It's fair to say that we were surprised by the Hyundai Sonata. Granted, the previous Sonata was a competent offering, but it was not exactly a standout. With the new Sonata, however, staff members suddenly started tossing around phrases like "best-in-class." Against such stalwart competitors as the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry -- and solid challengers like the Nissan Altima, the Ford Fusion, and the Chevrolet Malibu -- that was a very big claim. The best way to find out for sure whether the Sonata was deserving of such enthusiasm was to spend a year with one in a Four Seasons test.
The Sonata comes in three flavors: GLS, SE, and Limited. We chose the midlevel SE, which is also supposed to be the (slightly) sporty version. For the SE, there's only one powertrain: a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a six-speed automatic transmission. You might think the six-speed manual would be available on the SE, but it can be had only on the base GLS. We added the navigation and sunroof package (which also includes an upgraded audio system) and a cargo net, bringing the total price to a still very reasonable $25,965.
The navigation system proved to be a key addition, and it garnered lots of praise for its ease of use. "I drove a Honda Accord recently," said senior web editor Phil Floraday, starting off our logbook, "and the first thing I noticed in the Sonata is how much more intuitive the infotainment and climate controls are." He argued that, given the relative parity among so many cars in this class, infotainment systems now take center stage, particularly for today's tech-obsessed buyers. Assistant editor David Zenlea put the Sonata's system alongside Nissan's at the head of the class. "Hyundai consistently nails in-car technology," he said, "something that utterly confounds most automakers." "There's no learning curve," added associate editor Eric Tingwall. "The controls for everything from the radio to the headlights to the HVAC are smartly placed, neatly arranged, and appropriately sized."
If its in-car technology makes Hyundai seem very au courant, so, too, does the Sonata's all-four-cylinder engine lineup. After we got our Sonata, Hyundai brought out a turbocharged version -- rather than a V-6 -- and a hybrid as well. Should we have waited for the turbo? Well, the turbocharged engine, a 2.0-liter, provides considerably more power and torque: 274 hp and 269 lb-ft (versus the 2.4-liter SE's 200 hp and 186 lb-ft). And the 2012 model does so with a minimal fuel-economy penalty of only 2 mpg in the city and 1 mpg on the highway (2011 Sonatas had slightly lower EPA ratings). But numbers don't tell the whole story. "After driving the Sonata 2.0T, I'd say we picked the right one," argued Zenlea. "The turbo, much like most powerful, front-wheel-drive mid-size cars, has more torque than it can put to the ground."
And it's not as if we were unhappy with the standard, 2.4-liter engine's ability to motivate this swoopy sedan. Our 8.3-second 0-to-60-mph time is only OK, but the car feels faster in real-world driving. "Nicely peppy," wrote copy editor Rusty Blackwell, who thought the 2.4 "doesn't feel base-level at all." Tingwall agreed, saying, "I'm constantly impressed with how strong and smooth the power delivery is with this engine."
Strong and smooth, perhaps, but not silent. This four-cylinder is direct injected, which aids efficiency but often makes for a noisy engine. More than one driver thought that the engine's gravelly idle sounded almost like that of a diesel, although most were not bothered by the powerplant's patter once underway.
What was also diesel-like, at times, was the fuel economy. One staffer averaged 36.6 mpg (indicated) on a five-hour highway drive from Chicago. Another reported getting 33 mpg on a trip to New York and 36 mpg on the return. (The EPA rates the Sonata at 35 mpg on the highway.) Everyone appreciated the long highway cruising range, which could exceed 500 miles. In all, we averaged 28 mpg over 26,679 miles.
An extra-tall sixth gear aids the cause of highway fuel economy, and the six-speed automatic was mostly well behaved -- Tingwall credited it with "some of the smoothest gearchanges in the mid-size segment" -- with one exception. On a few occasions -- low traction, big throttle opening -- the engine would bang off the rev limiter before the transmission shifted into second gear.
The standard-fitment Hankook Optimo all-season tires appear to have been chosen for their low rolling resistance, because they didn't come across as a particularly sporting choice. They were quick to protest during enthusiastic cornering. Nor were the brakes the stuff of enthusiasts' dreams: New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman characterized them as "lifeless and weak," and Floraday described an emergency stop on I-94 as "not the most confidence inspiring." Our measured stopping distance of 175 feet from 70 mph was not bad, though.
Although the Sonata in SE trim might not be a road-burning sport sedan, its firmer suspension earned good reviews. We found it to be nicely poised through high-speed curves. "You can plant the Sonata in a bend and it feels like a car with much more sporting credentials," said Tingwall. That the Sonata managed this without garnering a single complaint about ride quality over our horrendous local roads indicates that Hyundai has struck an ideal balance in suspension tuning for this car. The tuning of the electric power steering, however, is not quite there yet, although satisfying all drivers might be impossible. To wit, various staffers described the steering as "delightfully weighted" and "better than most," yet also "springy" and "ponderous and uncommunicative."
There was no such disagreement about the Sonata's more practical attributes, such as the spacious interior and the roomy trunk. Regarding the latter, the only disparate comments had to do with what we put in it: a kiddie pool, a partially disassembled motorized wheelchair, a TV satellite dish and two kitchen garbage cans, or luggage for four people. The last was for a group of triathletes who were traveling with bikes, helmets, sleeping bags, and a small cooler in addition to their duffel bags. "I was certain that I needed a utility vehicle for the trip," recounted Tingwall, "but the Sonata was surprisingly comfortable and roomy. Interior space is very generous, with plenty of legroom for four adults."
What about reliability, a prized quality among buyers of mid-size sedans? Well, aside from a slightly alarming four recalls (for the overhead console, the steering-column intermediate shaft, the transmission control module, and the fuel door), we had only one problem: a mild but persistent rattle in the sunroof. It eventually was found to be severely out of adjustment. We did have one experience with Hyundai roadside assistance, when managing editor of digital platforms Jennifer Misaros had a tire go flat. She reached a pleasant, well-spoken woman on the phone and got a text message with an ETA from the responding local service company before she'd even hung up. The driver arrived within ten minutes and immediately got to work; he even diagnosed the cause (a tire-pressure monitor improperly installed when the winter tires were mounted). Misaros was taken aback: "If this is any indication of the level of service Hyundai owners receive, I'm thoroughly impressed."
Actually, we were quite impressed with the Sonata overall. "Hyundai has finally gone from catching up to the competition to raising the bar with the Sonata," said Floraday. "In a segment where progress is often measured in baby steps, the Sonata seems to have made a giant leap," echoed Zenlea. "The last generation brought respectability. This one joins the best in the class." We should point out that the Sonata is also the newest car in its class. Staying on top won't be easy, but if Hyundai can do it, this time we won't be surprised.
2011 Hyundai Sonata SE
Prices & Equipment
Base price: $23,315
Price as tested: $25,965
Trade-in value: $22,400*
ABS; traction and stability control; air-conditioning; cruise control; foglights; power door locks, mirrors, windows, and driver’s seat; sport-tuned suspension and steering; tilting/telescoping steering column; keyless push-button ignition; AM/FM/XM/CD stereo with steering-wheel audio controls and iPod, USB, and auxiliary inputs; Bluetooth; front, side, and side curtain air bags
Navigation and sunroof package (power sunroof, touch-screen navigation, XM NavTraffic and NavWeather, premium audio system with subwoofer), $2600; cargo net, $50
*Estimate based on information from intellichoice.com
Body Style: 4-door sedan
Construction: Steel unitbody
Engine: DOHC direct-injected inline 4-cylinder
Displacement: 2.4 liters
Power: 200 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 186 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 22/35/26 mpg (city/hwy/combined)
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Turns lock-to-lock: 3.0
Turning Circle: 35.8 ft
Suspension, Front: Strut type; coil spring
Suspension, Rear: Multi-link; coil spring
Brakes F/R: Power-assisted ventilated disc/disc; ABS
Wheels: 18-in aluminum-alloy
Tires: Hankook Optimo H431 all-season tires
Tire Size: 225/45R18
Headroom F/R: 40.0 / 37.8 in
Legroom F/R: 45.5 / 34.6 in
Shoulder Room F/R: 57.9 / 56.7 in
Wheelbase: 110.0 in
Track F/R: 62.5 / 62.5 in
L x W x H: 189.8 x 72.2 x 57.9 in
Cargo Capacity: 16.4 cu ft
Weight: 3316 lb
Fuel Capacity: 18.5 gal
Est. Range: 480 miles
Fuel Grade: 87 octane
Our Test Results
0-60 mph 8.3 sec
0-100 mph 21.8 sec
1/4-mile 16.5 sec @ 88 mph
30-70 mph passing 8.8 sec
Peak acceleration 0.44 g
Speed in gears 1) 40; 2) 60; 3) 88; 4) 114; 5) 130; 6) 120 mph
Cornering L/R 0.84/0.82 g
70-0 mph braking175 ft
Peak braking 1.00g
5-yr/unlimited-mile roadside assistance
11,455 mi: $55.68
15,703 mi: $103.98
19,699 mi: $55.68
25,399 mi: $30.29
26,042 mi: Lube sunroof track and seal and adjust glass
11,455 mi: Upgrade steering-column intermediate shaft and engine-control unit
25,399 mi: Inspect fuel door, replace overhead console
26,042 mi: Update transmission control module
18,743 mi: Purchase, mount, and balance four Bridgestone Blizzak WS70 winter tires on steel wheels, $569.79
22,207 mi: Remount stock all-season tires and aluminum wheels, $30.00
EPA city/hwy/combined 22/35/26 mpg
Observed 28 mpg
Cost per mile (Fuel, service, winter tires) $0.16 ($0.29 including depreciation)