First Drive: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Delivers

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Sexy and Strong. And a Hyundai.
Hyundai has is developing its sense of style, seen in Genesis and followed up with the 2011 Sonata. This Sonata offers style inside and out, interior space and functionality, and entertaining driving dynamics. Easy on the pocketbook and easy on the eyes should be a killer combination.
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Hyundai calls this design philosophy fluidic sculpture. Aside from sounding a bit like a physics experiment, the result is an expressive sedan in a sea of sameness. Though the grille could be called over-complicated, the sculpture in bodysides and hood is refreshing, one of the youngest of automakers. The chrome strip that runs below the window line, over the front quarter panels, and all the way down to heavily detailed headlights is a particularly attractive–and difficult to manufacture–element. This Sonata looks more expensive than it is. Even better, this exterior is matched with an equally good-looking, feature-laden interior.
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The Sonata will offer four-cylinder power only, a brave choice. The 2.4L example we drove will be followed up by a turbo 2.0L and a hybrid by the end of the year. Details will be revealed at the 2010 New York auto show, but Hyundai has promised “substantially” more than 250HP from the turbo 2.0L.


Journalists Prove Sonata’s EPA-Rated Fuel Economy Easily Bested in the Real World
To media drive attendees, Hyundai CEO John Krafcik threw down a friendly challenge: Get better fuel economy on the same route than he did. The challenge was specific to two route sections, with the bogey set at 38.4mpg in Twisty Road Smiles Per Gallon challenge and 47.8mpg for the Ultimate Hypermiling Challenge. (The car’s trip computers were used to get results, and winners needed to average 50MPH on the twisty-road challenge.)
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On the twisty challenge, nearly a dozen were able to return better fuel economy than Krafcik, with the best returning 44pmg. Three beat the hypermiling 47.8mpg (a 52.8mpg, 49.7mpg, and 49.0mpg). The competitive fire did not burn as deeply in our car, but we managed 31.1mpg and 30.4mpg for the competition legs.
Only ten drivers over three days returned Sonatas with less than 30mpg on these legs; only four of those came back with less than 25mpg. Everyday drivers should easily see results close or better than the EPA 23/35mpg city/highway ratings, and Hyundai found a fun way for us to prove the point.
Sonata’s strong fuel economy is supported by usable power–25HP more than the outgoing I4. The 2HP is difference between SE (200HP) and Limited (198HP) models is transparent, but the powertrain delivered respectable right-foot performance over the 100 miles I spent behind the wheel. An I4-only lineup enabled a lighter Sonata–it does not need structural reinforcements to support a heavier V6 engine. For you, this means a stronger power-to-weight ratio than most, contributing to energetic driving.
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Dynamically, steering provides firm feedback and the nimble chassis returns an appropriately comfortable ride. Brakes are responsive and both pedal feel and travel nicely weighted and balanced. The gearbox is smooth and shifts happen at just the right time, with no hunting.
Hyundai is brave going with all four-cylinder power, and may be as ahead of the curve as they believe themselves to be. With an efficient 200HP base engine to brag about, cylinder count is less important. Nearly 60% of mid-size car shoppers say they’re looking for a V6, only 10 to 20% actually buy one. Price is more often a factor than fuel economy, as V6 cars are typically more expensive and feature-laden.
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Inside as Pretty as Outside
The expressive interior also offers dramatic forms, quality materials, and modern textures. Sonata takes a generous, not ground-breaking, equipment list. We’ll have to wait until about January 2011 to hear Hyundai’s telematics plan–which will not use the Microsoft Autos-based system that supports Kia’s UVO and Ford’s Sync.
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The Limited offers a deep red leather interior option, and even rear heated seats can be had. Available conveniences, depending on trim level, include smart key and push-button start, touch-screen nav, rear backup camera, paddle shifters, HD radio, and second-row air vents. Three audio systems are offered, including Hyundai’s in-house developed midline Dimension audio system and the premium Infinity system.
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Safety continues high on Hyundai’s agenda, and the Sonata has standard Bluetooth phone (and streaming audio), electronic stability control, active front headrests, and six airbags. Look for systems like lane-departure warning and blind-spot alert to find their way into Sonata’s safety package over the coming years, but with today’s safety measures the 2011 Sonata was awarded an IIHS Top Pick rating. The navigation and Bluetooth systems worked well, both easy to set up and comfortable to use. The nav system graphics and resolution are among the best available.
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Hyundai’s fit factors are fully competitive, as are interior materials. Sonata offers a tight, rattle-free environment. Most of the upper touch-points offer some level of soft-touch feel, but the lower points–which consumers touch less often–are still a stiff, hard plastic. Honda and Toyota have long been praised for high-quality interiors, but this interior is as good, and better-looking to boot. Ford and GM are, in fact, the leaders in recent mid-size interiors. Terrific as Sonata is, the Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu offer softer interiors, also with terrific design.
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A Worthy Choice
Sonata has got great looks, competitive pricing, offers all the amenities a family needs, an affordable powertrain, and Hyundai’s assurance programs. If you’re looking for a mid-size sedan, consider this Sonata. Slightly less expensive than the competition ($19,195 to $27,195 at launch), you may find it wins your heart as well as your good sense. If not, you’ll at least start to understand how good Hyundai is today.
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