2011 Hyundai Sonata challenges the status quo

New mid-size Hyundai is a serious competitor for the established class leaders

Published: October 3, 2011, 5:00 PM

2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T

The family car segment is the main playing field in the automotive game; the place where manufacturers slog it out for sales, bragging rights and reputations. Granted it is not as significant in Canada, in terms of sales numbers, as it is in the much larger market south of us, but we get the same products from the same companies.

Ford, General Motors, Honda and Toyota are all in play and for decades their reputations have been based on the family-car or mid-size segment. Now there is a new player in the game, one that might have seemed like an upstart, a flash in the pan, just a few years ago. But nobody is looking at Hyundai that way anymore. This is a serious competitor with a growing share of the market and a steady stream of successful new products.

Hyundai has just released a new Sonata into the family/mid-size segment – a stylish new car that brings visual spice, some emotion, to a category where vanilla reigns.

The 2011 Sonata arrives with a full set of credentials. J.D. Power says Hyundai builds the highest-quality, non-premium brand vehicles on the market. Automotive Lease Guide (ALG) says the Sonata retains 53% of its original price after three years, more than Altima, Camry, Fusion and Malibu. And Hyundai sales and market share have steadily climbed throughout the recent economic difficulties.

The new Sonata continues the Hyundai practice of offering exceptional value. The price gap between it and the competition is not as great as it once was, but Hyundai has crammed the car with an extensive list of standard equipment to go with its now-widely-recognized quality and reliability rankings.

With the confidence that comes from so much success, and a broadening and satisfied customer base, Hyundai is going out on a limb by not offering a V-6 engine. The 2011 Sonata is available in four-cylinder format only.

A turbocharged version will be along in the fall and a hybrid version a few months after that. But no V-6.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says Hyundai is the industry’s fuel economy leader, ahead of Honda, Kia, Toyota and Volkswagen. With increasingly stringent corporate fuel-economy regulations coming into effect over the next five years all car companies will be struggling to improve their average. Hyundai already has a leg up on the pack, a position it intends to keep and build on.

Hyundai’s R&D department has made gasoline engines a priority and it shows in this new Theta II engine used here. The Sonata’s four-banger is smooth, provides more than ample suds and is a thrifty devil.

Only under sustained wide-open throttle in the upper rev range does it become noticeable that it is a four, not through a lack of power, but due to the slightly coarse sound common to large-displacement fours.

The 2.4-litre engine was in development for four years. Producing 198 horsepower and 184 lb.ft. of torque it outshines other fours and some sixes in the segment. The use of direct injection not only results in additional power, but by more accurately introducing and burning the fuel in the combustion chamber, there is less waste. Or, to put it another way – better economy and lower emissions.

Aiding the cause is a new six-speed transmission. Another in-house development, it weighs 12-kg less than the five-speed used previously and has 62 fewer parts.

The combination helps the new Sonata achieve ratings of 5.7 litres/100 km on the highway and 8.7 on the city. I didn’t quite match those numbers here in hilly Nova Scotia, but in more than 1,000-km of mixed city/highway driving I averaged less than 9.0/100 km, numbers beaten only by hybrids and much smaller vehicles.

Hyundai’s California Design Center styled the exterior and is to be commended for a stand-out in the family car segment. The new Sonata is longer and wider than the version it replaces providing a larger canvas for the designers and more room for occupants.

Hyundai says it has more passenger volume and cargo space than most competitors and the EPA concurs, rating it a "large" car although it competes in the mid-size segment.

The modern design theme continues inside where everything you see, touch or use has come under scrutiny – more than you’d expect at this price point. Fit, finish, textures and materials are all a class above, even in the least expensive trim levels.

Another area where Hyundai deserves kudos is suspension calibration. There is nothing terribly unique about the design, but unlike previous efforts that felt disconnected or flabby, the new Sonata feels more European, more tied down and responsive. Combined with the stiffer new body, the springs and shocks have been tuned for a very impressive balance between ride and handling.

In addition to the improved driving dynamics and the power and fuel economy of the new four-cylinder, this is a very quiet automobile. Thicker glass and door-frames and additional insulation all mean more weight, but the trade-off was deemed worth it. Despite these features and being larger, the new Sonata weighs almost 50 kilos less than the outgoing model and is measurably stiffer.

Another factor in the lack of wind noise is exceedingly tight panel gaps. Take a close look at where the hood and trunk meet the fenders and the doors and adjacent posts and you get a good idea of why this company’s build quality has risen to the very top of the charts. It has come a long way, a very long way from the Pony and Excel days!

The 2011 Sonata comes in GL, GLS and Limited trim levels with prices starting at $22,649 ($24,249 with an automatic transmission). Standard equipment includes tilt and telescope steering wheel with audio and cruise controls, remote keyless entry, AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 audio system with iPod, USB and aux inputs, power windows and locks, heated mirrors, air conditioning, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, electronic stability control, electronic brake force distribution, cornering brake controls, brake assist, ABS, active head restraints and six bags.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has awarded it a "Top Pick" classification. It is built at the company’s new state-of-the-art plant in Alabama.