With eight different model lines, one might hesitate to single out Hyundai’s most important car. President and CEO John Krafcik, though, does not. “Sonata is the brand for Hyundai,” he says. That explains why, for the new 2011 Sonata, Hyundai is spending twice what it did to launch the Genesis — which was the brand’s first-ever luxury offering and first-ever rear-wheel-drive car. Hyundai is betting heavily on this car, and the wager is likely to pay off. The new Sonata is at or near the top of its hyper-competitive class in a broad range of categories — some you might expect (low price, fuel economy, light weight) and some you might not (power, torque, interior space, and driving dynamics).
A key decision early on in the car’s development, and one that sets it apart from every one of its competitors, was the decision to forgo a V-6 engine. Not having to design the front structure to carry a heavier V-6 allowed Hyundai to save about 100 pounds, helping make the Sonata at least a few — and as many as a few hundred — pounds lighter than the rest of the midsize sedan field, save the equally svelte Nissan Altima. Instead of a six, the Sonata’s more potent engine offering will be a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which arrives this fall as an option for the top two trim levels. A hybrid model also will join the lineup at that time.
But buyers looking for power or fuel economy might just be satisfied with the standard direct-injected 2.4-liter four. Its power and torque outputs of 198 hp and 184 lb-ft (200 hp and 186 lb-ft in the SE, which has dual exhaust) are tops in the field. Paired with the base car’s standard six-speed manual transmission, it also gives the Sonata the best fuel economy in the segment: 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway. With the six-speed automatic (optional in the GLS, standard in the SE and Limited), the figures are 22/35 mpg — still the best highway mileage, but 1 mpg shy of the Ford Fusion and the Nissan Altima in the city.
This engine is muscular enough to provide punchy response without the driver mercilessly caning it, which is a good thing because, like most direct-injected engines, its engine note is more mechanical growl than melodic symphony. Most of the time though, you hardly hear it. The six-speed automatic is very smooth, whether calling the shots itself or responding to your push or pull of the shift lever (the SE also has paddles).
Drop down a few gears to head into a curve, and the Sonata turns in crisply, resisting body roll and understeer better than you’d expect from a mainstream midsize sedan. Body motions are well damped, both on winding roads and on the freeway. We were also pleased that Hyundai has moved far away from the one-pinkie steering efforts prized in Korea, as the Sonata’s helm has pleasant heft and commendable precision.
The driving environment is easy enough to adapt to, with straightforward controls and clear gauges housed in the currently voguish deeply hooded twin binnacles. Storage space is plentiful, and the (standard) iPod input is readily accessible. Also standard, on even the base trim level, is Bluetooth phone connectivity, a feature that is fast becoming a necessity due to hands-free cell-phone laws. We aren’t fans of the cloth seats in the GLS or the cloth-and-leather combo in the SE, which makes leather, and therefore the Limited, a necessity. The good news for those in northern climates is that the Limited includes heated seats for both front and rear passengers. Whatever the weather, rear-seat riders will enjoy vast legroom, although the Audi-like arching roofline makes for precious little head clearance for those over six feet. Still, the Sonata has enough space inside to join the Honda Accord as the only large cars in this class, as measured by the EPA. And the Sonata does so despite being very nearly the shortest among its major competitors; that relatively trim size combined with a tight turning circle eases parking maneuvers.
Of all its competitive superlatives, perhaps the most predictable is “lowest price.” Unlike Camry, Accord, Altima, Fusion, or Malibu, the base Sonata is able to limbo under the $20,000 bar, and even a fully loaded Limited (with navigation, back-up camera, and premium audio) tops out at just over $28,000. Flinty-eyed family-sedan shoppers will take notice, and with old objections like quality and residual value falling away, we’d be willing to bet that the impressive new Sonata will power past at least a few competitors in the mid-size sedan horse race.
On sale: Now
Price: $19,915 (GLS); $23,315 (SE); $26,015 (Limited)
2.4-liter direct-injection I-4
198-200 hp @ 6300 rpm
194-196 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
24/35 mpg (manual)
22/35 mpg (automatic)