2015 Hyundai Sonata keeps entry price low, adds refinement

The Hyundai Sonata sedan, poised to set a new U.S. sales record this year, feels like a more premium car for 2015 and adds interior room, improved ride, more standard equipment and new, luxury-car features.

Standard features on every Sonata now include light-emitting diode daytime running lights that were first popularized by luxury carmaker Audi, a driver's knee air bag, a small rear spoiler and dressy, chrome-colored, exterior window surrounds.

This is on top of the standard six-speed automatic transmission, keyless entry with panic alarm, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and front seats that both have height adjustment. Many competitors only give height adjustment to the driver's seat, not the front passenger seat, on their lower-priced sedans.

Too bad, though, that the base, 2015 Sonata doesn't include a standard rearview camera. A backup camera is standard on the Toyota Camry.

Hyundai's industry-leading warranty and value pricing remain. The 2015 Sonata, like all Hyundais, comes with the automaker's 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty and a five-year/60,000-mile limited vehicle warranty. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the base, 2015 Sonata SE is $21,960, which is $300 less than the base price on last year's Sonata.

The 2015 base model comes with a 185-horsepower, 2.4-liter, naturally aspirated, four-cylinder engine.

Also, the 2015 Sonata received an overall five out of five stars in federal government frontal and side crash testing. In addition, Hyundai rose to fourth place in the 2014 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, trailing only luxury carmakers Porsche, Jaguar and Lexus.

Sonata's more powerful, turbocharged, 2-liter, direct injection four cylinder with 245-horsepower is offered in upper-level Sonatas with "2.0T" in their name. Starting retail price for these models is $29,385.

Sonata's third engine offering is a smaller and more fuel-thrifty, 1.6-liter, turbocharged four cylinder generating 178 horsepower and mated to a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission. Starting retail price for this ECO model, which carries the Sonata's top fuel economy ratings of 28 miles per gallon in city driving and 38 mpg on the highway, is $24,085.

Only four-cylinder engines are available in the Sonata, and, for 2015, Hyundai retuned the engines for lower horsepower and better drivability.

Competitors include the most popular family sedans in the country, such as the 2015 Toyota Camry, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $23,795 with 2.5-liter, naturally aspirated four cylinder producing 178 horsepower and mated to a six-speed automatic. Another top selling sedan, the 2015 Nissan Altima, starts at $23,125 with 182-horsepower, 2.5-liter, naturally aspirated four cylinder and continuously variable transmission.

Through the first 10 months of this calendar year, Sonata's U.S. sales totaled 180,497. If sales remain on pace through the end of December, Sonata will surpass its previous U.S. sales record of 215,593 set in 2011.

The four-door, five-passenger Sonata grew about an inch longer and wider for 2015. Exterior styling was subtly improved giving the sedan a rich, more sophisticated look. But what impressed immediately on the test drive was how quiet the Sonata can be at idle and how smoothly it rode.

At the same time, the Sonata's handling is improved for a solid, stable feel, particularly in slalom maneuvers and when abruptly moving to avoid obstacles. In these situations, the test Sonata Limited 2.0T, riding on P235/45R 18-inch tires, kept its composure and sure-footed connection to the pavement.

Rack-and-pinion steering had good on-center feel.

Brakes, while not having a brake pedal with the progressively linear feel of a German car, worked well.

The different drive modes in the test car — for normal, sport and eco driving — palpably affected the turbo four cylinder's response. In sport, the car quickly surged forward. In normal, it eagerly moved forward, and in eco, the Sonata gained power in a more reserved manner.

During a mix of aggressive and eco driving on city streets and highways, the tester averaged 24 mpg, which is less than the federal government's combined average of 26 mpg. This translated into 440 miles of travel on a single, 18.5-gallon tank. Cost to fill up, at today's low gas prices, was $53.

The Sonata's front-seat legroom is a whopping 45.5 inches. This is more than the front seat of a Cadillac Escalade sport utility vehicle.

A full inch has been added to the Sonata's back-seat legroom. Still, even with the new 35.6 inches of rear-seat legroom, the Sonata trails the Camry and Altima.

Seats in front and back are comfortably cushioned in the Sonata, and the test car's sport leather had contrasting stitching and piping akin to what's in a luxury car.

Hyundai added 0.4 inch to the front-seat headroom, so now the Sonata's 40.4 inches beats out the Altima's 40 inches. A small improvement in back-seat headroom now makes the Sonata nearly competitive with the Camry and better than the Altima.

Controls were well-placed on the dashboard, and knobs for radio tuning and temperature adjustment in the tester made for easy changes without having to fuss with a voice recognition system or clunky display menus.

A nice touch: Pull-up sunscreens for the windows of the rear doors, just like those on luxury cars.

Two U.S. safety recalls affected the 2015 Sonata. One involved 2,138 cars whose wiring harnesses might have a poor connection, potentially causing reduced assist in the power steering or causing the gear shift lever to get stuck in "Park." The other recall involved 5,650 cars for front brake calipers that might fracture and impair braking.