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The 2013 Hyundai Sonata still turns heads, even in its third year on the market since a 2011 redesign traded in bland, upright mid-size sedan lines for totally new and remarkably swoopy exterior styling. With much-improved reliability, the current Sonata is at last what Hyundai's been aiming for: a genuinely competitive entry in the important mid-size sedan category. Hyundai wants to make it nothing less than the best family sedan on the market, and while they're not there yet--and the competition is hardly standing still--the current car gets them much closer to the goal.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the 2013 Sonata has a lot going for it. We see elements of Hyundai's trend-setting 'fluidic design' in several rival models as well as other, more recent Hyundai vehicles. The Sonata's dramatic shapes continue into the cabin, almost to finer effect--its functionality isn't tripped up by the swoopy lines that Hyundai has formed into its center stack or door panels.
From dark horse to tough competitor, the 2013 Sonata is let down only by its mediocre handling and refinement that's below the best in the class. Even in the base model, a 2013 Sonata is a solid choice if you prize fuel economy and features received for money spent. It competes with the two best-selling mid-size sedans--the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord--as well as Ford's all-new, elegant, and very well-received 2013 Fusion sedan. Other contenders include the Nissan Maxima, Chevy Malibu, Kia Optima (related under the skin to the Hyundai), and perhaps the Mazda 6, Subaru Legacy, and Volkswagen Passat.
With its new design in 2011 came a major upgrade in engineering refinement. A new lineup of direct-injection four-cylinder engines—no six is offered--combines with a lighter body structure to give the Sonata V-6 performance and up to 35 mpg in base form. Even the upscale 2.0T turbo model gets up to 33 mpg highway. Most Sonatas come with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, making up to 200 horsepower, with a six-speed automatic transmission. The automatic is perfectly appropriate for the class, and is a responsive, seamless gearchanger.
Step up to the 2.0T model and you get a somewhat smaller 2.0-liter engine with a twin-scroll turbocharger, providing 274 horsepower. Its 269 lb-ft arrives low in the power band, which thankfully helps this engine work very well with the automatic transmission (the only way to get it). And it mostly skips the turbo lag completely, and succeeds as the more economical parallel to upscale V-6 models.
The most economical powertrain option, however, comes in the 2013 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. A single electric motor is sandwiched between the 2.4-liter engine and a modified six-speed automatic transmission, with a lithium-polymer battery pack storing energy from engine overrun and regenerative braking and returning it as needed to power the car on electricity alone or to assist the engine with more torque. Hyundai has tuned the hybrid system to let the Sonata Hybrid run on battery power alone at highway speeds--reasoning that U.S. drivers spend more than half their miles at speeds above 45 mph. After driving the 2013 Sonata Hybrid, we can say it's a definite improvement on the first two years of Sonata Hybrid. It's better insulated, the blending of the engine, electric power, and regenerative braking is smoother, and the car is considerably less lurchy under quick power transitions. Hyundai says this version will hit 60 mph in 9.2 seconds, and the EPA rates its gas mileage at 36 mpg city, 40 mpg highway.
The 2013 Hyundai Sonata is a roomy car, almost "large" by EPA standards; there's soaring headroom and leg room in front, and an unusually long front-seat track so driver and passenger can have as much space as they need. The back seat sits at a good angle of recline, and only the tallest passengers will touch heads against the fabric headliner and the hard-plastic front seatbacks. Security-minded family shoppers will likely find what they want in the Sonata, as in addition to all the usual safety equipment, a rearview camera system is offered in top trims, and the Sonata has been named a repeat Top Safety Pick according to the IIHS and achieved a five-star rating from the federal government.
Overall, ride and handling in the 2013 Sonata are adequate for most family needs. Driving enthusiasts are bound to be a little let down by the steering response, which could use some more feedback and tends to wander and need frequent adjustments on some highway surfaces. The ride can feel very stiff when compared with an Accord or Camry, but Passat and Fusion drivers will find it roughly equal to their cars.
For 2013, there are only a few feature changes, all adding to the Sonata's already strong value versus comparable rival models. Bluetooth, a USB port, power accessories, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, and cruise control all remain included at the base level, for $21,670. Heated seats have been added this year as a standard feature to the sportier SE model, while SE and Limited editions add parking sensors and pushbutton start. The Sonata Limited also gets standard heated front and rear seats; a sunroof; a backup camera; automatic climate control; and an automatic dimming rearview mirror. And a BlueLink suite of operator-assisted concierge and data services, at different pricing tiers, remains available.