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.