Well, now I understand what all the fuss is about: With one stroke, Hyundai has transformed the Sonata from rental-car, bottom-of-the-heap status to a legitimate threat to the kings of the lucrative and all-important mid-size-sedan segment, the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima. The four-cylinder engine and the six-speed transmission work very well together and should indeed meet the needs of many people who thought they wanted or needed a V-6 engine, and the bonus is an amazing 35-mpg highway fuel economy rating. With 198 hp on tap and a relatively modest curb weight of 3200 pounds, the Sonata had plenty of power for my brief stint on the freeway, where I easily merged into the traffic stream and accelerated to 90 mph.
Hyundai, you see, has decided not to offer a V-6 engine at all, because it feels (and I agree) that the four-cylinder is more than sufficient, and in not having to build the car’s front structure in such a way as to accommodate the extra weight and size of a V-6, the company’s engineers were able to shave about 100 pounds off the car’s weight right from the get-go.
Body control, ride quality, and steering feel are all exemplary and would be foreign qualities to any driver of the outgoing, soggy Sonata. The 2011 Sonata just goes down the road with a crispness and a sense of purpose that only the Accord and the Altima come close to matching.
The direct-injection four-cylinder is strong but not silent. It would be a stretch to call it unrefined, but it would certainly be a stretch to call it mellifluous. No matter: it settles into a distant hum once you’re on the freeway, where wind noise is only marginally evident. And you can always turn up the excellent optional stereo like the one on our tester.
Cabin finish and ergonomics are at or near the top of the class. The radio and navigation interface, like the one in the Hyundai Genesis sedan, are absolutely superb. At $28K fully loaded, our test car seems like a bargain.
I am put off by the weird chrome grille, but there are many touches of elegance to the exterior, and the car as a whole presents as one that has substance and presence. Your average American will quite like it, I predict.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
The first thing I noticed in the new Sonata is its seats, which are hard and flat with very little support. That’s a shame, because the interface between my rear end and the car overwhelmed all my other reactions to the car during my first 20-mile stint in it. Feeling that might be a bit unfair, I signed the car out for a weekend to give it a chance to redeem itself.
Unfortunately, the seats didn’t magically become softer or more supportive in the meantime, but I at least got used to them, to the point that I could appreciate the well-fitted interior appointments and the roominess and practicality of this family sedan. Oh, and the four-cylinder engine, which is so responsive and pulls so well that I’ll wager that buyers will never pine for a six-cylinder model.
As with the Tucson that was in our fleet at the same time, Hyundai seems to have cracked the code when it comes to meeting – and beating – its Japanese competitors. With lots of standard equipment, good materials and build quality, and competitive pricing, the Sonata looks like it’s primed to gobble up some more market share in its segment. If only they could add a little padding to the seats.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
A significant number of early Sonata sales will be to carmakers that purchase them for competitive analysis. Those who pass will miss an early assessment of the car that cracks the mid-size-sedan code.
Actually, the Sonata is not mid-size. This car’s first strategic move is providing ample passenger and trunk volume. According to SAE and EPA measures, the Sonata is a Large Car. That gives Hyundai legitimate bragging rights that its hero tops the competition in roominess.
Point two is design. No squinting is necessary to see hints of Mercedes-Benz CLS in the Sonata’s profile. While the grille is too flamboyant for my tastes, I predict that John and Jane Consumer will be very favorably impressed by the Sonata’s styling.
Some makers squander interior space to provide a sleek roofline, but thankfully Hyundai didn’t stoop to that. The front and rear doors accommodate easy entry, and the bench in back carries three adult passengers without complaint. Large two-plus-two sedans always leave me feeling cheated. When I tried the Sonata’s back seat on for size and noticed the ample space and ease of moving laterally, I decided that Hyundai is serious about impressing its customers on the long haul.
The third notable accomplishment here is how happy Hyundai’s new Theta II 2.4-liter engine is at work. Everyone who recovers from V-6 separation anxiety will be impressed by the vitality provided by this 200-hp four-cylinder and its smooth disposition. Class-leading fuel economy (mid- to high 20s in mixed driving on regular gas) seals the deal. But give some of the credit to the six-speed manual and automatic transmissions that help the engine shine.
Replacing metal with plastic under the hood and eliminating the extra structure needed for a V-6 option gives the Sonata a light and lively feel. The steering is quick and direct, the moves are predictably agile. The Sonata is more fun to drive than most of the mid-size sedans.
I have two minor complaints. The Sonata needs a few more ounces of sound deadening under the hood to suppress the fuel-injector clicking, which sounds like a nest of angry insects. And I’d find the automatic transmission more palatable if its manual mode held gears all the way to the engine’s redline.
Don Sherman, Technical Editor
As much as everyone else has been raving about the new Sonata’s interior, I feel that the interior of the new Suzuki Kizashi far outshines the Hyundai’s, and for less money. I especially don’t care for the Sonata’s blue dashboard lighting. I didn’t like it in late-1990s Volkswagens, and I don’t like it in the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, because I find it to be virtually illegible at night. Everything, even the controls on the wheel, a foot in front of my eyes, takes way too long for my eyes to focus on, if at all. I had to turn on the dome light to identify the cruise functions.
Visibility out the rear corners of the Sonata is not great, and the headlights on this car have a really abrupt cutoff and too short of a reach on low beam.
On the plus side, ride, steering, and handling were all very good. I also found the engine to be more than powerful enough. Acceleration to highway speed-while raucous-was perfectly fine, as was punch for passing. My hat is also off to Hyundai for taking a stand against an unnecessary V-6, although I suspect that the company will lose more than a few buyers over that. Plenty of American buyers simply expect a six-cylinder engine in the top-of-the-line version of a car like this, and the fact that the four-cylinder sounds like it’s laboring too hard won’t help. Perhaps dampening that with more sound deadening, as Don suggested, would help.
It’s a good-looking car. Especially with silver paint like our test car had. I like the chrome trim trailing from the headlights, the lines on the body, and the profile of this car a lot. Still, the grille is a bit much, and the wheels could use a little more style.
Matt Tierney, Art Director
As with the 2010 Tucson that I drove the other day, I wasn’t too impressed with the styling of the new Sonata when I saw it in photos, but I think it works really well in person (aside from the Sonata’s slightly garish grille, that is). In this Hyundai’s case, the lines of the car make it look very elongated; it’s no illusion, though, as there’s plenty of space inside the car, as Don mentioned. I have no real complaints about the cabin after my brief initial test drive. I also definitely agree with Joe and Don’s opinions about this Sonata being yet another watershed product for Hyundai (a trend that, to me, started with the debut of the Veracruz in 2007).
The navigation system in this car doesn’t have the incredibly intuitive spin-wheel controller that’s in the upmarket Hyundai Genesis sedan, but it works quite well nonetheless. Even with navigation, heated leather seats, and a backup camera, our test car barely cracked $28,000, although as Matt suggests, some American buyers might have a hard time paying that much for a mid-size car with a four-banger. Four-cylinder detractors should note that Hyundai recently announced that it soon will launch a turbocharged Sonata that will put out 274 hp, a number that exceeds the output of all major competitors (four-cylinder or V-6). That car should be quite the rocket ship, although Hyundai engineers will have to work hard to eliminate torque steer from the more powerful Sonata, since the four-cylinder vehicle already exhibits a bit of this undesirable trait.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
The Sonata’s not without fault, but after spending a night with the newest Hyundai, I think the positives far outweigh the negatives. The engine is absolutely brilliant. Never mind the squabbles about its note; you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. This engine is an exceptional performer and a thrifty consumer of fuel, so giving it a pass in the “Does it sound like a Ferrari?” department is fine by me. The engine is quick and builds revs smoothly, while its 198 hp is enough to make the Sonata feel quite spry. The six-speed complements the engine with seamless shifts and a predictable logic. I’d love to see this powertrain (or the coming turbocharged variant) find its way into the Hyundai Genesis Coupe.
In person, I find the Sonata’s styling to be a bit anonymous, an affliction that I hardly noticed in photos. Like others here, I feel that the grille is too ostentatious. The roof’s sleek arch does mean that my 6’3″ frame doesn’t fit unless I slouch or press my head to the ceiling. The biggest disappointment, though, are the seats, which are utterly flat and about as comfortable as a wood bench. And these observations were all with my longest trip under thirty miles. I cringe at the thought of having to spend a serious road trip in those seats.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
2011 Hyundai Sonata Limited
Base price (with destination): $26,015
Price as tested: $28,215
2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine
6-speed automatic transmission
Power sunroof with tilt/slide
Leather seating surfaces
Heated front and rear seats
Steering wheel-mounted cruise, audio, & phone controls
Dual automatic climate control
Dimension AM/FM/XM/CD-changer audio system
XM satellite and HD radio
iPod/USB and aux input jacks
Auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass
Options on this vehicle:
Navigation package – $2100
– Navigation with high-resolution touchscreen display
– XM NavTraffic/NavWeather/Sports
– Infinity AM/FM/XM/CD audio system
– 400-watt subwoofer
– Rear backup camera
Carpeted floor mats – $100
Key options not on vehicle:
22 / 35 / 26 mpg
Size: 2.4L I-4 with direct injection
Horsepower: 198 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 184 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
6-speed automatic with Shiftronic
Curb weight: 3199 lb
17-inch aluminum wheels
215/55R17 93V Optimo H431 all-season tires