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2011 Hyundai Sonata

By Design

Five years ago this month, I wrote about the 2006 Hyundai Sonata, saying, "It isn't beautiful, elegant, or at all innovative, but neither is it ugly, clumsy, inelegant, or embarrassing," and I concluded that, "One more generation of Sonatas, if the designers continue in this trajectory, should see Hyundai becoming downright desirable."

I think Hyundai has achieved desirability with the 2011 Sonata, but not on the basis of its styling. Instead, it is a combination of ever-higher quality and perfectly normative "international" styling that makes this bigger and, yes, better-looking car something that people can buy with the same expectation of reliability that traditionally has characterized Toyota.

When you buy a Hyundai, you don't expect class-leading handling and performance, and you certainly don't get the prestige attached, rightly or wrongly, to old-line European makes. But if you're not a serious car enthusiast and just want predictably dependable transportation, Hyundai is perhaps the best answer on offer today.

The new Sonata's proportions are good, with the front wheelhouse far enough forward to allow a moderately long hood. The Peugeot-like headlamp clusters add visual length, and only the convoluted chrome grille really offends my aesthetic sensibilities. The roof is long, with an elegant sweeping arc from hood to deck, and the sides are commendably plain, with one prominent crease running through the door handles. The third piece of side glass is in the body, not the door-much nicer than the outgoing Sonata's awkward solution.

The interior looks very good, with a steering wheel bearing multiple controls in what appears to be a logical arrangement, although one would have to live with the Sonata awhile to fully appreciate it (or not). There's too much black for my taste, but the sides of the console spreading into face-level vents mitigate that with a nonglare, lighter tone. The instrument panel-one of the best in an affordable car in the past ten years-is at once original and functional.

The rear body surfacing is decent, although the sweep down from the rear lamps is exactly like those seen on at least twenty cars from seven or eight countries. The carefully designed twin exhausts that I praised five years ago are even better now, and the result of all this is a nice car that you'd never have to explain away. But no one would think you'd been seduced by a pretty face, either. I'll repeat: Hyundai is on the right track, but it still needs to develop an individual, indigenous automotive style. I am confident that it will do so, and I wait impatiently for the next Sonata.

1. The roof profile is echoed by the elegant upper line of the side glass, with painted B-pillar and window surrounds.

2. There's a bit less tumblehome than one might hope to see, but with side curtain air bags, there has to be more volume in the upper structure.

3. This unfortunate little triangle is necessary to allow the door glass to descend. This is always a problem
for designers, but most buyers prefer windows that open.

4. The actual daylight opening of the quarter light is minimal, but the effect is to add useful visual length to the Sonata's side profile.

5. This generic plane curving downward to a surface above the strike face is a detail seen on dozens of other cars. It works, but originality suffers.

6. One of the new Sonata's best features is this strong character line that's derived from the backup lights and carries forward through the door handles.

7. Interesting interacting surfaces here allow this chrome accent to overlap the character-line rib, adding to the car's visual width despite the lack of one continuous line.

8. This nicely modeled spoiler lip fades into the top of the quarter panel, keeping the deck lid high and fairly flat and also describing a spacious, rectilinear trunk.

9. The graceful sculpture of the rearview mirror is worthy of Constantin Brâncuşi at his best. Very nice indeed.

10. The hood is stiffened by a slight drop in the center section and the sharp forward continuation of the A-pillar's leading edge.

11. The headlamp cluster is long and its interior complex, but the large, well-defined main-beam portion gives a sense of direction and purposefulness.

12. The foglamps are surprisingly big but are well proportioned in the front end's total composition.

13. The grille carries the hood indent downward, but the fussy surfacing is overdone.

14. Outboard A/C outlets mirror the wider-at-the-top vents on the console.

15. The optional paddle shifters are invisible in this view, but they're definitely present and agreeably unobtrusive.

16. Controls on the lower spokes of the steering wheel are a good idea a priori, but will be established only with daily use.

17. A pleasant touch is the sides of the console growing up and out like a plant, encompassing the A/C vents at the top.

18. This sweeping line separates the upper instrument panel from the turned-under lower section and flows nicely into the door panels.