Review: 2017 Hyundai Sonata SE

Do not attempt to adjust your television set. This is not a test. This is, instead, the first of what I hope will be many car reviews written by your humble author for this website. Most of them will be rental reviews, used-car reviews, and other oddballs.

This past weekend I rented a 2017 Sonata SE with just under 2500 miles on the clock and drove it from Powell, Ohio to Woodward, Pennsylvania, where my son and I spent the weekend riding at two of Camp Woodward’s indoor skateparks. It was a one-way trip; the back window shattered while we were in Woodward and we exchanged the car for a Chrysler 200, which I’ll also be reviewing here this week. I’ll be comparing both of these cars to the Honda Accord, which I feel to be the gold standard in the segment at the moment.

Alright, let’s put the record on the turntable and start it spinning…


I should start by noting that the Sonata I rented differs from the Sonata that you can buy at a dealership in one important respect: According to the Hyundai website, the 2017 Sonata SE spec includes a 7-inch color screen and a backup camera. The car I rented had neither of these things; instead, there was a 4-inch B/W display and no backup camera. If you’re reading this website in the year 2021 and you’re trying to figure out if the Sonata you’re about to buy as a used car has a backup camera, then you should be aware that there are legitimate 2017-model-year cars out there that do not have it.

In June of 2014, I drove three different variants of the the new-for-2016 Sonata: the Limited, the Sport, and the Eco. As is typical for press launches, the base-spec SE was nowhere to be found; in the immortal words of Felix Gallo, it had been discreetly tucked away like a mad, fretting aunt. When I drove a rental-spec 2016 SE with more than 33,000 miles on the clock last year, I suggested that Hyundai had made the right choice.

After putting nearly four hundred miles on this 2017 SE, however, I’m ready to change my mind on the matter. This car is leaps and bounds ahead of the 2016 model I drove last year — and it’s also changed in all sorts of little ways.

The wood trim that used to contrast unpleasantly with the silver-finished hexagon center stack? Gone, replaced by a dimpled-silver pattern that still isn’t the same as the material that trims the climate control panel but which looks like a close relative of it. The seats are firm, supportive, with long thigh bolsters.

This Sonata was much quieter than any previous Sonata I’ve driven. It could be just the fact that this is a low-mileage production car where all my previous experience was in pre-prods and thrashed rentals, but I’m no longer willing to ding the car for noise. It’s a little bit quieter than my Accord, as a matter of fact.

Speaking of Accords… it’s plainly obvious that Hyundai benchmarked the current big Honda when they designed the Sonata. The packaging is eerily similar, from the height of the steering wheel to the angle of the rear backrests. It’s so close to the Accord that for me driving the Sonata produces a sort of “uncanny valley” effect, where you continually reach out for something and miss it by just a little bit.

There are also aspects of the Sonata that are clearly meant to annoy, or even troll, Honda. You see, Hyundai has something that Honda doesn’t: a bespoke RWD platform for its luxury car. The Genesis G80 and G90 don’t share much beyond a badge with the Sonata. Honda, by contrast, has to use the Accord platform for the Acura TLX. This forces them to create all sorts of artificial, Alfred-Sloan-style differences between the Accord and the TLX. Without that constraint, Hyundai is free to equip the sub-$23k Sonata with all sorts of stuff that you can’t even get on the Accord. Here are some examples:

  • The Accord has a cable-operated push-pull trunk and fuel filler door release, even in the EX-L trim. The Sonata has neat little power buttons that duplicate those found on the TLX.
  • The Accord has a center speedometer with a primitive LCD segment display. The Sonata, like the TLX, has a large center screen between equal-sized speedo and tach — and the gauges go dark in the modern-Lexus fashion when the car is not running.
  • The Sonata, like the TLX, gets a nice fold-down center armrest with cupholders for the capacious rear seat.

That rear seat, by the way, has the best-engineered LATCH points I’ve yet seen in a modern automobile. They are spring-loaded and they serve to guide the latches of your car seat directly to the grab bars. Absolutely brilliant. Car seat installation is completely fuss-free — but it’s also completely annoyance-free to people who don’t need it.

The only place where Honda manages to claw back some ground on features is in the climate control. Even the humblest Accords have dual-zone automatic climate controls. This Sonata has a ridiculous hot/cold knob that isn’t terribly granular, combined with a deliberately ugly and mostly blank panel for the various defrost and air-direction features. I suspect that you could just plug in the dual-zone panel from any of the upscale Sonatas and it would work fine. The sole reason to do the climate control like this is to encourage people to spend more money on your higher trim levels. Disappointing.

If you like Ford’s approach to blind-spot mirrors, you’ll like the wide-angle reflectors tucked into the upper outside corner on both the driver and passenger sides. Supposedly they’re heated as well; I never had a chance to confirm that.

I’m still not entirely convinced by the 2.4-liter four-cylinder found in most Sonata variants. Across Route 80 in Pennsylvania, the transmission frequently reached for one or even two gears off top to maintain 75mph on mild grades. It’s still a coarse, characterless motor that takes no joy in its work. Honda does it better, even if you don’t spring for the V6.

Also better in an Accord: the fuel economy. I’ve seen trip averages as high as 37.9mpg in CVT-equipped Accord four-bangers, but the Sonata barely returned 28.5 on the open road and quickly dropped into the low twenty-sevens with just a little bit of elevation change. This is Honda Accord mileage — if your Accord is a six-cylinder stick-shift. I take that back; on a recent trip in my coupe, I saw 30.2 on a 110-mile freeway jaunt. The Sonata can’t touch that. You’ll have to get the Sonata Eco, with its 1.6-liter turbo four, if you want to put up numbers in the thirties.

By almost any measure you could apply, the Sonata is a very good car. It’s spacious, comfortable, quiet enough, reasonably economical, well-equipped for the price, and it has a great warranty. It’s even built in the United States of America, which is always a plus in my book. But I worry a bit when I compare this very charming low-mile 2017 model to the clapped-out, noisy, shiny-worn-trim 2016 I rented last year. I’m not totally certain that Hyundai has really managed to solve the long-term durability problem. We’re not talking about engines or transmissions here. It’s more a case of the car just not feeling like it’s screwed together quite as tightly as the equivalent Accord or Camry would be. And, um, the rear window seems a little fragile, although that’s a story for another time (and another outlet).

If the previous few sentences sound like an unusual amount of equivocation, I apologize for it. But I’d be ducking out on my responsibility to the reader if I didn’t say something on the topic. Were I spending my own money on a midsize sedan, I’d still pick the Accord or the Camry. But I wouldn’t blame you for choosing the Sonata. It’s a very respectable way to get from point A to point B — even if you don’t use it to get back to point A.

Disclaimer: I paid my own money to rent this car and didn’t get anything from anybody.

42 Replies to “Review: 2017 Hyundai Sonata SE”

  1. Deadweight

    This is good news. The political rancor is making TTAC unbearable, lately, and rental/borrowed/used vehicle reviews are among my favorite reads.

    Jack, if you would, please provide more details about –

    1) ride quality
    2) brakes/braking
    3) torsional rigidity/chassis stiffness
    4) headlight beam quality (if you had chance to drive at night)
    5) automatic transmission behavior

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Felis Concolor

      The overall feeling I started to get was of creeping SJW-like convergence there, although I did like the little Matra writeup even if the author studiously refrained from coming right out and saying “Matra Makes Missiles” verbatim.

      I haven’t had a decent excuse to rent another automobile since last year’s Dodge Journey trip from DFW back to COS and it amazed me to think “10 years ago I would have called this a sweet little 3-row but today, it feels like a POS compared to everything else.” I was so desperate to be shut of it I managed to screech into the rental return lot with minutes to spare despite there being 2 days left on the contract.

      Reply
        • -Nate-Nate

          In my neighborhood it means mostly White Female busybodies who always know better than you and facts be damned .
          .
          I always wonder why folks who own supposedly nice vehicles rent another when they want to take long trips ? .
          .
          If I didn’t like long drives in anything I own, off it’d go straightaway .
          .
          -Nate

          Reply
          • Jim

            Jack explained it once, maybe he’ll post it again (or at least the link), IIRC he has a formula he uses wherein he figures the mileage relative to the extra depreciation it will cause on his own car compared to the cost per mile of the rental. Essentially it comes down to the cost of the rental vs. the mileage to be traveled.

            I’d guess that by writing these reviews (at least if he is paid for the review I suppose) it also makes the whole thing potentially tax deductible on top of it.

            Of course it only works if your own car is a decent one with some real market value, otherwise the formula won’t work.

            (And now I hope I was remembering this all correctly and that it was in fact Jack’s formula and not someone else’s entirely…)

          • -Nate-Nate

            @Jim :
            .
            I still don’t get it .
            .
            I’m often offered newer vehicles to travel in, if you want to follow my jalopy that’s fine .
            .
            Me, I only own what I like to drive ~ more fun and safer in any emergency situation too .
            .
            -Nate

          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

            It’s as simple as this:

            Some years I’ll drive 50,000 miles. When I was making a ton of money, I just owned multiple new cars and split the mileage across them, between 15k-20k each.

            In 2017, where I don’t have an S8 and a CL55 and a Discovery in my driveway, I’m renting cars to calm down the pressure on the Accord.

    • nici

      Don’t know if the US market 15/16 Optima uses the same headlight units in a different housing or if they are completely different, but those were very good. Much better than most cars I’ve driven at night here in Europe. Worst lights in recent memory are on the EU market Mustang, high-beams bordering on useless.

      Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      1) Entirely acceptable on smooth roads. A little sensitive to expansion strips.
      2) Only engaged ABS once, on a brief patch of ice on a freeway offramp. Cycle time was fast.
      3) Not quite up to my Accord Coupe, but not bad.
      4) Acceptable at most. Diffuse pattern, not that bright.
      5) Civilized, but eager to grab a gear instead of lug.

      Reply
  2. Mark

    I’ve had a ’15 and ’16 Sonata SE for rentals. I was able to get to maybe 31 or 32 mpg (according to the car), but that included a bunch of cruising at 68-73 mph. Definitely not as good as an Altima, but Altimas are so “sold out” to chase fuel consumption that they’re pretty horrible to drive.

    Here are my own personal rental car power rankings in this class for the past 3 years:
    1. Camry SE (mileage no better than the Sonata, but a solid car overall)
    2. Fusion SE 2.5 (great seats, good handling, a bit small in back & trunk)
    3. ’15 Malibu (quite small back seat, drove better than expected; thought I’d hate it, but really didn’t)
    4. Sonata SE (a pure transportation module)
    5. Altima S (CVT-plagued penalty box, but a cheap way to cover some miles)
    6. Old 2013 Chrysler 200 2.4 (a 4-speed automatic, really?; not-so-fun fact learned somewhere in central North Dakota: the cruise control doesn’t work above 100 mph)

    Reply
    • Tyler

      Had my first experience with the new Malibu this weekend. It’s a much more impressive car than I was expecting, at least in the blinged-out version. A relative who works at a Chevy dealer says they’ve been moving quickly off the lot. Would be interested to see if its virtues make it down to rental spec.

      I liked the Sonata, especially the ergonomics and interior design, but I didn’t find it compelling at the $23k-ish price point. It doesn’t have the monster back seat of the Passat, the dontbreakium simplicity and resale value of the Camry, or (if reviews are to be believed) the still-impressive ride of even stripper Fusions. What’s the pitch?

      Reply
  3. Jon Buder

    Before I decided to get a truck, I was thinking about a hybrid Sonata (and to keep the old truck around) so I test drove one of the fully loaded ones, the gauges and interior were impressive but I didn’t like the car overall. Something just felt weird about the drivetrain and the handling, weird in a different way from the Prius I had before.

    Then I sat in a base model ’17 and it sure seemed depressing. Couldn’t really find anything appealing about the car. At least the loaded ones are pretty well kitted out inside even if they look excessively blinged out on the outside.

    There doesn’t really seem to be any reason to choose one of these cars, unless it’s a loss-leading lease deal or a company car. Or a rental…

    Reply
  4. nici

    IIRC I got something like 31-32mpg over something like 3000 miles in the Optima on my trip the US a year ago.

    Agree with you about the engine, it sounded rough, was unwilling to rev, and just felt a bit weak in general.

    Overall a prefectly competent car, but I preferred the 33000 mile -14 Impala LT I had for one day before it broke down.

    Reply
  5. silentsod

    Does this mean Rental Car Reviews are being discontinued over at TTAC? I noticed that more vanilla flavored reviews have popped up recently. The Cayman review read like a press release in a few spots which was surprising given that reviews over there had been avoiding that of late.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Not sure if they are going to be discontinued — I’d hope not. Mark S. turned down the two reviews I offered him this week because he was going to review those cars at some point.

      That Cayman review was, uh, definitely going to go down well with Porsche PR, that’s all I have to say about that.

      Reply
      • silentsod

        The PR department will not be yowling like a stuck yak, to say the least.

        It’s unfortunate because a late model 981/718 is something I often consider selling off my two cheap (996 and SC) 911s for and all these reviews avoid whether or not the turbo engines lose the thrilling rush to redline the NA flat 6s have. Yes, there’s torque everywhere, but no one mentions the loss of the top end if it is gone. Am I to read it that it is and the silence about the point is the giveaway?

        Reply
          • CJinSD

            I read a review of the new Panamera recently. It was filled with criticism of the last one. I don’t recall reading in any of the major rags about how ugly, misshapen, and dull the old one was while it was current. I also don’t recall anyone comparing its console design and ergonomics to those of a forty-five year old Lear Jets cockpit for humorous effect. Apparently Porsche’s decision to make this hideous 4,400 lb 2+2 unfit for adult male rear seat passengers by chopping the roof has corrected all of its faults! Who knew it had any based on reading Car and Driver or Automobile? I’m sure they’re telling the truth about its perfection this time though.

          • rpn453

            “The Panamera’s styling has failed to win us over despite repeated encounters with the car. It’s hulky and bulky, and from behind, it seems to be retaining water. This hatchback has a grand amount of room for full-size adults and their luggage—but seating in back is for two only, and its rear seats are the narrowest of the three cars here, hence the low scores for rear-seat comfort and space.”

            “On initial turn-in, this four-passenger sedan reacts with piggish understeer: no surprise there. But a blink later, the tires seem to extend some traction spikes and dig into the road, contradicting any countermeasures the driver might have already taken against the understeer. This trait made the lane-change test slightly spooky because the car felt like it would be sliding off line and would then regain grip just in time to power through the finish gate.”

            http://www.caranddriver.com/comparisons/2010-porsche-panamera-s-page-4

            “Gem though it may be, the Panamera lost points in three categories. Let’s start with the most obvious. Unless you stare at this Teutonic titan pretty much head-on, it looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy if the Doughboy gained 400 pounds and had a couple of ­basketballs attached to his butt. “It has presence but isn’t attractive,” wrote road-test editor Mike Sutton. Mr. Sutton is a generous gentleman.

            Second, the seven-speed double-clutch transmission (or, as we affectionately call it, the good ol’ Doppelkupplungsgetriebe) has drivability issues on throttle tip-in below 5 mph. The throttle performs an antsy, mildly disconcerting stutter-step, and the driver will counter with a sharp stab of gas that, often as not, provokes the car to leap.

            Third, the steering wheel’s fussy push-pull paddle shifters were apparently designed by a hamster and four Girl Scouts. In the heat of battle, it’s hard to remember if a push or a pull triggers an upshift or a downshift.”

            http://www.caranddriver.com/comparisons/2010-aston-martin-rapide-vs-2010-porsche-panamera-turbo-comparison-tests-porsche-panamera-turbo-page-3

            “Of the few criticisms leveled at the 2010–2016 Porsche Panamera, the only one with any substance was a disdain for its baggy butt. The original four-door Porsche hatchback charged hard, scythed through curves, and swallowed highway miles whole—all while appearing to wear a loaded diaper.”

            “All four occupants sit closer to the ground in the new Panamera. That allows rear-seat headroom to remain unchanged even as Porsche has dropped the roofline by as much as 0.8 inch. The new car also is 1.3 inches longer overall, with all but two-tenths of an inch used to stretch the wheelbase. The rear buckets, every bit as comfortable and supportive as the front seats, provide ample legroom, although a six-foot three-inch rider brushed his hair against the headliner, and the space only gets tighter as you recline the rear seat to a comfortable angle.”

            http://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/2017-porsche-panamera-first-drive-review

          • rpn453

            I forgot to include these criticisms of the new one:

            “There is room for improvement, though. The variable-ratio steering feels too light on-center, and the brake pedal is soft at the top of its travel. Still, the Panamera is far and away the driver’s choice in a segment largely filled with squishy limos.”

            “The old Panamera’s button-festooned center console has been usurped by a slightly less daunting number of touch-sensitive icons glowing through a glossy black slab. The controls for Sport mode, the suspension setting, and stability control require a hard press and respond with a convincing click reminiscent of a physical button. Compared with the old arrangement, this system makes it harder to find your target by touch, but at least there’s enough feedback to confirm you’ve pressed something. Strangely, though, the keys higher on the center console react to the lightest tap and don’t deliver the same satisfying haptic feedback. Worse, this center display is plagued by disorganized screen layouts, options buried deep in oddly labeled menus, and touch points that are simply too small.”

            They seemed to prefer the old console design:

            “Center console looks busy but was easy to learn, at least after multiple hits of coffee, Mountain Dew, and Vivarin.”

            I’m sure there will be plenty more once the comparisons begin.

          • Deadweight

            An Alex Dykes doppelganger will be back on TTAC to review vehicles soon, grading them all on a B+ Curve, so as not to offend the manufacturers.

            People got pissed tremendously when I mentioned it, which I did often, but I swear to god that I never recall reading a single negative review from Alex.

            The manufacturers just love that shit.

  6. scs

    29 rentals in 2016, a personal best. or not. and the mirage wasn’t the worst. that would be two cruzes, one of which lost its (electric) power steering for 200 miles, then it oddly began working. the it didn’t, then it did. hard to plan for a cloverleaf sweeper when you don’t know if there will be power steering or not. three weeks later, another cruze lost AC. and it began working again in 150 miles. best thing about the mitsu: shakes so bad you’d have to be triple the legal limit to doze off.

    Reply
  7. SixspeedSi

    Funny enough I almost rented a very similar Sonata today on my trip to Detroit. A white 17 (I live close to state college so who knows, may have been yours). Told the Enterprise drone I would like to see other options and almost instantly he offered up a black 300C. Done Deal. Rode very well, super quiet and the pentastar, 8 speed combo were great partners as always. I imagine the Sonata wouldn’t have been as comfortable and the 300 feel right in Detroit.

    Look forward to the 200 review tomorrow!

    Reply
        • SixspeedSi

          Pentastar indeed. Which is fine, don’t really need more. Just got back and averaged 29 mpg (according to the trip computer). C gives you better heated/cooled seats and panoramic roof.

          I can see good value in the 300c with the plethora of FCA discounts.

          Reply
        • Deadweight

          I forgot that the “C” is no longer V8 specific.

          The should not have made that change, not because the V6 isn’t fine, but for historical reasons.

          Reply
  8. Jberger

    Just put 500+ miles on a similar rental spec Sonata this week.
    Was shocked to see you can even buy a Sonata with that 80’s radio and no backup camera. It’s ugly but it works, even the bluetooth integration and iPhone integration worked well.

    Did you recognize the gauge cluster? It’s the same as a base package Genesis G80. Makes the rental spec Sonata look great, but doesn’t do much for the Genesis move to a stand alone luxury brand.

    While the ride is improved, it still wanders on grooved pavement and skips to the side on larger expansion joints. The crap factory tires are probably a large contributor to those issues.

    The interior looks better in the 2017, but the seat and headliner seem to be made of biodegradable materials. For a car with less than 20K miles, my rental looked like it was a 10 year old minivan. Seats were permanently stained and the headliner already had pulls and small pin holes.

    I averaged over 31 MPG in 60-70 degree weather, so perhaps the colder weather was killing your average.

    Reply
  9. Frank Williams

    As I wrote when I reviewed the base 2006 Impala LS on TTAC 10 years ago, “If you want to judge an automaker’s prowess, check their basic models. Scope the ones with standard engines and base interiors that hide in the back of the lots. A few miles behind the wheel tells you more about the manufacturer’s passion for product than anything their spinmongers could ever publish.” I see the same holds true today. but at least the base models are a little less base than in the past. We need more of this kind of review, instead of those done on press cars that have been primped and prepped and provided with a press release they hope you’ll just regurgitate.

    Reply
      • Frank Williams

        Apparently they can’t afford me. When we talked last year it seemed like I might be making a comeback Then I inquired about how much they paid their writers, and I never heard from them again.

        Reply
        • Doug

          So where is a guy to go online to get good content. I have noticed myself skipping more and more stories on TTAC lately. Now that they have parted ways with Mark there is one less good writer over there.

          Reply

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