LA JOLLA, CA – Much of the talk about the refreshed ’18 Sonata has been about its jazzier exterior, but Hyundai also gives the sedan’s interior a rework.

“Our focus was to enhance the expensive feel to the vehicle and highlight areas that weren’t highlighted before, (areas) that needed highlighting,” Chris Chapman, chief designer at Hyundai’s Irvine, CA, design studio, tells media here during an ’18 Sonata preview.

Hyundai uses a metal-look garnish to draw more attention to the car’s gauge cluster and touchscreen, for example. The ’15-’17 Sonatas had decorative trim around neither feature and instead had trimmed air vents, he says.

A more subtle change is lifting the center-stack area up and giving it a more horizontal appearance, similar to widescreen film and TV.

“(This) brings it more into what I call the ‘sexy rectangle’ kind of a range,” Chapman says. “We’re used to sort of 16:9 format and the great eras of movies where it was letterbox and kind of stretched Cinemascope. There’s something about the human being that responds to that golden section, as they call it, that as a designer, from a proportion standpoint you’re always sort of striving for that sort of thing.”

Merriam-Webster defines a golden section as “a line segment divided into two pieces at a point that makes the ratio of the whole length to the longer piece the same as the ratio of the longer piece to the shorter piece.”

When Hyundai was developing the ’15 Sonata, it placed a strong focus on improving the car’s HMI, prodded by third-party surveys such as J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study in which owners of new vehicles often negatively score features that are not easy to use or visually pleasing.

However, Mike O’Brien, vice president-product, corporate and digital planning for HMA, says this time around Hyundai was trying to find a better balance of visual and tactile appeal, and still achieve effective HMI. “I think that’s the push-and-pull we always face,” he says.

Colors and trims have changed slightly from the ’17 to ’18 Sonata. A black interior now is available in SE, Eco and Limited grades of the car, in addition to carryover beige and gray. A new midgrade model, SEL, also offers all three color choices.

The car’s top Limited grade only has black leather for ’18, nixing a gray choice available in ’17. A new Sport 2.4 grade joins the Sport 2.0T grade and both have just black leather with cloth inserts. The ’17 Sport 2.0T offered a beige or gray leather/cloth combo.

Trim pieces are revised slightly, but Hyundai still offers faux wood and metal inserts, as well as a technical-style 3-D film. The lower grades (SE, Eco and SEL) get the metal-look decor, wood is reserved for the Limited grade and the film is for Sport and 2.0T Sport and 2.0T Limited Sonatas.

A 2.0T Limited Sonata displayed here has black-leather seating surfaces with contrast cobalt-blue stitching and piping. Stitching and piping is most heavily applied to the car’s front seats, while rear seats have lesser amounts, largely on their outer edges. All rear head restraints have blue piping on both left and right edges.

The 2.0T Limited’s “technical” film has a sound-wave-form pattern (pictured below), different from the uniform dot pattern on the outgoing Sport 2.0T.

As for the ’18 Sonata’s exterior, Hyundai is not shy in saying it purposefully tried to recapture the feeling of excitement present with the previous-generation model, which conquested more sales from other brands than any other Hyundai to that point.

“One of the things that made the previous-generation Sonata so accepted was its head-turning, striking design,” O’Brien says. “People turned their heads and said, ‘What’s that?’ So Chris’ team was focused on reinvigorating this car with what we would call head-turning design that’s going to bring customers back to our showrooms that remember our ’11 product.”

O’Brien says Hyundai made a much bigger investment in the refresh of the Sonata than it typically would for a midcycle update. All sheet metal is changed, as is the car’s front fascia, which has an on-trend large front grille replacing a smaller design. The rear deck lid, front and rear bumper trim and taillamps also are redesigned. In the rear, the license plate holder has been moved to the lower bumper, leaving space to widely place the letters spelling Sonata for stylistic effect.

“It was really all about…giving it a completely different complexion in terms of how the market will view this car,” O’Brien says of exterior changes.

Adds Chapman: “Really harkening back to (the ’11-’14 Sonatas’) Fluidic Sculpture (design language) was really important part for us to be authentic to ourselves, to bring in a little bit more of that flow, a little bit more of that sculpture – (make the car) a little less rigid, if you will. And to really recapture the imagination of what people are used to, to what the Sonata stands for.”

Chapman is quick to note that trying to recapture the magic of Fluidic Sculpture is not a regression on Hyundai design’s part, as enough elements of the ’18 model are completely different from the ’11-’14-era Sonata.

“I think it’s really vital we honor where (Fluidic Sculpture) brought us, and we’re continuing that lineage and kind of emotional sculpture in our cars,” he says.

Making the Sonata possibly more CUV-like to sway light-truck intenders was not part of the car’s design directive, both O’Brien and Chapman say, with O’Brien noting sedan buyers want a sedan and enjoy a 4-door’s attributes such as a locking trunk for secure storage and a low center of gravity for better driving and handling performance than a utility vehicle.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com