Ambling by 120 East Liberty a year ago today, you could have stumbled upon a snarling Nissan GT-R, hormonal Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, massively seductive Audi R8, sumptuous BMW 750iL, and the hauling champ we knew as the Dodge Ram. But we knew that, eventually, all good things must come to an end, and those vehicles have since departed.
In today's austere economy, we thought it fitting to test a car slightly more relevant to the way Americans are living, and decided to order a top contender in the midsize sedan class. Stepping into the shoes of John and Jane Consumer, we sought out a car that was dependable enough for Middle America and had enough excitement to move the enthusiast's needle as well.
In the field of midsize sedans, the newest entry hailed from South Korea. We recently put a Hyundai Genesis 4.6 through our rigorous yearlong test, and were rather impressed with the leaps forward in quality by the South Korean carmaker. Having done a luxury car for a less-than-premium price, we wanted to see if Hyundai could go back to basics and produce a midsize car for the masses in America.
Thus arrived an Alabama-assembled, Venetian red 2011 Sonata SE at our doorstep. Consider the numbers: In June, Hyundai moved 17,771 Sonatas, representing a 49 percent increase over June 2009, and Hyundai sold 89,249 Sonatas in the first six months of 2010 after the new Sonata's December 2009 debut. Although its sales figures over the same period still haven't approached those of the bestselling Honda Accord (160,970) or Toyota Camry (154,239), the Sonata is definitely moving up in the segment.
We had the opportunity to drive a top-spec Sonata Limited several months ago. For our long-term test, however, we opted for the midrange SE model, which has a stiffer suspension than the base GLS or the Limited, thanks to larger stabilizer bars and specialized dampers. The $23,315 SE came with a comprehensive list of standard features, but being screw-the-checkbook! indulgers, we splurged for the navigation and sunroof package ($2600), which also includes a Dimension sound system. We also opted for floor mats ($50), bringing the grand total to a palatable $25,965. No complaints about a dearth of standard equipment, which runs the gamut from iPod inputs and Bluetooth to keyless entry and smart 18-inch alloy wheels. The SE's only powertrain combination is a 2.4-liter direct injection four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The numbers -- 200 horsepower, 186 pound-feet of torque, and EPA-estimated mileage at 22/35 mpg -- are as good as any in the segment.
So far, our staff seems to think Hyundai played it safe with the new-for-2011 Sonata. Design editor Robert Cumberford pronounced it "a nice car that you'd never have to explain away," and senior editor Joe Lorio, called the engine "muscular enough to provide punchy response without the driver mercilessly caning it." Early critics drew concern over the lack of steering feeling and some tastemakers questioned the garish grille, but were generally impressed by the Sonata's style inside and out.
We're excited to see if our Sonata can match up to the strong midsize competition, as well as measure up to the performance shown by our long-term Genesis. Our other recent midsize Four Seasons acquisitions, the Subaru Outback and Suzuki Kizashi, should prove interesting counterpoints to the Sonata during its stay in Ann Arbor.
Self-indulgence be damned: this Sonata may be a sensible shoe, but thus far, it's certainly not bargain basement.