Is there anybody left that still isn’t taking Hyundai seriously as a major player in the auto industry? If there is, they need to crawl out from that cave they’ve been living in and take a look at the world of sales figures, initial quality surveys and product design that has seen a lot more of Hyundai lately than ever before. In the past year of sales droughts and near-depression levels of economic downturn, Hyundai is one company that capitalized on opportunity and had record-best sales when everyone else’s balance sheets were bleeding red.
This is no longer a company to be pushed aside and ignored; Hyundai is here in a serious way, starting a 24/7 campaign in which they intend to push out 7 brand new models over the next 24 months, starting with the recently redesigned Tucson and now the completely new Sonata.
The 2010 Sonata was a competent car; a viable offering in the mid-size market that was full of top-notch players. It offered great value, decent styling and one of the best warranties in the business, but it didn’t demand any special attention. The Sonata for MY 2011 has just gone on sale, and my, what a difference a year makes.
Placed side by side, you wouldn’t even recognize the two cars as being made by the same company, let alone sharing a nameplate. Such change deserves a closer look, so we tried out a new Sonata for a week to see the new and improved. Our tester was a 2011 Hyundai Sonata Limited with Nav, finished in Granite Blue with a gray leather interior. So is there more to the new Sonata than overhauled looks?
Hit the jump to see our impressions of living with it for a week.
The mid-size sedan market is one of the most hotly-contested segments of automotive sales, and the new Sonata competes with heavy-hitters like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, and Chevrolet Malibu. Other notables include the Mazda 6, Subaru Legacy, Volkswagen Passat, Chrysler Sebring and Nissan Altima. Let’s look at the perennial best-selling Toyota Camry and Motor Trend’s 2010 Car of the Year, the Ford Fusion. Both of these cars have lots to offer and start at base prices of $25,310 and $22,699 with an automatic transmission (the Fusion and Sonata start lower with manual gearboxes).
At base price, the Fusion actually undercuts the Sonata by over a thousand dollars and gets close to two thousand less with an automatic. It would appear Hyundai isn’t concerned with playing the bargain basement card anymore. When you start adding extra kit to the cars, Hyundai starts to put things back to a more familiar perspective, giving you more features for less money. The fully loaded tester we drove had every available option as standard equipment under the Limited with Nav moniker, at a price of $30,999. Once you started adding things to the other cars such as heated leather seats and navigation, prices started climbing quickly, ending up at just over $33,000 for either the Fusion or the Camry. So ironically, in fully-loaded form, Hyundai gets its value card back.
The new Sonata brings design expression to the nameplate that has never been so bold, and even very modern in its segment. Hyundai calls this new design language “Fluidic Sculpture” and plans to roll out this theme on more forthcoming models, such as the new Elantra and Accent that were recently shown at auto shows in other countries. The Fluidic Sculpture refers to the flowing lines that define the shape of the car, seemingly running fluidly from the front of the car all the way to the back, not being interrupted by any other cuts or lines.
The greenhouse is curvaceous and elegant, rising up and falling back down over the rear doors, providing a sleek silhouette reminiscent of the Mercedes CLS or the more recent Volkswagen CC. This is quite a risky design in a segment where safe usually equals sales, but it should speak to the emotion in people that care about the look of the car they drive. One unique design element that Hyundai is proud to point out is the chrome strip underneath the side windows. Normally it would end under the windows, but Hyundai designer Philip Zak has seen fit to extend this chrome line all the way forward to meet with the swept-back headlights, creating a continuous line from the front of the car all the way to the rear window. Several elements that we found to be lacking in a car that seems entirely focused on design are the wheels (17” are the biggest available), and the exhaust tips.
The 17” wheels looked too small in the wheel arches of the car, 18” or 19” would look much more appropriate for the premium look that they’ve tried to achieve. Around the back, you’ll have to look hard to spot any exhaust tips at all, it’s been minimized to one barely-visible downward facing tip on the right side of the bumper. This looks very empty compared to almost all other cars in today’s modern market; the look would be more complete with a set of chromed tips on either side of the bumper. Both of these issues will apparently be solved by the upcoming Sonata Turbo, but why not make them available now?
The interior of the car looks as premium as the outside does, and the IP and center console are laid out very well. The buttons on the steering wheel are well-placed and easy to use, even if it took us a while to realize the trip toggle and reset buttons are located on the wheel instead of around the gauge cluster as per usual. The touch-screen nav was very easy to use and for us is always a welcome addition to any vehicle. We would have preferred a stand-alone clock somewhere in the cabin, as the only access to time was either a very small digital clock on the side of the nav screen, or a button you could push to prompt a larger time display to appear on the nav for a few seconds.
The climate control design is a bit gimmicky, but it brings its point across quite effectively. The stereo, while equipped with a USB-plug for iPod connectivity, required a special cable available from Hyundai to actually read the files on your iPod properly; with your standard computer cable the files came up with no information and no logical way to choose what you were playing. Luckily they included a lowly auxiliary jack as well, so our iPod remained the musical source of choice. Our tester had heated front and rear seats, something not often seen in this class of affordable sedans.
The inside of the Sonata is plenty roomy for its occupants, and as with most sedans this size, the backseat can easily accommodate three people, but two people will be happier with the center armrest/cupholder folded down to create a sense of separation and personal space for two. The seats are quite comfortable and can quickly eat up miles with no detrimental side effects to backs or backsides.
The trunk itself was average sized, with enough space for plenty of travel bags or groceries, but folding down the rear seats is almost pointless for the pass-through that is provided. Hyundai might as well not have bothered with folding seats and just made a typical ski pass-through; you won’t be putting much else through the space you get by folding down the seats.
One of the things that set apart the new Sonata from all of its competition is the engine range that will be available. Hyundai has no intentions of offering a V6 option at any point throughout the entire range, and will instead offer a turbocharged 2.0L 4-cylinder rated at over 270hp.
This GDI 2.4 is a first for Hyundai and bumps base horsepower up to 198 from the previous 2.4’s 175 horsepower. This is achieved even while increasing the fuel efficiency in both city and highway applications. Power delivery is smooth and the new six-speed transmission blends well into the mix, delivering the power where you need it, never feeling out of sync.
Hyundai says the new Sonata can achieve fuel economy of 9.4/5.7 liters/100 kms (city/hwy) and during our test of the car, we were able to hit an average of 8.3 L/100 kms which isn’t too far off the combined 7.7 that Hyundai claims is possible. For a car that weighs in at 1507 kgs/3322 lbs, that is very good indeed. The turbo that will be added later is said to add 70-80 extra horsepower, and should be able to stay relatively close to the fuel economy figures laid out by the naturally aspirated version. We didn’t feel as though the Sonata was lacking any power, but if the power boost comes at little expense, we won’t be complaining.
The new Sonata is leaps and bounds better than the 2010 version, and while the starting price may reflect this, it is certainly worth it for all the added features and standard equipment, even in base trim. The new six-speed transmission is available on the base model and standard on all others, power is plentiful, and fuel economy is among the best in class. Looks are subjective but we found the styling to be very appealing and it gives the impression that you’re driving something much more expensive than what you shelled out for it.
While other manufacturers are playing it safe and conservative with the styling of their bread-and-butter sedans, Hyundai is wading into a different part of the water usually reserved for a class of vehicles where people pay to stand out. Time will tell whether this strategy will work out for them, but initial sales seem to tell a positive tale.
* Great styling sets it apart from largely bland competition
* Loaded with features, even in base trim
* New GDI engine has enough power with great fuel economy
* Some interior trim still feels a little cheap
* Steering has dead feeling on-center
$22,649 (GL with manual trans.)
Price as Tested
Damn, do I ever want this right now. Actually... I want the Turbo. Yeah. Sex.