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2011 Hyundai Sonata SE

 Hyundai Shakes Up The Midsize Sedan Segment With Style

     Shoppers weren’t kind to Hyundai’s Sonata in 2009. After convincing almost 150,000 people to pick one up in 2007, Hyundai saw sales drop to 120k last year. Sure, the new car market sank like Lindsay Lohan’s career during the worldwide meltdown but you must remember through it all Hyundai actually increased its sales and set a company record in 2009. Of course, if you’re a regular reader you’re enlightened enough to know the previous Sonata was about as competitive as Tiger Woods post-scandal. If you stumbled onto the site thanks to our friends at Google allow us to inform you. The Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu rule the mid-size sedan segment and sell a bazillion cars annually because they are all varying levels of good. The Sonata, even after some substantial improvements in ’09, just couldn’t compete at the same level. But Hyundai has set a course for automotive world domination, and after driving their reborn 2011 Sonata, we don’t expect them to be caught with an uncompetitive product again.
     If you dozed off after reading our quintet of midsize competitors above Hyundai doesn’t blame you. In their own press materials they call the midsize sedan segment “bland” and announce their new Sonata is here to inject emotion into the marketplace. We’d have to agree with their assessment. Although the Fusion comes closest to offering some flair, there isn’t much out of the established group we haven’t seen before when it comes to design. The new Sonata on the other hand dives into the deep end of the style pool with a roofline that says “I’m going to look good this time, maximum rear headroom be damned!” And the result is a sculpted body that bridges the gap between traditional two-box sedan and the oh-so-hip four door coupe offerings from Mercedes and Volkswagen. Even with the dramatic roofline the Sonata only gives up .7-inch of rear headroom to the Accord. We consider that a fair trade.
     Hyundai has done something pretty bold by declaring that the Sonata will be powered exclusively by 4-cylinder engines. Knowing this from the earliest stages of development, engineers were able to optimize the chassis for the small I4 engine and eschew a lot of additional and unnecessary weight that would have been required to support any sort of optional V6 powertrain. The result is a Sonata that weighs in at 3,199 pounds, about 150 less than the class average and pretty feathery by modern standards leading to a class-leading power-to-weight ratio of 16.2 pounds per horsepower. Join the low weight with the stellar .28 coefficient of drag and you’ll begin to understand how Hyundai was able to garner a class-leading 22 mpg city and 35 mpg highway rating.
     Of course, the all-new 2.4-liter direct-injection four-cylinder and Hyundai-developed 6-speed automatic have something to do with the Sonata’s impressive EPA showing too. Hyundai is rightfully proud of their first in-house developed automatic bragging it uses 62 fewer parts than the 5-speed auto it replaces and how its unique design makes it the smallest and lightest 6-speed automatic currently on the market. We would have liked rev-matched downshifts in manual mode but we won’t complain about the smart gearing, especially the short first gear, which moves the Sonata off the line like a more powerful car.
     Our SE model manages an even 200 hp thanks to dual exhaust, but even with the standard 198 horses the Sonata easily dispatches all of its competitors’ I4s. We were happy to find that the usual direct-injection noises disappeared by 2,500 rpm and gave way to a more refined growl as the revs climbed toward the 6,300 rpm horsepower peak. Hyundai has really poured the latest tech into this gem, including Dual Continuously Variable Valve Timing and a Variable Induction System to optimize every aspect of fuel and air delivery. Tied to the smart new 6-speed auto with paddle shifters this powertrain easily meets the average consumer’s needs.
     Normally we’d start complaining about the absence of a stouter powertrain option about now, but Hyundai has tipped their hand and announced a turbocharged 2.0-liter will be available this fall rated at 274 hp. Surprisingly, engineers expect the turbo to return 34 mpg on the highway while burning regular gas. Not surprisingly, this announcement does not make the wait any more bearable to the power hungry editors at AT.
     We noted that the brake pedal was softer than we would like in a sport-oriented SE model like ours, although actual braking power felt about right for the class. Discs all around and standard Electronic Brake Force Distribution & Brake Assist systems are to thank for that. Steering feel was a major issue for us too with engineers tuning the electric rack to be so artificially heavy that we literally laughed out loud. As a result the system filters out all feel and has become the new poster child for the term “vague steering” around the office. We’re not sure what Hyundai’s target was here, but they’ve got some work to do. We suggest they pick up a Mazda6 to see how it’s done right.
     They’ll want to examine the Mazda’s handling while they’re at it because something’s not quite right with the sportiest Sonata’s handling. Most of the problem seems to come from the rear where we think Hyundai went with too soft of a setup. In any kind of transitional side-to-side maneuver our Sonata relayed a disconnected feeling that wasn’t particularly confidence inspiring. Now we don’t expect very many Sonata owners to be running through a slalom course but we do expect better of Hyundai, especially in the sportiest Sonata. Perhaps a couple of working lunches with the Genesis Coupe engineering team will sort out the SE’s handling. In the meantime the ride is on the firm side but about right for an SE model with 18” wheels and 225/45 tires.
     We’ve got a lot of good things to say about the new Sonata’s interior. Passengers are greeted by comfortable sport seats with leather bolsters and one of the easiest climate control layouts we’ve ever seen. Our car featured the $2,600 Navigation and Sunroof Package which also bundles in an upgraded stereo. Hyundai hasn’t been in the nav system business for long but this unit is a winner with a high-resolution screen and a straightforward user-interface for the audio system and bonus goodies like XM Traffic and Weather data that can also display sports scores and stock prices. With weather maps this detailed you could almost host the 11 o’clock news from your driver’s seat. The switchgear and interior quality is all competitive in the class and we thought the car was quieter than most of the competition. We also liked the excellent visibility all around and the large side mirrors were appreciated too. The Sonata’s trunk is bigger than most competitors at 16.4-cubic feet but Hyundai has utilized the cheapest looking hinge design we’ve seen in years complete with exposed grease just waiting to ruin your luggage during the first family vacation. We were a bit dismayed to discover Hyundai didn’t include rear seat HVAC vents.
     Its style may get the lion’s share of the attention but value is the Sonata’s real trump card. Without the fancy Navigation and Sunroof Package you can be out the door for about $23k in the best looking entry into the mid-size sedan class in…forever. Unless you’re holding out for the Turbo model, do yourself a favor and test drive a new Sonata. We think this will be the car that propels Hyundai to a new sales record in 2010, and 2011, and 2012, and…

The Good:
Easy to use nav system and Bluetooth, hard-to-beat warranty coverage, great fuel economy, comfortable seats, style to spare.
The Bad:
Dynamically immature thanks to poor steering feel and at-the-limit handling, transmission does not match revs when downshifting.
The Verdict:
A stylish rebirth makes the Sonata a contender.
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