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2011 Hyundai Sonata Review

2011 Hyundai Sonata (select to view enlarged photo)
2011 Hyundai Sonata

A Stepped Up Challenge to the Mid-Size Gang
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

The confident folks at Hyundai just introduced the fresh, sixth-generation of the Sonata bread-and-butter, front-wheel drive, mid-size sedan. I wouldn’t call this one white bread, though. It’s more like a trendy ciabatta or whole grain craft bread. It has a practical, nourishing side dressed up with a good measure of style and panache.

The Alabama-built Sonata comes in base GLS, a mid range SE and full-zoot Limited.

On the practical side, Sonata boasts a one-engine-only philosophy (at least to begin with), but that one engine makes about 200 horsepower and is rated at 35-mpg on the highway. And, though it’s meant to be a mid-size sedan based on its exterior dimensions, it has just enough interior volume to be considered a full-size sedan. That, with an admirable level of standard content, starts at barely over $19,000 for the GLS. The Limited starts out at just over $25,000 to which you can add about 2 grand for the Navigation Package. The SE model splits the difference.

On the panache side of the equation the Sonata embodies the styling language Hyundai launched a couple years ago to which they refer as “Fluidic Sculpture.” You may remember the slick Genesis Coupe introduced a bit over a year ago which represented this theme well. The Sonata’s front styling jumps out at first blush. Smooth, flowing lines draw the eye forward and down across each side of the hood and right into the grille where those lines become waves in the chrome grille. The reflections that result accentuate the visual interest. Along the side a strong character line arches from high on the rear lowering as it flows forward without following the existing contour of the window base line. The chrome trim along the window base extends all the way to the headlights for a surprisingly strong visual thrust forward. The rear is a tad more conventional but still stylish.

Inside, the theme continues, aesthetically consistent with the exterior design. Hardly a straight line is to be found anywhere in the interior. The center stack flows up gracefully from a base where both open and deep covered storage bins reside. With metal trim and quite good materials it exudes a better than average feel and look. The navigation screen’s integration and the controls are well thought through and, while not the simplest we’ve used, are easily figured out. Large, round speedometer and tach peek out from under and modest brow and integrated within the circles are raised gauges for fuel level and engine temp. Well, done. The standard driver info system presents its data clearly between the gauges.

Also inside you’ll find push button start standard on SE and Limited; rear seat air vents and heated rear seats standard on Limited; and fluorescent display, Bluetooth and auxiliary inputs with USB ports standard on all models. Two premium sound systems are available, Hyundai’s own Dimension system or an Infinity system.

The leather seats on the Limited (top-of-the-line) model did not have contrasting stitching as is the trend these days but they felt and looked good and, and like the suspension are neither too soft nor too firm, at least for me. Now remember, this is not a sport sedan, but it handles at least as good as its competitors. A conventional independent suspension design underpins the car with a good neutral ride, neither too stiff nor the least bit squishy. Sonata rides on low-rolling-resistance tires but we felt no compromise in traction. Now remember, we weren’t pushing it like a sport sedan. We were trying to drive it as would an enthusiastic consumer.

Why no V6 option? Well, the manager of product planning, Michael Dietz, explained to me that development and material costs were better spent elsewhere on the car. Designing it to accommodate a V6 would have required substantially heavier structure up front. Since they are pulling about 200 horsepower out of the 4-cylinder they did not feel the need to include that extra expense.

Let’s talk about that engine. It displaces 2.4 liters and makes 198 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque (best in class for entry level mid-size cars) in its basic iteration. If you have the dual exhaust it bumps up to 200 horsepower. Direct injection is the key, which allows a high 11.3:1 compression ratio without requiring premium fuel. The competitors (Camry, Malibu, Accord, Altima and the like) don’t have that feature in their base engines. But the others have V6 options where Sonata does not. We’re promised that a turbo, 2.0-liter will be available later in the year – not the same engine as in the Genesis Coupe.

Two six-speed transmissions are available, an automatic and manual. I did not get a chance to drive the stick, which only comes in the base GLS model. The automatic, designed entirely in-house, has a manual mode and shifts very smoothly but not particularly quickly. Manual downshifts are not bad but upshifts can best be described as leisurely.

The new Sonata weighs in at barely 3,200 pounds and boasts a drag coefficient of just .28 – a slick number, indeed. Those numbers contribute to what Hyundai is most proud of, the best-in-class, 35-mpg highway mileage rating from EPA. In city driving expect about 24 with manual transmission and 22 with the automatic. The Hyundai folks threw down a gauntlet at the San Diego launch to see who could manage the highest mileage on the return leg of the journey – mostly freeway driving. All who tried were over the EPA estimates, some way over. The winning team managed over 50-mpg. I had over 40 on a long, down-the-mountain leg until I got tired of the wimpy driving style. Bottom line: this is a mighty efficient package.

Safety equipment includes standard electronic stability control (including ABS, traction control and all the other electronic chassis systems), active head restraints, six airbags and strong substructure.

On sale everywhere mid February, our local dealer (just grabbed the Hyundai franchise after being our Saturn dealer for years) just took delivery on three of them. One sold the day it arrived.

Of course you get the 100,000-mile warranty with this, and all, Hyundais. They, after all, pioneered that plan in order to gain legitimacy in the US market as their quality improved in the late 90s. Now many of the major manufacturers are offering that kind of powertrain protection.

So, bottom line is: as we have begun to expect from Hyundai, this new Sonata comes through with the same or better content than the competition at a lower cost. With the last 6 or 8 vehicles Hyundai has introduced, the style has more than caught up with the content.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved