“Eco” is one of three available powertrain options for the all-new 2015 Hyundai Sonata midsize sedan, an almost perfunctory green-oriented trim level in a segment rife with competition. It may also be the best Sonata model to buy.
Hyundai's redesigned Sonata has some big shoes to fill. The previous model, internally dubbed the YF, put Hyundai's midsize offering on the map. It sold a healthy 200,000 units a year -- and could have sold more if Hyundai's Montgomery, Ala., plant had any additional capacity. Yet the midsize competition is stiffer than ever, with great offerings coming from most every company. Even the once bottom-of-the-barrel Chrysler 200 is now a viable midsize option. With such a saturated segment, it comes as little surprise that Hyundai is offering an Eco model, along with its base and turbo models -- even alongside the Sonata Hybrid, which is set to debut next year.
The 2015 Hyundai Sonata's styling is evolutionary not revolutionary.PHOTO BY HYUNDAI
The Eco's styling mirrors that of the Turbo and 2.4L models, sporting Hyundai's Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 design themes. Overall the Sonata's look is more mature than the outgoing model, with crisper, more purposeful lines. Some may be disappointed by the Sonata's more conservative styling, but the new sedan is likely to offend few. The car retains a few of its quirks, including the interesting, borderline gaudy “sabre line,” a stretch of chrome trim reaching from the front light all the way to the C-pillar.
The Eco model comes with 16-inch alloys as the only wheel option. The rocker panels are devoid of the tacky chrome trim that is a feature on the Sport and Limited models. Aside from a chrome grille, very little else is there to distinguish the Eco model from the rest of its kin (which is probably a good thing).
The interior offers little to complain about, at least where function is concerned. Buttons are right where they should be, and the optional 8-inch navigation screen is bright and responsive. Materials remain a strong suit for the Sonata. The fake wood trim looked good and felt nice to the touch, and the plastics were nicely textured and well-assembled.
Much improved is the Sonata's steering wheel, which in the previous generation was hindered by its silly fluidic design language. Here the wheel is clean and functional, with buttons where they should be.
Despite the improvements, however, the Sonata's cabin comes off as cold and unwelcoming -- like the waiting room at a doctor's office. The previous Sonata interior wasn't perfect, but it generally succeeded in embodying the Fluidic design language and felt like a much better place to be. This current Sonata interior feels German, in all the wrong ways.
While functionally acceptable, the Sonata's interior tends to feel cold and unwelcoming.PHOTO BY HYUNDAI
Other improvements make a bit more sense. Hyundai claims the elimination of the V6 bought more interior volume. It was a brilliant move. The Sonata offers more than enough room for four full-sized adults. Space is so plentiful that the EPA classifies the Sonata as a “large” sedan, even though it competes in the midsize segment.
As per usual, this new Sonata grows in size over the previous version, adding 1.2 inches of width, and 1.3 inches of length to give it slightly better proportions to go with the interior volume.
Under hood, the Eco adds a third engine option to the lineup: a 1.6-liter turbocharged four cylinder making 177 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. The Eco Sonata is the first to receive Hyundai's new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which alone helps to boost the Sonata's fuel economy by 10 percent.
Hyundai estimates the new powertrain combo will net the Eco 28 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, with 32 mpg combined range.
One of the 2015 Sonata's many improvements is its steering wheel ergonomics.PHOTO BY HYUNDAI
How does it drive?
Better than it has any right to. The other car we had an opportunity to drive was the more-powerful 2.0-liter Sonata turbo model, and the Eco was genuinely more fun.
The Eco never felt underpowered. Acceleration isn't what we would call brisk, but merging on the highway shouldn't be much of an issue, and that's about as much hard driving as the average Sonata Eco will ever see anyway. The little 1.6 works hard under heavy acceleration, making a pleasant growling noise (better than the 2.4-liter's lawn mower sound) as it pushes to towards redline...redline that it never comes close to hitting, by the way, as the DCT is clearly geared towards economy. Even in “manual” mode, the Sonata forced shifts around the 5,000 rpm mark.
One of the previous-generation Sonata's biggest flaws, its electric power steering, has thankfully been revised to feel less like a video game and more like a real car. Below 30 mph the steering is still vague, but overall the wheel has a nice weight to it as input feels more 1:1 than on previous attempts.
The Sonata's chassis felt responsive and stiff, and never left us guessing under hard cornering. That said, this is no German luxury sedan, as the suspension is clearly tuned for comfort -- which we think most Sonata buyers will appreciate. The Eco's suspension soaked up Michigan's potholes and bumps competently, while the Sonata's seats never got stiff or uncomfortable.
All of that comfort is aided by an interior which, even on pre-production models, is deafeningly quiet.
The 2015 Hyundai Sonata Eco carries very little styling queues to discern it from other Sonata models.PHOTO BY HYUNDAI
Do we want one?
Maybe. The Eco is arguably the most enjoyable to drive of all of the Sonata variants. Even after 45 minutes of hard driving, the Eco's trip computer told us that we averaged an impressive 32.1 mpg.
As with most Hyundais, the real value comes in the Eco's sticker price. At $24,085 including destination, the Eco comes in at only a $2,125 premium over the base SE trim. The addition of the technology package (which was on our model) will cost you an extra $4,100, but adds things like heated leather seats and an 8-inch touchscreen.
Hyundai readily admits that they don't expect to sell a lot of Eco variants, claiming that it is an experiment to identify market potential.
After spending the morning with the Eco, we can say that the potential should be there.
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