Rental Review: 2016 Hyundai Sonata SE 2.4

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

A year and a half ago, I drove the new-for-2015 Hyundai Sonata in the “Limited” trim. I thought it was a solid, if not particularly exciting, choice in the increasingly unimportant family-sedan market. During that same press trip, Hyundai gave me a chance to drive the “Sport” and “Eco” trims of the Sonata, but there was no base-model inventory on hand. That wasn’t by accident, and it’s also not unusual. Offering up a no-options car to journosaurs who are continually spoiled by first-class flights and metallic-looking chocolates in the form of the “Ruf” logo is a great way to wind up as the target of a Burgess wobble.

Imagine my joy, then, when I stepped off my (coach-class) flight in Portland last month and found a Sonata SE waiting for me. My itinerary, which was centered around The 1 Show but which would also include a 140-mile freeway jaunt to Salem, OR and back, promised to be just the ticket for a truly independent evaluation, TTAC-rental style. After all, some cars are pretty decent in all of their various and varied variants, while others can’t cut the mustard without the big motor and upscale options. Where does the Sonata SE fall on this spectrum?

Well … let’s get the usual excuses out of the way. This 2016-model-year car had 33,700 miles on it. Rental miles are hard miles. We all know this. My sainted Accord V6 coupe, which I’m sure none of you ever get even the slightest bit tired of me mentioning, continues to look and feel pretty fresh at the 33,000-mile mark, but I treat it with care and I condition the leather and only rarely run it to 125 miles-per-hour on a racetrack. I should also mention that, in Hyundai-land, “SE” means “base model, beneath which there is nothing but despair and Elantras”. It starts at an eminently reasonable $21,750, and for that money you get everything from aluminum wheels to a 7-inch color touchscreen display. There’s real value here.

Alright, excuse time is over. For about $5,500 more, you can get the Limited. There’s probably less of a difference than that in actual transaction prices. Let’s say four grand, give or take. A couple of bucks a day if you’re buying over sixty months. My friend, as Hamlet said, look to ‘t. Better to spend a little more and get a truly complete car.

In SE trim, the Sonata is just plain loud inside. Much of Oregon uses a remarkably noisy aggregate motorway surface, which turns the Sonata’s admittedly capacious interior into a cacophonous bell jar in which one must scream to be heard. Even on quieter roads, however, there is still too much ambient junk bouncing around the cockpit to hold any kind of conversation with rear seat passengers.

That vaunted solidity I remember from my press-trip drive? It’s gone. Squeak, bump, and thump are the order of the day. Remember, dear reader, that this car had received over thirty thousand miles’ worth of abuse on rough roads. Still, I don’t want a car to be this loose after under a year, no matter what the conditions might be. There was visible wear on all of the touch surfaces, and the door cards in particular were worn shiny by the elbows and fingers of two hundred indifferent renters.

Upscale Sonatas get a pretty decent sound system, but the SE gives you the bare minimum. True, you get six speakers instead of the retro four-speaker layout in the Accord Sport, but it doesn’t sound good and it doesn’t get loud. The Bluetooth integration on this particular car wasn’t happy with my Galaxy S5 or my companion’s iPhone S-something. Speaking of my companion; at one point, after the hilariously annoying turn-blinker noise had been repeating for about 30 seconds, she started holding her hands over her ears and wordlessly screaming. I don’t blame her. “The turn signal alone,” she said, “would be enough to make sure I never bought this piece of crap.”

When I drove the Limited 2.4, I said that the powertrain “really disappoints,” and that disappointment was magnified in the SE. The engine always feels tired, the transmission is always one shift behind where it should be, and the NVH is unforgivably coarse. To make matters worse, the tires fitted to the SE make it an indifferent steer and somewhat skittish in wet braking. It simply doesn’t inspire confidence and it feels a solid generation behind my Accord in virtually all of the dynamic qualities.

Some good points: The trunk is huge. There’s plenty of room for oversized adults both front and rear. By the standards of the class, the greenhouse is adequately airy. Nothing fell off during my drive. The various buttons and levers remained pretty solidly attached despite the rental abuse. It’s a relatively easy car to operate. It has a very long warranty.

The Sonata SE has to exist, because some people shop on price and Hyundai does shift a reasonable volume of cars to rental companies. But it’s less than the sum of its parts. It’s not much cheaper than the Accord LX or the base Camry and it’s significantly less pleasant to operate than either of those well-known alternatives. I’m also concerned that Hyundai has yet to really crack the long-term durability problem, based on the look of the various surfaces and materials in this less-than-one-year-old car.

Honestly, if you’re willing to take a few risks with durability, why not get the Ford Fusion “S” instead? It’s amazingly stylish, it incorporates all the latest European design trends, and at night its standard LED tail lamps blaze through the night with sleek, sexy authority … okay, I’m just trying to upset a couple of our more vocal commenters here. Speaking seriously, however, this Sonata occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between the undeniably solid Camcords and the undeniably handsome Fusion. Think of it as a USA-built Korean take on the Altima. It’s big, and it’s roomy, but it’s not refined and it doesn’t feel like it’s milled from solid anything.

If you’re truly interested in the Sonata, take a look at one of the up-spec variants. If all you want is a good $22,000 family sedan, I don’t think this is your first choice.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Gearhead77 Gearhead77 on Mar 11, 2016

    I owned one Hyundai product and I don't think I'd ever do it again. Not that the car was bad, it was a base 2001 Elantra, with a stick and no options. I put 20k on it in a year and it was only in the shop once for some odd failure involving a relay, for which there was a TSB. But it was not a "drivers" car. And every Hyundai(or Kia) I've been in has always fallen short in that regard. Perfectly capable transportation, but lacking a certain refinement in the steering, ride and handling. And usually a fair amount of road noise. I've never been in a Equus or Genesis, so I'd be interested to see how they do. I had a Focus as a rental in 2001, right after Sept 11th. Base SE, but I loved how it drove. I went and looked at a 5 spd ZX3 with the Performance and Premium packages, took my negative "equity" into a 0% loan and drove the Focus home. Dumb financially, but that Focus is one of my favorite cars I've had. I nearly leased an '11 Elantra when the new styling came out. But when I drove it, it drove like the 2001 still, with some more refinement of course. It's the value equation that keeps people buying Hyun/Kia. You certainly can get a lot more equipment in their vehicles for a better deal. But the lack of finesse in their cars annoys me.

    • EX35 EX35 on Mar 11, 2016

      Did your 2001 have the dreaded highway shimmy? My 2004 had one that I could never get rid of and Hyundai service back then was abysmal. The only positive thing I can say was that it was reliable and cheap. I'll never set foot in a H/K dealer after that experience.

  • Rallyz Rallyz on Jul 21, 2017

    I need advice on buying a mid size sedan. I have a 2004 Honda Accord ex with 178000 miles. I'm looking to replace it with another car. I'm looking at the following models: 2013 Honda Accord exl, 2013 Camry xle, 2016 Hyundai sonata limited. I want it to last at least 178000 miles or more. I was looking at power seats, but not sure now. I live in southeast us, so Subaru is not worth it. Also, I put little maintenance on my accord, but newer Accord have horrible quality issues. Not a fan of cvts. 2013 Camry because of Edmunds consumer review score. I don't like the brake issues with Camry. Sonata seems fine as my cousins have it, but not aging well is a concern. Any advice is strongly appreciated. My other car is an mdx, so no suv.

  • El scotto The days of "Be American, buy America" are long gone. Then there's the mental gymnastics of "is a Subaru made in Lafayette, IN more American than something from gm or Ford made in Mexico?" Lastly, it gets down to people's wallets; something cheap on Amazon or Temu will outsell its costlier American-made item. Price not Patriotism sells most items. One caveat: any US candidate should have all of his/her goods made in the USA.
  • FreedMike Well, here's my roster of car purchases since 1981: Three VWsTwo Mazdas (one being a Mercury Tracer, full disclosure)One AudiOne FordOne BuickOne HondaOne Volvo I think I hear Lee Greenwood in the background... In all seriousness, I'd have bought more American cars had they made more of the kinds of cars I like (smaller, performance-oriented).
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X I'll gladly support the least "woke" and the most Japanese auto company out there.
  • Jmo2 I just got an email from the dealership where I bought my car and it looks like everything has $5k on the hood.
  • Lou_BC I suspect that since the global pandemic, dealerships have preferred to stay with the "if you want it, we will order it" business model. They just need some demo models on hand and some shiny bits to catch the impulse buyer. Profits are higher and risks lower this way.
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