CORONADO, CA – Hyundai says it wants to keep pushing the envelope on Sonata styling, but don’t look for the next-generation model to be a radical change from the current sedan.

Hyundai struck gold in the U.S. with the current Sonata, introduced in 2010. The car saw sales spike to a record 230,605 units last year, despite a crowded midsize segment that included fresher competitors such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.

The seventh-generation Sonata arrives here next year and will bear a strong resemblance to the car that put Hyundai on the map.

“I think we found a design language that works, the ‘fluidic sculpture’ stuff, so I would say (the new styling) is not pulling back in any way. It’s more continuing to refine on that same trajectory that we’re on,” John Krafcik, Hyundai U.S. CEO, tells WardsAuto in an interview here.

“If you look at the prior-generation Sonata, (it) had nothing in common (with the current model). This (new) car, you’ll look at and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a Sonata. I get it. That’s cool.’”

Krafcik isn’t concerned about the relatively long wait until the new Sonata arrives, despite flagging sales, down 14.4% through March compared with year-ago.  Nor is he worried the marketing blitz for the redesigned Accord and Fusion will draw buyers away.

“Although we in the industry understand cars’ birthdays, consumers really don’t,” he says. “A lot of consumers are just entering (the) midsize (segment) for the first time. They don’t see (the Sonata) as a 3-year-old car. They see it as, ‘Whoa, that’s a pretty good-looking midsize car,’ so it’s doing quite well.”

Krafcik blames the Sonata’s sales decline on Hyundai’s decision to boost production of the Elantra compact car at the auto maker’s Montgomery, AL, plant, where the two are built, as well as scant supply of the GLS midgrade Sonata.

Even so, Sonata retail sales remain relatively strong, he says, with a lower fleet percentage three years into its lifecycle than some of its newer competition, such as the year-old Nissan Altima. The midsize-sedan segment has the highest fleet percentage in the U.S., he notes, with an average 30% of total D-segment deliveries going to government, corporate or daily-rental customers.

Most Sonatas sold in the U.S. are built in Montgomery. The Sonata Hybrid, refreshed for ’13, is an exception, sourced from Hyundai’s Asan, South Korea, plant. For ’13, the hybrid gets a bigger electric motor, 35 kW (47 hp) vs. 30 kW (40 hp) in the ’12 model, and a heftier 47-kW lithium-ion battery pack compared with a 34-kW pack for the current model.

Hyundai says the changes increase the time spent driving in all-electric mode and improve fuel economy 6% in city driving and 3% on the highway.

Krafcik calls hybrids a “bridging technology” for Hyundai until it can establish hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles in the U.S. The auto maker has said it will mass-market FCEVs here beginning in 2015.

“(Hybrids are) something we’ll need to use to hit (stringent emissions requirements), in particular in California,” he says. “It’s a technology that we need to continue to evolve. It’s good exercise for us (and) allows us to continue to apply our battery technology.”

Sonata Hybrid sales rose 74% last year to 18,030 units, Hyundai says. It does not break out monthly deliveries for the model.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com