant Sonata is a statement that the Hyundai is here to stay. Its bread and butter sedan is a match for anything in the segment — and at a cheaper price with the Sonata $1,200 cheaper on average than key competitors.

Hyundai’s challenges are elsewhere on the menu. The Genesis wants to gain a foothold in the cut-throat lux market while the Tucson struggles to get traction in the red hot, small crossover segment. Indeed, just as Sonata has gained sedan market share, families are moving away from sedans and into crossovers.

The Sonata is runner-up (behind the Chevy Malibu) in JD Power’s Initial Quality Survey. It’s a leader in value. A leader in interior space. Yes, the Sonata is efficient. Just don’t call it beautiful. Handsome will do.

Find Henry Payne at hpayne@detroitnews.com.

2015 Hyundai Sonata / Hyundai