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December 14, 2010 > Auto Review: Hyundai Sonata: First of the '11s

Auto Review: Hyundai Sonata: First of the '11s

By Steve Schaefer

If you want to drive the newest thing on the road, head down to your friendly neighborhood Hyundai dealership for the all-new, full-size 2011 Sonata. It's the latest salvo in the Korean company's ambitious plan to debut seven new models in 24 months. With the Tucson small SUV out already, 2/7 of the job is done.

This new model is eye-catching, thanks to Hyundai's new Fluidic Sculpture design language. The company's official explanation involves aesthetically combining "natural, fluidic elements" with "rigid surfaces and structures." Make of it what you will, but this car is not boring to look at. It's a bit of a clichˇ to say it, but the Sonata looks like it's moving while sitting still. It is rare when a car is totally transformed from one generation to the next, but this sixth generation Sonata is just that car.

And that is a good thing. Consumer Reports, the flinty-eyed folks who bypass the marketing hype and look at cars for what they are and their reliability (and survey owners, too), have been big on the Sonata for years. And consumers are becoming more comfortable with buying the rapidly improving Korean vehicles.

The new Sonata competes with the segment players - Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima - as well as the American-badged Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion. Built in Alabama, it meets or exceeds the others in many areas, including total interior volume (passengers and cargo), at 120.2 cubic feet. Only the Sonata and Accord are rated as "Large" by the EPA; the rest, although very close, are given the Midsize designation.

Sonata's standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, with 198 horsepower, beats all the competitor's fours by a wide margin, and offers, by far, the best power-to-weight ratio. The new engine, featuring highly efficient gasoline direct-injection (GDI), delivers EPA fuel economy of 22 City, 35 Highway with Hyundai's proprietary six-speed automatic, and an even better 24/35 with the six-speed manual. I averaged 26.8 mpg. The manual transmission is available only in the GLS - the lowest level model.

Hyundai has decided to make the Sonata a four-cylinder-only product, which is brave, and with the larger Genesis above it offering a V6 and a V8, smart too. A 274-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo model is on its way, and will be competitive with other brands' V6 models while offering better fuel economy. A hybrid Sonata is coming too. I plan to test these other versions as soon as they arrive.

EPA Green Vehicle Guide numbers are not available for 2011 models yet, but last year's 2.4-liter four, with 175 horsepower, rated 7 in both Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas. There is a special California version shown with 9.5 for Air Pollution, which would be the one to buy if it's available.

Above the GLS, the SE offers a package of sportiness-enhancing upgrades, starting with two extra horsepower and a sport-tuned suspension and steering. You also get handsome 18-inch alloys, sport seats with leather bolsters and cloth inserts, and a leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob. My test car, a pre-production model without a window sticker, appeared to be an SE and it was a real pleasure to drive.

Above the SE is the Limited model, wherein you get full leather seats and automatic climate control along with some upgraded interior accents and a standard sunroof. Funny - Hyundai wants to stand out in the crowd, yet uses familiar model designations that leave no doubt as to the equipment levels you will get when you buy the car.

Hyundai interiors have improved with each passing year, and now, to my eye, are the equal of their Japanese competition. Quality of the plastics, fit and finish are right where they need to be; the odd chemical aroma from earlier models is gone.

The only things that seemed a little off were a steering wheel with leather - but not in the 3 and 9 positions where my hands normally are - and overly bright illumination of the automatic shifter gear indicator panel in the console. The latter may be fixed in regular production vehicles.

Pricing is where Hyundai has offered a competitive advantage in the past, and these numbers seem promising. The GLS with manual six-speed starts at $19,915, including shipping charges. That's a nice dinner under the $20,000 price point. The top level Limited with a navigation system stickers at $28,115. That still sounds like a price advantage over the competition, but nobody is going to call a Sonata "cheap" anymore.

With all the right stuff, this newest Sonata should be a very sweet song for Hyundai.

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