2011 Hyundai Sonata: First Drive

With best-in-class power and fuel economy, plus a bold new look, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata is a game changer

2011 Hyundai Sonata: First Drive
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We’re crawling, absolutely crawling on a stretch of highway just North of San Diego. This might be expected in Southern California during rush-hour, or an other time of day here for that matter, but the road is free of traffic. What we’re trying to do is win Hyundai’s Fuel Economy Challenge – an event organized as a part of the launch of the all-new 2011 Sonata.


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FAST FACTS

1. The 2011 Sonata is powered by a gasoline direct-injection (GDI) 4-cylinder engine making 198-hp and 186 ft-lbs of torque.

2. Fuel economy is best-in-class at 22/35 mpg (city/hwy) for the six-speed automatic and 24/35 mpg for the six-seed manual.

3. A base GLS model costs just $19,195, while the volume seller, a GLS with the Popular Equipment Package, is quite a bargain at $20,945.

4. Highlights include standard Bluetooth, while Limited models get heated front and rear seats as well as a push-button ignition.

This might not be an accurate representation of daily driving, but Hyundai is eager to show-off just how fuel efficient the new Sonata is. We manage to eek out a 46.8 mpg rating and as impressive as it sounds, that’s only enough for a 3rd place finish, with the winning team managing 52.8 mpg. We also just miss out on a private dinner with Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik who promised just such a prize to anyone who could beat his 47.8 mpg score.

BEST-IN-CLASS FUEL ECONOMY

Under real world driving conditions you should expect closer to 22/35 mpg (24/35 with the six-speed manual). Those numbers are class-leading, topping even the Accord and Camry. They are also just one of many reasons why Hyundai’s new Sonata is a game changer, for the Korean automaker and for the conventionally conventional mid-size sedan segment.

Hyundai dedicated so much of the Sonata’s launch to driving home the fuel-economy numbers and we spent so much time competing in “eco challenges” that we needed to borrow the car the very next day just to get enough of a feel to give our first impressions.

DIRECT-INJECTION DELIVERS BIG JUMP IN POWER

So once again we’re out in the Sonata, but this time it’s different. The car’s new gasoline direct injection (GDI) 2.4-liter 4-cylinder isn’t just a fuel miser, it also makes 198-hp (200-hp in SE trim) and we’re using all of it.

Now this mid-size sedan is no blacktop burner, but acceleration is good, thanks in part to a significantly better power to weight ratio than the competition. This isn’t just because Hyundai’s 4-cyliner makes 22 more horsepower than an Accord, but because it weighs so much less than almost any other vehicle in its class. In fact, the Sonata is as much as 200-lbs lighter than some at just 3,199 lbs to start. A major reason for this is that Hyundai engineers didn’t need to design the chassis to handle a V6. That’s right, there won’t be a V6 option for the Sonata, but rather a turbocharged 4-cylinder that is set to arrive later this year. Game changer number two, or is that two and three?

The car’s new six-speed automatic transmission helps in both the fuel economy and performance arenas. Sick of playing catch-up with automakers like Honda and Toyota, in the past offering only 4-speed automatics while the Japanese had 5-speed units, Hyundai went and developed its own six-speed – a light weight compact unit that shifts seamlessly. A self-shifting feature is available for sportier driving, while the SE trim level gets paddle shifters.

OUT ON THE ROAD: SPORTY YET COMFORTABLE

From behind the wheel this new package comes together perfectly. Steering is direct with minimal body roll for a vehicle of this type, while the suspension delivers a calm and comforting ride, absent of the sort of negative road feedback you might expect from a more stiffly sprung setup.

The Sonata takes corners with finesse, brakes swiftly and the automatic transmission easily hops into the right gear when asked.

We wouldn’t go so far as to say the 2011 Sonata is a class leader in driving dynamics, but it’s definitely near the front of the pack. Those in search of added handling can opt for the SE model with stiffer springs, shocks and a thicker rear sway bar, as well as 18-inch wheels and low profile tires.

As a 4-cylinder, it’s a bit buzzy when revved, but at highway cruising speeds it’s incredibly serene. One of our few critiques with the car is that the GDI 4-cylinder is somewhat noisy, with plenty of ticking and clatter at idle and low speeds.

WELL-EQUIPPED BASE MODELS, WITH ORIGINAL FEATURES ON HIGHER TRIM LEVELS

Inside the cabin is nice, but not quite up to the car’s exterior design, even with the funky Volvo-inspired center stack and ice-blue lighting – now standard across the Hyundai lineup. Fit and finish are certainly up to the standards set by the Japanese automakers, but some of the parts still don’t seem quite as high-quality. We’re also not overly fond of the cloth used for the seats, or the mixed cloth/leather seats on the SE model, but that’s a pretty subjective critique. One of the cockpit’s nicest attributes is the gauge display, with metallic-look surrounds and a small digital advanced trip computer.

Standard GLS trim levels give plenty of creature comforts with all the main power items as well as Bluetooth, remote keyless entry and a tilt/telescopic wheel with redundant audio controls and cruise control, while a Popular Equipment Package (a bargain at $750) ups the offer to deliver pretty much all you could want with a power driver’s seat with lumbar, 16-inch aluminum wheels and some nicer trim inside and out.

Opting for a top-tier Limited model makes a noticeable difference inside and out with things like 17-inch wheels, leather heated seats (front and rear), climate control and a push-button ignition.

Size-wise, for the most part, the Sonata retains the previous generation’s dimensions. It is relatively short in length for its class, but is one of the wider mid-size sedans. Although, technically, due to the car’s interior volume, it is classified as a large car. As a result, rear seat room is plentiful and despite what appears to be a sloping roofline, rear seat headroom is sufficient for adults.

UP-MARKET GOOD LOOKS FOR A MID-SEGMENT SEDAN

Hyundai designers created the Sonata to give it this sloping coupe-like look that has previously only been seen on pricier European models. So as though the car’s performance and fuel economy didn’t already do enough to set it apart, the its style makes a bold statement. In fact, while stopped for lunch on the day of the launch we were approach by a couple who asked for a closer look, admitting that they currently drive a Lexus.

We are equally smitten and can’t help but admire the strong line cut across the cars bow that wraps all the way around to the back, running just above the modernist, angular taillights. Still, that front grille is a bit much.

And so in this mid-size category where styling is as conservative as Ronald Regan, the Sonata is definitely progressive. And we don’t think it’s the polarizing love it or leave it sort either, but rather something genuinely attractive, that will appeal to a very broad segment of buyers. This, of course, means that if the rest of the mid-size segment is going to keep up, the next generation of cars will not only need to be more powerful, efficient and lighter, but will also need to offer a truly compelling design to customers. In other words, the design of the 2011 Sonata is, you guessed it, a game changer.

THE VERDICT

With all these dramatic changes to the Sonata, Hyundai chose to leave one item pretty much untouched – the price. Three simple trim levels: GLS, SE and Limited make up the model offering and a well-equipped Sonata can be had for as little as $19,195, plus $1,000 for the automatic transmission. Hyundai says this represents a $2,300 savings over a less powerful and less fuel efficient Camry, which just so happens to be less dramatic to look at and not as enjoyable to drive. The SE trim starts at just $22,595, while a top level Limited with leather and a long list of other upgrades goes for $25,295. Plus, navigation can be had on all models.

Like we’ve been saying, it’s a game changer. The 2011 Sonata is more powerful and efficient than its competitors and has a look that is sure to revolutionize the mid-size segment. Plus, it has all the safety equipment you’d expect, it’s enjoyable to drive, is quiet and smooth out on the highway and offers plenty of standard equipment for what is still a very Korean price-point.

The new Sonata is the embodiment of value and you can be sure that five years from now when the seventh generation model arrives, consumers won’t be skittish at all and the price of a Hyundai will more closely represent the car’s value; all the better reason to get into one now.

LOVE IT
  • Unconventional Style
  • Powerful and efficient 4-cylinder
  • Still priced like a Korean car
LEAVE IT
  • Some engine “chatter” at low speed and idle
  • Jury’s still out on that grille

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