By Mark Maynard
The previous generation Hyundai Sonata was a fabulous package but plain looking. The redesigned and re-engineered 2011 model is a swan. It can spread its wings as an elegant and emotionally styled car in a mainstream segment not known for rich-looking choices.
But the attraction is not superficial. Sonata has one of the largest interiors in the segment, a direct-injection, four-cylinder engine that gets 35 mpg on the highway, and it has thoroughly modern applications from transmission, to safety and quality.
The quality appearance of interior plastics and fabrics will raise expectations and push competitors to spend more. On uplevel models, there is a contemporary brushed metal treatment with piano black wood trim, instead of the same old dark wood. The headliner is a tight woven fabric and the visors have covered and lighted mirrors. The instrument-panel console is compact, but has legible graphics and large enough buttons for audio, vents and AC.
There are clever and creative areas for storage, including a multitasking shift console with two 12-volt power plugs, digital audio and USB inputs, a storage cubby, cup holders and a deep, covered hiding place below. The glove box locks. The trunk has a wide opening and square space, expandable by folding back seats.
Sold in three trim levels, pricing ranges from about $20,000 to $28,000.
The base Sonata GLS ($19,915) includes such features as remote locking, air conditioning, tilt and telescopic steering wheel with cruise and audio controls, XM-CD-MP3 audio system with iPod/USB and Aux input jacks, Bluetooth, trip computer with custom settings, power windows-locks-mirrors and six air bags.
For another $1,000, the GLS with six-speed automatic adds 16-inch alloy wheels, power driver’s seat with lumbar adjustment and more chrome and leatherette trim to the interior.
The top-line Limited has near-luxury presence with attractive leather-trimmed upholstery, more sophisticated trim elements, heated seats front and rear, sunroof, 17-inch wheels, side mirror turn-signal indicators and a navigation system with rear camera and Infinity speakers upgrade.
FUEL ECONOMY CHALLENGE
Hyundai Motor America was recently in San Diego County for the national media launch of the new model. And among the technical and marketing presentations, Hyundai really wanted to showcase Sonata’s 35 mpg highway rating. The PR team posed a fuel-economy challenge to drive from the South Coast Winery in Temecula to the Lodge at Torrey Pines. The pair of journalists with the best fuel economy as recorded by the car’s trip computer would win an in-car video camera.
My driving partner really wanted that camera and I allowed him to use all of his hypermiling tricks, which included driving without air conditioning, letting a Buick pass us and driving 45 mph with the flashers on while climbing the hills of interstate 15. The drive is about 62 miles and would normally take about an hour. It took us two hours.
We thought we’d done well to average 49 mpg, but another car came in at 52. I’m sure they cheated — I just don’t know how anybody could have driven slower or suffered more than we did. Other teams who didn’t care to win a prize set the cruise and came in with 38 mpg. Even the lead foots hit 35 mpg, so the EPA’s estimated mileage is accurate to real-world applications.
But that’s not to imply Sonata is slow. It is part of a trend of midsize sedans not being offered with a V-6 engine. The new Buick Regal is among them. But Sonata was engineered without the extra hundred pounds or so required to reinforce the front subframe to handle the heavier engine. Also contributing to good fuel economy are aerodynamic styling, low-rolling-resistance tires, a smart alternator that works on demand and engine calibrations. And the curb weight was trimmed by at least 93 pounds. The next frontier will be improving city mileage, which at 22 mpg for Sonata is average but competitive.
The aluminum, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine uses direct injection and has dual continuously variable valves. The base model has 198 horsepower; the midrange SE, with dual exhaust, has 200 hp. Transmission choices are the standard six-speed manual or optional six-speed Shiftronic with steering-wheel shifters.
Two more horsepower and two more foot-pounds of torque didn’t seem to make a difference in the various models I tested. There is some engine noise on hard acceleration, but the engine quiets quickly at speed. There is direct response to steering, throttle and brake inputs. The suspension is taut but not abrupt, even on the sportier SE.
Stopping power is well above average with 11.8-inch front discs and 11.2-inch rear. Compare those to the Mercedes-Benz C-class sedan, which uses 11.6-inch front brake discs and 11.8-inch rear.
Compared to the previous Sonata, the 2011 has about the same footprint but a 2.6-inch longer wheelbase. The turning circle is still a trim 35.8 feet, compared to 40 feet in the Chevy Malibu.
Front headroom is still 40 inches and front legroom is 45.5 inches, or a couple inches longer than is typical.
The EPA ranks Sonata as a large car for interior room, but the roof swoop took away some of the previous model’s back-seat spaciousness. Rear legroom isn’t bad at 34.6, but it is 2.5 inches less than last year. Headroom was shaved by 0.4 inch. And trunk space is up a tad to 16.4 cubic feet.
The Sonata isn’t just another choice in a crowded segment; it sets a standard of what to expect in a mainstream, midsize sedan.
2011 Hyundai Sonata Limited
Body style: midsize, five-passenger, front-wheel-drive sedan
Engine: aluminum, 198-horsepower, DOHC 2.4-liter four-cylinder with continuously variable valve timing
Transmission: six-speed Shiftronic with steering-wheel shifters
EPA fuel economy estimates: 22 mpg city, 35 highway; 87 octane recommended
Trunk space: 16.4 cubic feet
Length/wheelbase: 189.8/110 inches
Curb weight: 3,316 pounds
Standard equipment includes: remote locking, air conditioning, tilt and telescopic steering wheel with cruise and audio controls, XM-CD-MP3 audio system with iPod/USB and Aux input jacks, Bluetooth, trip computer with custom settings, power windows-locks-mirrors
Safety features include: six air bags, front belt pretensioners and force limiters, active front head restraints, electronic-stability and traction-control systems, power assisted four-wheel disc brakes with four-channel ABS and electronic brake-force distribution
Limited with Navi: $28,115, including $720 freight charge
Where assembled: Alabama
Warranties: 5-years/60,000 miles fully transferable bumper-to-bumper coverage with roadside assistance, 10-years/100,000 miles powertrain warranty. Hyundai Assurance/12 months: Buy or lease any new Hyundai, and in the next year if you lose employment, Hyundai will let you return the vehicle, with no damage (in most cases) to credit.
Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at Mark.Maynard@uniontrib.com.
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