2011 Hyundai Sonata

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Reviewed By: Tom Lankard
© 2011 NewCarTestDrive.com


The 2011 Hyundai Sonata is an all-new midsize sedan, completely redesigned and re-engineered. The 2011 Sonata comes a wide range of models, including a hybrid that can be driven at highway speeds in fully electric mode, and a turbo designed to deliver fuel-efficient acceleration performance.

The new Sonata Hybrid features a full parallel hybrid system allowing the car to be driven in zero emissions, fully electric drive mode at speeds up to 62 miles per hour or in blended gas-electric mode at any speed. The new Sonata 2.0T, meanwhile, uses a four-cylinder turbocharged engine that gets an EPA-estimated 33 mpg Highway rating while boasting 274 horsepower and on Regular gas. The 2011 Sonata lineup starts with the Sonata GLS, which retails for less than $20,000 and delivers more power than other cars in its class. No V6 is offered, as Hyundai is using turbocharged four-cylinders and battery assist motors to increase power.

A four door, midsize sedan that accommodates five passengers, the Sonata competes with Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, and Nissan Altima, to name a few.

In a head to head match-up with direct comparables of those five brands, the Hyundai Sonata models are more powerful, while hanging right in there with the other brands on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's fuel economy ratings. The base 2.4 liter engine delivers 198 horsepower (190 hp in states using California emissions regulations) or 200 hp with a dual exhaust system, which is substantially more power than what's found in the base models of the other midsize sedans. The 2.0T model's fuel economy on the highway is better than all but the Fusion. The Hybrid tops the Honda and Camry hybrids in EPA City and Highway fuel economy ratings and bests the Fusion's Highway rating.

That 2.0T turbocharged engine is Hyundai's more economical and more affordable answer to Americans' perceived need for speed. It's not only more powerful than the V6 that powered the 2010 Sonata and the competition's V6s, but also generally less thirsty, by almost eight mpg over the Malibu in EPA's Highway rating, to pick the best example. An extra bonus is that Hyundai went against the grain in its selection of transmission for the 2011 Hybrid. While the Fusion, Altima and Camry hybrids all have a gearless, continuously variable transmission, the Sonata gets a full-on, 6-speed automatic that drives and sounds like a car should, with actual upshifts and downshifts instead of virtual gear changes artificially created by computer software.

We're not sure the new Sonata is the sharpest looker in the class, but at least it's not a copycat of any of the other midsize sedans, a couple of which could leave a buyer confused were it not for the oversized, trademark logo in the grille or on the trunk lid. Inside, features, materials and fit and finish are as good as the best of those, and better than a couple, especially in quality and tolerances.

Buyers need not be limited to those seeking a daily commuter, either. The Hybrid covers the need for green-ness and the Sonata SE actually is fun to drive, especially the 2.0T, while the GLS handles interstates with ease and the Limited brings luxury. Hyundai has tuned the suspension calibrations differently for the different models, so each has its own character.

Model Lineup

Hyundai Sonata GLS ($19,195); SE ($22,595); Limited ($25,295); 2.0T SE ($24,145), 2.0T Limited ($27,045); Hybrid

Walk Around

The all-new, 2011 Hyundai Sonata is classed as a midsize sedan but it's large by those standards. Measured by total enclosed space, it just sneaks in at the bottom of the large sedan class.

Hyundai's designers throw around phrases like fluidic sculpture design language and monoform side profile in describing the new styling. They say their goal was to design a car that no one could say, looks like brand X. As to the former, the word busy seems apt in describing the Sonata's styling cues. And as to the latter, observers should be forgiven if on catching sight of the new Sonata their first thought is of one of those cars that wear the three pointed star emblem. This isn't to say the Sonata's looks aren't striking or pleasant, because neither is true. It's just that neither are they necessarily unique.

The front end on all but the Hybrid stays with a pinched nose look echoing that of the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Sculpted creases flowing forward and inward from the A-pillars (the windshield's side frames) draw the eye to the grin like grille and the outsized Hyundai logo. Headlight housings start at the outer edges of the grille and wrap around the front fenders beyond the leading arch of the wheelwell, visually lessening the front overhang. The lower fascia sports a wide mouth air intake flanked by squinting recesses for the uplevel fog lights.

The Hybrid's forward territory shows much of the same shapes and sculpting but gets an entirely different and quite striking grille treatment, an oversized, hexagonal opening split by an oversized horizontal bar. Hyundai wants no one to miss that this Sonata is something special. The Hybrid's headlights make a similar statement, highlighted with a string of LED running lights laced around the projector beam lenses.

Side aspect shows three, sharply defined character lines below a roofline with a severely raked windshield and rear window, which combines with a short trunk lid to minimize the car's mass. The highlight is a chrome strip that starts at the headlight housing and runs along the car's beltline (where the side windows meet the door panels) all the way to the rearmost tip of the rear quarter glass. Below this is a knife edge crease sweeping up from the front quarter panel through the door handles and finishing as an eyebrow for the taillight housings. Another knife edge crease cuts across the bottom of the doors just above the rocker panels before leapfrogging the rear wheelwells to melt into the rear bumper. On the Hybrid, a chrome strip accents this crease. All three tire sizes fill perfectly circular wheelwells, giving the car a balanced, front to rear proportion.

From the rear, quite frankly, the Sonata could be a top of the line Lexus or Mercedes Benz, save, of course, for the Hyundai flying H logo. It's an elegant look, with understated taillights, minimalist chrome bar topping the license plate indent and a lower bumper element that mirrors the lower front fascia, even to the reflectors framed to match the front fog lights. Distinguishing the Hybrid are intricately designed taillights, with what looks somewhat like electrons looping around an atom's nucleus.

Interior

Our first impression of the interior in the new Sonata is much like that of the exterior: busy. But then the swoops and angles and different textures begin to come together, actually more successfully than the sculptured and borderline over stylized exterior. The general impression is more toward a luxury look and feel than the anticipated cost consciousness.

Metal trim bits are muted. The understated textured dash material kills daytime glare but still gives the surface some depth. Wood grain accents are glossy but positioned where and in ways that ensure minimal distraction. Instruments are tastefully done and easy to read with a glance, save for bright sunny days when the hood fails to shield the bottom half of the tachometer and speedometer housings.

Seats are comfortable with adequate bolsters, especially given the Sonata doesn't invite rambunctious motoring. One noteworthy change is the replacement of the previous Sonata's lever-actuated, mechanical lumbar for the driver's seat with an electric air bladder for the 2011 Sonata; the bladder spreads the added lumbar over a wider area, adding immeasurably to the comfort level. The cloth seat coverings feel and look durable. The optional leather is neither too slippery nor too supple but still feels as if it would be cold in winter and clammy in summer. In a Goldilocks sort of way, the leather/cloth combo combines the best of both.

The buttons and knobs populating the center stack of all three trim levels clearly communicate their function and are spaced properly for ease of use. The optional rearview camera's guidelines bend as the steering wheel turns, a tweak of this increasingly popular visual aid that some high end sedans wearing domestic and import labels haven't managed to code into their cars' firmware.

The steering wheel has the right heft, as does the shift knob. The Shiftronic function is properly located on the driver's side of the shift gate. Oddly, the ignition key slot on the Sonata GLS is in the steering column, while the Start/Stop button on the Sonata SE and Limited is in the traditional place, on the lower dash to the right of the steering column. We think the ideal arrangement would be an ignition key on the dash.

Hyundai offers three sound systems on the 2011 Sonata. The base system has the usual multi media capabilities and speakers and pumps out respectable sounds. The premium system wears the Infinity brand, also has the usual multi media capabilities but adds a six disc changer and transmits its entertainment through an Infinity speaker array with subwoofer and external amplifier. The sounds reflect the premium label, with crisp highs and lows and mellow intermediates. Where the Sonata breaks new ground is with its mid grade system adding a 6CD changer and an off-brand subwoofer and external amplifier to the basic audio system and its six speakers. The clarity of its sounds are not quite the equal the Infinity's, but probably only to an unrepentant audiophile's ears; as for volume, it's easily a match with the Infinity. So if you don't want to spring for the Infinity system, the mid-grade is a good compromise.

There's ample storage for carpooling or for long vacation drives. Every door has a map pocket with a molded in cup/bottle holder, even the bottom of the line GLS with its hard plastic interior door panels. The center console boasts two receptacles, as does the rear seats' fold down center armrest. That front center console is a bi level unit, with a shallow bin directly under the pad and a deeper bin below that. There's a drop down bin in the base of the center stack for odds and ends, and the glove box, while not notably spacious, will hold a few maps along with the owner's manual. The Sonata trunk, at 16.4 cubic feet (10.7 cu. ft. on the Sonata Hybrid), is the largest in the class save for the Ford Fusion's, at 16.5 cu. ft. (11.8 cu. ft on the Fusion Hybrid). The trunk opening, however, is a mite cramped, due to the abbreviated trunk lid dimensions necessitated by the stylists' craving for that sporty, long hood/short boot proportion.

Compared against the other sedans in this class, only the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima have more headroom, and the Sonata beats the Altima in rear-seat headroom. The Sonata's front-seat legroom bests all in the class, but pays with the poorest rear-seat legroom, where the Sonata comes in last, by almost four inches against the Toyota Camry, three inches against the Chevrolet Malibu and more than two inches against the Ford Fusion. The concaved backs of the front seats help some in providing vital knee room, but people long of leg will notice. In hiproom the Sonata effectively splits the difference with the others, trailing the Accord and the Altima and coming in ahead of the Camry, the Fusion and the Malibu. In short, the Sonata is great for long-legged drivers, but it's not so good for long-legged back-seat riders.

Driving Impressions

With the slightest tweaks of suspension elements and the different tire/wheel sizes, Hyundai has managed to deliver a different ride in each of the Sonata's three trim levels, each well fitted to its target buyer.

The Sonata GLS delivers a smooth ride but with some road noise and not the crispest turn in at modest speeds. The GLS steering feels light, needing corrections in gusty crosswinds. Ride quality in the Sonata SE models is firmer, the steering slightly heavier, the combined effect of different tuning of the power steering pump and shorter, stiffer tire sidewalls. The latter sharpens the steering response. The SE models' thicker rear stabilizer bar keeps the car on a more even keel when it's gingerly pushed along winding, two lane mountain roads. The ride is not as wallow free as that of the Hyundai Genesis Coupe but impressive nevertheless for a sedan of this heft and price. Ride quality in the Sonata Limited is more supple than gentle but clearly not firm; again, it's the Goldilocks syndrome. To the naked ear, the Limited seems quieter, too, although that may be due to a higher grade of interior trim and materials. Fusion buyers likely are the only ones who will get a more comfortable and a quieter ride or, if they pick the right model, a better handling sedan.

The non-turbocharged SE's two additional horsepower and pound feet of torque aren't enough to be detected by an uncalibrated posterior, but the car does feel sprightlier; perchance it's the power of suggestion, eh? That added power, by the way, wasn't a design target but merely the unexpected benefit from bolting on honest to goodness dual exhausts and the lower backpressure that came with the freer breathing. What is noticeable in the non-turbocharged and non-hybrid Sonatas is a curious, free wheeling like sensation that sometimes follows lifting off the throttle after a brief acceleration, like on a mild grade, when a slowing of the car would be expected but doesn't happen quite as and when expected. It was nothing that unnerved or lingered beyond the briefest of moments, but it still was there.

Gear changes in the automatic happened smoothly, being tangible, but subdued, in full auto or driver-selected via the Shiftronic. Response to throttle pressure was prompt across the full line of Sonata models with shifts necessitated by changes in load effected almost invisibly, dropping down a gear or two without the driver not noticing until seeing that the tachometer needle had jumped a couple thousand rpm. Kudos to Hyundai, too, for sticking with the same automatic for the Hybrid, in lieu of the gearless, continuously variable transmission the competition bolts to their hybrid powerplants. A hybrid with a transmission that shifts gears just like in a real car adds immeasurably to the driving experience.

The 2.0T, no surprise, was the most energetic, yet without fussy power surges. Those 74 additional horses and 85 pound-feet of torque over the base four-cylinder will push the 2.0T's speedometer needle well into the three digits. The 2.0T does not, however, deliver Germanic, autobahn-competent sureness; at 130 mph on Hyundai's high-speed track in Korea, the 2.0T evidenced some twitchiness and vulnerability to cross breezes.

At the opposite end of the eco-scale lies the Hybrid. Hyundai states that the Hybrid can reach 62 miles per hour in pure electric mode before the engine lights off and takes over; this is optimal, though, requiring all accessories to be turned off, pavement as flat as an Interstate in Kansas and the most gentle pressure on the throttle. In normal driving, with only minimal, but necessarily conscious attention to throttle pressure, 30 mph on the motor alone can be achieved. Transitions between motor alone and motor/engine combined were nigh impossible to discern. A thoughtful, fuel-saving touch is a coasting function that shuts down the engine when there's no pressure on the throttle, even at highway speeds.

Braking response was strong and linear on all trim levels and powertrains. The ample dead pedal gave good bracing for the left foot on twisty mountain roads and during long, high speed runs on the interstates. Speaking of which, during one leg of the test drive in Southern California east of San Diego that covered about 90 miles split about evenly between both types of roads, a Sonata GLS returned 31 miles per gallon while averaging 65 miles per hour, including several extended runs at 75 and 80. The Hybrid managed a very respectable 47 mpg over a similar but shorter route, about 50 miles, and driven much the same way.

With the 2011 Sonata, Hyundai takes another major step along the path it has laid out for itself in the U.S. market. This is a high quality sedan, in all of its iterations, with remarkably good manners and markedly improved quality and efficiency, all at an impressively competitive price.

NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Diego.

1,446 Hyundai Sonata vehicles in stock at carmax.com

1,446 Hyundai Sonata vehicles in stock