Hyundai Sonata — Fast becoming a mainstream power

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Hyundai designers threw out the playbook and started with a fresh sheet of paper with the 2011 mid-sized Sonata. It breaks new styling ground inside and out in a segment loaded with “me-too” designs.

The segment is perhaps considered too important for outside-the-box thinking. It’s best to follow the leader when it comes to both exterior and interior styling, when the sale of hundreds of thousands of vehicles hangs in the balance. Taking chances is too risky.

Not for the thinkers at the California-based Hyundai Design and Research Center who took a bold, fresh take on how a family sedan should look. It has apparently paid off judging from the initial reaction from the automotive press and the car-buying public.

The new Sonata has a depth of good looks usually reserved for such luxury brands as Mercedes and BMW. Its sleek shape suggests motion with a fast-back roofline, a down-swooping character line running from the taillight to the front fender and a chrome strip running along the beltline through the hood to the headlight cluster. Incredibly neat! Although the beltline is fairly high, a styling trait that came in vogue over the past few years, sight lines in all directions are excellent.

Hyundai calls it “fluidic sculpture design.” It mimics the Mercedes CLS fastback sedan, which has been on the market for several years. It also looks a lot like the Volkswagen CC, but the Hyundai design was probably already locked in by the time the CC was first revealed so it seems fair to say that both cars owe at least some of their lines to the Mercedes. No matter the origins of the Sonata’s striking looks, they work.

Look inside and you’ll see a handsome setup with a center stack that flows down through the center console. Our SE test car came with nice gray-and-black cloth upholstery, and easy-to-read gauges and soft-to-the-touch switchgear. The brushed-aluminum-looking trim is the only thing that gave us pause, just a bit too cheesy but not enough to spoil the overall feel of the interior as a whole. The top line Limited edition comes with rich-looking piano black trim.

The ironic thing here is that Hyundai has climbed the ladder of success over the past two decades unabashedly copying the competition. This may be the first Hyundai that clearly steps away from that strategy, even if does pay a slight homage to the CLS. The new Sonata really stands on its own.

And here’s perhaps the most interesting thing. There is much more to this sedan than exterior and interior styling. Hyundai has created a spacious five-passenger vehicle that leads in other areas as well including a combination of performance and mileage here-to-fore not seen in most of the mid-sized nameplates.

For the moment there is only one engine option and we think it will appeal to a vast majority of people shopping in this segment. Hyundai has worked some magic developing a 2.4-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder developing 198 horsepower or 200 horsepower, depending on trim level, mated to a slick six-speed automatic transmission.

The engine is energetic, measured from 0-to-60 in less than eight seconds in several magazine tests. And the really good part — it is rated at a class-leading 35 mpg on the highway and 22 city with a combined rating of 26 mpg.

We found the Sonata SE, with the 200-pony rating, to be more than satisfying and the car’s road-holding ability rewarding for a mid-sized family vehicle. In that regard, you might find the suspension a tad on the stiff side, but we had no problem with the ride and we think most people will find it acceptable.

For those of you disappointed that Hyundai dropped the V-6 option when virtually all the competition has a V-6 choice, fear not. Hyundai this fall it will introduce a turbocharged 4-cylinder developing 274 horsepower while yielding an astonishing 34 mpg highway. That model should satisfy all performance junkies.

And if you desire even better mileage, Hyundai will also introduce a hybrid model this fall expected to be rated at around 40 mpg. It will develop 206 horsepower and come with the six-speed automatic rather than the more traditional continuously variable transmission found in most hybrids.

Another of our few concerns is that the steering wheel tilt and telescope feature did not have enough travel to give us a truly comfortable fit. Also, the gauges, which look spectacular at night, tended to wash out in bright sunlight making it a chore to read the speedometer.

Passenger space is exemplary with very generous leg and foot room for rear-seat passengers. The only complaint here is with the sloping roof, which may create some head room problems for tall passengers. The generous rear-seat room does not impede on the usefulness of the trunk, which will hold 16 cubic feet of stuff, two more than the Honda Accord, which is basically the same size as the Sonata. We easily loaded two sets of golf clubs.

The Sonata comes in three trim levels — GLS, SE and Limited — starting at $19,995 for the GLS with manual transmission and $20,915 with automatic. We think most people will opt for the SE beginning at $23,315 including destination charge. Considering the high level of standard content, these prices meet and in most cases trump the competition. Our SE test car with the $2,600 navigation option, which also included premium audio and a sunroof, carried a bottom line of $26,015.

In June automotive marketing and consulting firm AutoPacific named the Sonata winner of its first ever President’s Award declaring the sedan had received the highest score ever in its initial owner satisfaction survey. Not a bad start for the all-new Sonata.

Base price: $19,915; as driven, $26,015
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 200 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 186 foot-pounds @ 4,250 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 110 inches
Length: 189.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,340 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 16.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons
EPA rating: 35 mpg highway, 22 mpg city
0-60: 7.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion

The Good:
• Styling starts to turn heads
• Equally stylish, comfortable cabin
• Solid fuel economy
• Above average performance, capable handling

The Bad:
• Gauges tend to wash out in bright sunlight

The Ugly:
• Customers must wait for turbocharged version to get V-6 performance