Where did the sporty family sedan begin? Was it the third-generation Honda Accord EX, with its front and rear double wishbone suspension, great steering, angular design and flip-up headlights? Or did it come from true sports sedans, like the BMW M5 or the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG? We may never know. But one thing we do know is that these five-seaters for suburbanites are no longer compromising the self-respect of their drivers. You can carry Costco-sized grocery loads. You can haul a gaggle of kids around town. And, most importantly, you can drive without losing your dignity. The 2015 Toyota Camry XSE ($33,500) and Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T ($28,575) are family sedans that sport handsome designs and a little chutzpah.
We drove the sportier versions of these family sedans from the Far East (though the Sonata is built it Alabama, and the Camry in Kentucky). The new Hyundai Sonata displays a less daring design than the rakish sixth-generation Sonata, but it’s also a more refined, more grown-up version of the Korean family phenom. In 2.0 turbo form, it’s the sportiest Sonata in the line. The new Camry takes up the mantle of the supremely successful sedan, but with a decidedly more adventurous design. Outfitted in XSE trim, it’s a lean, athletic machine. Both dose up on sporty and dose down on vanilla, and they make a strong argument that you can have a touch of excitement in your drive without sacrificing the domestic perks of the family sedan.
Toyota Camry XSE
The 2015 Camry XSE received a brazen exterior refresh, for which there was really no compelling financial reason, by virtue of sales figures in 2014. But Toyota is trying to redefine itself — hence the big mid-act wardrobe change. The body is leaner and meaner, with noticeable hood creases, a rising character line along both doors, a big black lower front grille and boomerang fog lights. The XSE trim leaves the impression that the only things that stayed the same from the 2014 Camry are reliability and seating capacity.
The Camry’s interior layout is utilitarian and simple, but there is a 4.2-inch TFT screen in the center stack and a wireless charging pad for smartphones. For consistency with the XSE’s more athletic exterior, the interior aesthetic gets perforated faux suede seat inserts and high-contrast red stitching, which add a dash of color to an otherwise conservative cabin. The center console buttons are large, the steering wheel is hefty and comes with thumb cutouts, and the paddle shifters feel good in the hand. And the XSE doesn’t scrimp on the tech goods: it comes with LED headlights, leather seats, and the Entune entertainment and navigation system. You can also upgrade to a sonorous JBL sound system and a Technology Package with self-adjusting radar cruise control, automatically adjusting high beams and pre-collision and lane-departure warnings.
The Camry XSE V6 probably has two more cylinders than necessary (it does come in a four-cylinder version). The 268 horsepower 3.5-liter V6 offers plenty of punch, but the front-wheel-drive and low-traction rubber make for some maddening wheel hop when attempting takeoff from a standstill. The car needs more than the P215/55R17 Michelin Primacy All-Seasons to match the power under the hood. 0-60 is a quick 5.8 seconds, but spirited turns are hard to come by thanks to the 0.81 g of lateral grip — a paltry number for a sporty-esque vehicle. The Mazda6 at least nets 0.86 g on the skidpad, and that’s not even for its sportiest iteration. Toyota did, to their credit, give the XSE firmer suspension and sharper steering, so at least the XSE is a little more planted and less shifty than the base car.
Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T
The 2015 Sonata, Hyundai’s second-best-selling car, is aimed for the upscale customer interested in a sophisticated look. The trapezoidal grille, sleek lower fascia and crisp, inwardly tapering taillights are lean and attractive. On the SPORT 2.0T, Hyundai amps the exterior up with chrome-tipped quad pipes, a rear diffuser and 18-inch split-spoke alloy wheels. Nothing on the exterior is superfluous.
In the cabin, there’s room enough for a family of four (or even five). The tapered and sculpted center stack of the 2014 Sonata is replaced by one that’s wider and a bit more conventional; ’tis the way of mass appeal. Improved soft-touch materials, a flat-bottom steering wheel and available contrast stitching on the dash, seats and door panels all class up the interior. It’s a comfortable situation.
Driving the Sonata Turbo in its top-end direct-inject 2.0-liter four-banger isn’t prepping for Nürburgring. From last year the Sonata lost 29 horsepower, dropping from 274 to 245. As a result, the sprint to 60 adds almost 2 seconds, taking around 8 seconds — enough time for you to ponder if it’s sporty enough to bear the sport badge. The twin-scroll turbo does reduce lag, and the 260 lb-ft of torque makes the car feel sprightly, though not blistering. The Honda Accord Sport and VW Passat TSI Sport are quicker, but none are breaking speed records (the Mazda6 does the best in the class). So, as we well know, this isn’t the car to mash the gas when the light turns green. Though the Sonata drives well 90 percent of the time and has improved steering feel — a benefit of the new electric power steering assist — it still leans towards comfort and highway cruising rather than putting power on the pavement.
What the Sonata Sport 2.0T does masterfully is keep five passengers in comfort and peace. The handsome design befits any man who values style, while the available amenities in the Technology Package — like forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, auto-adjusting high beams, rear parking assist, BlueLink telematics, heated and cooled seats and a massive panoramic sunroof — give it the creature comforts of higher-priced cars. Its sportiness exists mostly in aesthetics, rather than driving dynamics. Owners won’t track it, of course, but they will still get a sense of pride from driving a car that’s at least athletic in appearance — and that’s a good thing for the family sedan segment.