2011 Hyundai Sonata Road Test

2011 Hyundai Sonata Road Test

2011 Hyundai Sonata Sedan

(2.4L 4-cyl. 6-speed Manual)

Are We There Yet?

Twenty-thousand dollars is too little to pay for this 2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS.

This is a vast amount of car to be getting for such small money. The trunk is huge. The backseat is enormous. The four-cylinder engine makes 198 horsepower. And, yes, this redesigned 2011 Hyundai Sonata is far better than any previous Sonata.

So why doesn't it cost more? Hyundai has left the door wide open for all of us to keep demanding more and more from midsize-to-large sedans for the same teensy price.

Sure, we're being a little coldhearted. But the new Sonata has moved ahead in so many ways, it's time to write a new story about it. So this story won't be about features, warranties or bang for the buck.

Designers Had a Say
Actual design rarely happens in the family sedan class. These front-drivers are shaped and sized to meet expectations for crash performance and passenger room. The most any sedan can hope for is flared fenders and maybe an attractive set of optional wheels.

But the 2011 Hyundai Sonata shows impressive evidence of some real design work.

Sure, you can find aspects of the Toyota Solara or Lexus ES here if you want to, but when this sedan pulls up in a parking lot, your eyes are on it. Love it or hate it, the Sonata is striking in a way that other mid-priced sedans aren't.

Both the fast roof line and the main character line, which begins at the nose and flows through to the rump, represent major victories for the design staff. You see these sorts of lines in the sketchbooks of designers, but it's not often that they make it to production, mostly because the product planners are wringing their hands over the oversized melons that are part of the way corn-fed Americans are shaped.

Direct Injection Will Save Us All
Powerful four-cylinder engines usually don't end up in midsize sedans, either. But with the advent of direct-injection technology aimed at meeting higher fuel economy standards, it's a whole new game.

Hyundai now has an engine that goes toe-to-toe with Volkswagen's beloved 2.0T in both power and fuel consumption. First of all, this normally aspirated engine makes 198 hp at 6,300 rpm, close to the VW's output. It also has a similar collection of not-so-pleasant sounds at idle and under heavy throttle that are characteristic of direct-injected engines.

Nevertheless, Hyundai's direct-injected 2.4-liter engine outdoes VW and everybody else with its torque response. It's just not what you're accustomed to feeling from a four-cylinder engine that does without turbo boost. Torque output is rated at 184 pound-feet at 4,250 rpm, but there's useful grunt before that. Pull remains strong through the midrange, so you can take those choice gaps in freeway traffic.

You Want the Automatic
Redline comes at 6,500 rpm, but as is typical of four-cylinders tuned to give all their sweetness down low, the Sonata's 2.4-liter begins to poop out early — around 5,500 rpm. This makes the throttle-dampening "feature" in manual-shift 2011 Hyundai Sonatas all the more puzzling.

It's basically the same thing we reported in the Genesis Coupe, where the throttle closes noticeably on upshifts. In the coupe, though, we only experienced it on hard shifts at redline, so we could buy the argument that this was a measure to protect the drivetrain.

In our 2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS, which needs to be shifted well before redline anyway, it makes less sense. What's more, you feel the cut in power on every upshift in the Sonata — it's just more pronounced when you're accelerating hard. As a result, it's tough to be smooth in this car, even though Hyundai has taken pains to give the six-speed manual gearbox a precise shift action and a friendly clutch takeup.

You learn to drive around the annoying electronic intervention in daily driving, but there's no way to compensate completely during instrumented testing. Our Sonata's performance is quite respectable, as it gets to 60 mph from a standstill in 7.7 seconds (7.4 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), and then does the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds at 90.6 mph. Notably, it's as quick as a V6-powered example of the previous-generation Sonata.

But with the new six-speed automatic transmission (which has no such throttle-dampening), we're betting the Sonata would close in on the Volkswagen CC as well as the VW Passat, which are good for acceleration to 60 mph from a standstill in 7.3 seconds and a quarter-mile of 15.2 seconds at 92.0 mph.

On the upside, the manual-shift 2011 Hyundai Sonata's EPA-rated fuel economy of 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway already beats every non-hybrid, non-diesel sedan in this class. Of course, reality never matches the cheery optimism of our test car's trip computer (which apparently never dips below 30 for average mpg), but between our 24.6-mpg observed average over 900 miles and this car's supersize 18.5-gallon gas tank, we're encouraged by the 2011 Hyundai Sonata's potential for a long-haul cruising range.

We're Not Feeling It
We can imagine Hyundai product planners happily checking off the boxes for attractive design, brisk acceleration and good fuel economy. This stuff is a big deal for the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, because previous Sonatas have never had them all under one roof.

Yet as we drive our 2011 Sonata GLS, that checklist is never far from mind. The drivetrain, steering and suspension all feel like separate elements that never quite unify into a whole.

The steering, for example, is a rack-and-pinion unit with an electric motor driving the hydraulic power steering pump. This is, of course, a fuel-saving measure, and it's fast becoming the norm in the commuter car segment. But it feels as if Hyundai engineers didn't have enough time to get the calibration just so. The Sonata's steering is too light to give you much precision in the parking lot, yet the effort level doesn't come together as it should on the highway. We're continually chipping away at it on-center to keep the car situated in its lane, and there isn't much information to go on off-center. "The steering is so isolated from what's actually happening, the slalom becomes a visual exercise rather than one of feel," says our resident track-test driver.

Oddly, there's a narrow zone around 40-50 mph when the steering does weight up appropriately. If you happen to be on a back road at the time, you notice that the suspension also does a reasonable job of controlling body roll. And even with meek P205/65R16 94H Kumho Solus KH25 all-season tires wrapped around our base Sonata's steelies, the car turns in pretty well, too.

Among front-drive midsize sedans, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata handles respectably. Its middle-of-the-road performance in the slalom (62.5 mph) and on the skid pad (0.79g) back that up.

Ride Is a Bit Underdone, Too
Of course, then you hit a bump and the suspension gets out of sorts. Maybe it's just the lumpy back road, but later you're on the freeway, and there's still too much movement over garden-variety seams and ruts. The damping just isn't quite right on our GLS tester. Ride quality feels less solid and sophisticated than on rivals like the Mazda 6 and Honda Accord.

We had no such qualms about the 2011 Hyundai Sonata SE we've previously driven, so it may be that the higher-rate springs and extra rebound damping on that model offer a better overall compromise between ride and handling. The SE, you'll recall, also has a different wheel/tire package, with P225/45R18 tires on lightweight cast-aluminum wheels.

It's also possible that upgraded rubber would also translate to slightly shorter braking distances, though the 2011 Sonata GLS is perfectly adequate in this regard. Pedal feel is solid and predictable, and the car stops from 60 mph in 131 feet.

Almost There
We probably wouldn't bother laying into our 2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS for its dynamic lapses if Hyundai hadn't introduced the Genesis Coupe.

That car is for us a statement of intent — an intent to build cars that make you feel something when you drive them. When you get behind the wheel of a Genesis Coupe, it's readily apparent that the car rides, handles and accelerates the way it does because that's exactly how the Hyundai engineers wanted it. (Well, apart from the throttle damping.)

Obviously, a large, front-wheel-drive sedan like the Sonata is never going to behave like a rear-drive sport coupe. But you can certainly build a commuter car following the same principle.

A well-damped ride and precisely tuned steering might not have the same impact on a product planner's checklist as features that are desirable in the sales showroom, like Bluetooth and iPod connectivity (both standard on the 2011 Sonata), yet we think they go a long way toward making the car feel real and whole. And they invariably result in a car that's satisfying and memorable to drive even on mundane commutes.

We can't help but feel that the 2011 Sonata could have been this car if Hyundai had felt comfortable charging a little more for it. And it might just have nicer interior plastics to boot.

As it is, this 2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS is still a good deal for $20,000. But a good deal isn't necessarily a great drive.

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.

Second Opinions

Lead Senior Editor Ed Hellwig says:
There's one thing about this new Sonata that makes all the difference in the world when compared to its predecessors, and you'll never see it. I'm talking about weight, and especially, this Sonata's lack of it.

You see, I've driven a lot of Hyundai products over the years and the one thing that always struck me about them was how heavy they felt. Sometimes this was due to a sloppy suspension, other times it was a consequence of adding features without an equivalent reduction in weight elsewhere.

Making cars lighter while maintaining their crashworthiness isn't easy. I don't know how much effort Hyundai put into keeping the weight down on this Sonata, but it pays off from behind the wheel. The car not only feels more nimble, it feels more refined, too. Obviously it pays in terms of acceleration and gas mileage as well, but it's the overall feel that really impressed me.

I'd say it's as close to a Honda Accord as any Sonata has ever been, and that's no dig. Toss in other significant upgrades like the interior, the performance and the features and this Sonata really is a top-tier sedan.

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