In the Midsize Sedan Game, a Talented Player for Short Money
John DiPietro , Automotive Editor
Upon checking out the all-new 2011 Hyundai Sonata at the Los Angeles auto show, a colleague declared, "Hyundai just might take over the world with this thing." A rather bold statement, yes, but based on our seat time in a Sonata GLS (the entry-level trim, mind you), Hyundai is, at the very least, going to shake up the very competitive world of midsize family sedans.
Much like the Boston Celtics of 2006-'08, this Korean car company has elevated itself from the bottom ranks to become a force to be reckoned with. And these days it's like Hyundai just keeps hitting 3-pointers -- consider the Genesis and the new Tucson. The latest "three" to swish through the net is the all-new Sonata.
Much like an NBA all-star, the latest Sonata has a fair measure of swagger. Whereas before the car wore anonymous, demure sheet metal, the new one sports sculpted body sides and daring, semi-fastback styling. The overall look is more midrange luxury car than family sedan and is indicative of the new confidence Hyundai is rightfully feeling. But the company didn't forget this car's mission: giving savvy consumers plenty of room, solid performance and a lot of features for a modest price tag.
Though the new 2011 Hyundai Sonata doesn't offer the option of a V6, it gets by just fine without one (more on that later). Besides, most cars sold in this segment are equipped with four-cylinder engines, even when V6s are optional. In this game, however, there are a number of good players. And now that the Sonata has a bit of a sporty streak, we'd put its most direct rivals as the Ford Fusion, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima and Suzuki Kizashi.
Pitted against them, the Sonata makes a strong showing with its perky power plant, upscale styling, roomy, well-equipped cabin and strong value proposition. Still, out-and-out domination isn't within reach just yet, as a few of those rivals best the Sonata in driving enjoyment and chassis refinement. But there's no denying that the 2011 Hyundai Sonata offers an enticing package in the form of a talented, well-rounded player that doesn't demand the bigger bucks of the game's more established names.
With 198 horsepower, the Sonata GLS's 2.4-liter, direct-injected inline-4 is the brawniest four in this segment. It packs a strong punch down low and through the midrange before tapering off at higher revs, meaning there's plenty on tap for dicing with city traffic and swiftly merging onto fast-moving freeways. At the track, the Sonata dashed to 60 in 7.7 seconds and ran down the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds -- pretty quick for a car this size motivated by a four-cylinder.
Competent as the powertrain was, there was still one slight annoyance. The electronically controlled throttle automatically "lets up on the gas" between the driver's manual upshifts, ostensibly to smooth out the gearchanges. But this throttle damping results in a slight bog between upshifts, and anyone who knows how to properly drive a manual transmission does this on their own anyway, so it's just unnecessary. That said, this quirk will be a nonissue for at least 90 percent of the Sonatas sold, as they will be fitted with the six-speed automatic.
Against its best-in-class fuel-economy ratings of 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined, we averaged about 25 mpg. The car's trip computer was rather optimistic, typically showing 30 mpg as an average. Still, our result was pretty good for a car this size under our heavy feet.
When our test track jockey stuffed his foot into the brakes at 60 mph, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata responded with a firm, progressive pedal and a stopping distance of 131 feet. That's a typical number for a family sedan. In terms of handling, the Sonata GLS is a mixed bag. The electric power steering is rather numb and is too light for our tastes. And though it does weight up nicely at medium speeds, enthusiasts will notice too little communication between the tires and their hands.
The numb steering is a bummer, as the actual handling is quite good -- turn-in is crisp and there's only moderate body roll when you press it on a curvy road. Most folks shopping mainstream family sedans probably won't be as picky as we are in this regard. But if they are, they can always consider the Sonata SE, which offers a more rewarding drive via its sport-tuned suspension, recalibrated steering and larger, more aggressive tires.
Up front, the Sonata's bucket seats offered enough support and comfort that a half-day's drive drew no complaints. And the driver seat and the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel offered a large enough range of adjustment to allow short and tall drivers alike to get comfortable at the helm. As the Sonata's combined cabin and trunk space is great enough to earn the car a "large sedan" classification by the EPA, rear seat room is expectedly lavish. The high seat cushion provides proper under-thigh support and despite the rakish roof line, there is plenty of headroom for taller folk.
Most of the time, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata's suspension did a respectable job of absorbing broken pavement without jostling the occupants. But it would occasionally get upset and wiggle about over some surfaces (such as concrete freeway seams or more severe potholes) where rivals such as the Honda Accord or Mazda 6 would remain unfazed and more planted.
The audio system uses the tried-and-true two-knob (power/volume and tuning) layout and features standard satellite radio and iPod connectivity. However, to use the latter you'll have to spring for Hyundai's aux/USB cable, which costs all of $35. The system's sound quality is pretty robust for a base unit and the iPod interface is intuitive. Bluetooth connectivity is also standard, as are steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, another couple of nice perks for a car priced this low.
If you've been in a Volvo recently, you'll recognize the Sonata's climate controls as they feature a similar little guy we've nicknamed "Mode Man." We don't blame Hyundai for borrowing this clever idea -- you simply press on Mode Man wherever you want the air to flow, for example, head and/or feet. In-cabin storage is abundant, with two cubbies below the center stack and a large, two-tiered console box.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata passed our usability tests with flying colors. At 16.4 cubic feet, the trunk's capacity is a few cubes larger than an Accord's and had no problem accommodating our rolling luggage case and golf bag. A rear-facing child seat was easily positioned in the backseat and still allowed plenty of room for a taller passenger up front.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Sonata's crouching stance and tapering roof line make the car stand out in this segment, where boxy and upright is more the norm. Only the Volkswagen CC, which exists in a higher price segment, exudes the same visual dynamic. Some details are rather overstyled -- notably the grille and taillights -- though they do give the car some added distinction.
As Chevy did with the Malibu, Hyundai's interior designers used two-toning and a mix of textures to give the Sonata's cabin a fancy look that belies its cost-conscious price tag. And the padded dash top furthers the initial impression. Look closer, however and you'll notice hard plastic door panels where rivals feature soft padding. To be fair, the Sonata's upper trims offer a padded insert there. Still, that's nitpicking and the overall build quality is solid, as witnessed by the tight, even panel gaps and smooth movement of the various controls.
Who should consider this vehicle
Anyone looking for a roomy, well-equipped and fuel-efficient family sedan with a little spring in its step and some daring styling will be well served by the 2011 Hyundai Sonata. That the new Sonata provides more than you'd expect for the price is just an added bonus.
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