A recent test of a 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid got us thinking about how far the Korean automaker has come over the years. Whereas a Hyundai was once a punchline (as it was for David Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross), today the car company is producing polished automobiles for families and performance enthusiasts alike.
In fact, the attractiveness of the 2016 Sonata Hybrid we tested sent us into the vaults to dig up photos of the cars that started the brand’s reputation in America and around the world. What we came up with was not always pretty and sometimes outright boring.
However, we like the contrast to today’s refined fascias sporting LED lights and other slick design cues. And after all, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, a history teacher once told us. So here is a look back at the Sonata through the years in celebration of how Hyundai has evolved into a world-class automaker.
1. First and second generations (1985-1993)
In the Sonata that kicked things off with the first-gen model in Korea circa 1985, we got a blast of boringness that only the 1980s could deliver. Hyundai was far from the only car company guilty of such stylistic offenses at the time, and the automaker did not sit tight for long with the premier edition based on the company’s Stellar. By 1989, there was a second generation of the midsize sedan that debuted in America, though stylistically there was not much worth mentioning.
2.Third and fourth generations (1994-2005)
There was a little more swagger in the Sonata by the third generation, but still plenty of conservative 1990s style. The fourth generation brought more of the elegance you would expect for 21st century car, even it didn’t send you racing to your local dealership.
In a model like the 2004 pictured, you can see how Hyundai was trying to target a more upscale crowd than it did with the original Stellar on which it was based. You may not have bragged about owning a car like this one in some circles, but you weren’t embarrassed about driving one down the road, either.
3. Fifth generation (2006-2010)
By the fifth generation, the Sonata (dubbed “NF”) was feeling it and was clearly unabashed about the company it kept at auto shows. U.S. consumers found a sedan that had grown so much since the previous generations it was classified as a large car. A mid-cycle refresh late in the decade yielded a three-bar grille that anticipates the modern Hyundai we have come to know.
4. Sixth generation (2011-2014)
With the midsize segment the hottest thing going on the U.S. market, Hyundai did not sit pat with the fifth generation and came out firing with the sixth-gen Sonata that started hitting auto shows by 2009. Though late-aughts trends pulled it in line with midsize competitors on the style front, you can see the evolution of a major car brand in every aspect of its construction. The stage was set for its latest edition.
5. Seventh generation (2015- )
Seeing the 2015 Hyundai Sonata debut at the 2014 New York Auto Show was a revelation in many ways. The upscale character and refined exterior of the show car hinted the brand was ready to borrow from its premium models in order to compete with any automaker on the mass market. By the time the tweaks to the 2016 model year went live, there was no question Hyundai was on a roll. What a long way Sonata has come.