First Drive: 2011 Hyundai Sonata

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).

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Undeniably impressive.Given the strides Hyundai has been making lately, I can only imagine where they'll be in the next 5-10 years.

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