The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord have battled for supremacy in the midsize-sedan segment for what seems like forever. In truth, it's been nearly a decade that the two have been swapping the title as best-selling car in the U.S. In its last generation, the Hyundai Sonata was barely a blip on the radar, proving a solid value in this segment, but nothing particular noteworthy.
The 2011 Sonata's radical new design is the first shot across the bows of Toyota's and Honda's flagships. While those Japanese sedans' style fades into any parking lot in a sea of sameness, the new Sonata will turn heads.
The car comes up short to both the big boys in terms of performance, but it's a close race, especially for those who care most about comfort. The Sonata still wins out on value, though, and that, along with its styling, could sway the shopping public.
When you tell someone a car is "all-new," it better look it, or they might not believe you. Taking a gander at the 2011 Sonata, with its large chrome grille, unique chrome strip along the front fenders and sloping roofline, some might not even know it's a Hyundai. Heck, people who might have turned their noses up at the old Sonata will turn their heads to see this one.
The design itself mimics the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class, but that was a breakthrough design. The four-door-coupe look it adopts usually hampers space in the backseat, but not in the Sonata. Nor does it create a really big blind spot. It just looks good.
If the exterior is a dramatic leap forward for Hyundai, the inside is less of one, but it gives up little compared with others in its class. Materials are above average, but don't get caught up in that. The most impressive aspect here is the styling of the interior.
The steering wheel is one of the most radical I've seen in any car, with two scalene triangles carved into the lower half to create four spokes. These smaller, triangular grasps are covered in a rubberized grip that feels high-tech. Buttons on the wheel for the stereo, cruise control and Bluetooth — all standard — are also placed very well. Acura should take some notes here.
The shifter and other controls are equally upscale. Air-conditioning controls use a person-shaped button arrangement, like in Volvo's newer models, to determine where airflow is needed, and there are just a few buttons and knobs to do the rest. Compare that with the overly busy Ford Fusion or Accord — each with dozens of buttons — and the Sonata has more in common with Volvo's simple and elegant center stack.
The base GLS trim I tested had cloth seats that were on the firm side but very comfortable, with sculpted bolsters that grip you lightly. I evaluated the car against seven popular competitors, and the seats compared well with the Accord's (too stiff) and the Camry's (comfortable, but lacking the Sonata's bolstering). The Sonata's seats remind me a bit of the Goldilocks tale: They're just right.
You also get a ton of room, though specs aren't everything. At 45.5 inches, front legroom is significantly bigger than in the Accord (42.5) and Camry (41.7).
Rear legroom, however, is smaller versus the standard-bearers. The Sonata gives you 34.6 inches, while the Accord and Camry offer 37.2 and 38.3 inches, respectively. For both sets of specs, though, real-world space seemed similar in all three vehicles up front, while the Sonata felt slightly more cramped in back. That said, there's still plenty of room for most rear passengers.
The trunk is also plenty big; at 16.4 cubic feet, it's only slightly smaller than a Fusion (16.5) and Mazda6 (16.6). It bests both the Camry and Accord by 1.4 and 2.4 cubic feet, respectively, but as far as useful space the Sonata's advantage isn't tremendous.
If you're thinking this sexy-looking sedan matches its racy design with a sporty driving experience, you're dead wrong. The Sonata almost manages to out-Camry the Camry in terms of isolated road feel. It glides idyllically over smooth roads, with little wind or road noise. I can see this being a commuter car with few rivals. When you encounter bumpy concrete highways, however, the suspension ups the floaty feel of a Camry by a few degrees.
Likewise, the Sonata's steering and handling are quite vague. The tires squealed during hard cornering; none of the competitors we pitted it against struggled as much. Body lean through sharp turns was also severe. Most drivers aren't likely to take the Sonata to such extremes, but mountain roads proved challenging even at speeds lower than the posted limit. There's a sport-tuned Sonata SE that might prove better in that regard.
The 198-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is plenty powerful, though. It has to be, because no V-6 is offered — though Hyundai will offer a turbocharged four-cylinder with V-6-like power later in 2010. When you accelerate with purpose, the six-speed automatic transmission replies accordingly, and a nice sprint gets you into highway traffic. If you're cruising absent-mindedly around town running errands, though, the transmission seems a bit slow to find the right gear. Mileage is at the top of the class, estimated at 24/35 mpg city/highway with the six-speed manual and 22/35 mpg with the six-speed automatic.
The SE trim, which promises a sportier driving experience, gets 18-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension and an engine that's tuned a bit more energetically, bumping power to 200 hp.
Overall, the Sonata performs well for its class but doesn't handle like an Accord. Nor does it have the solid acceleration of a four-cylinder Nissan Altima or Mazda6.
Starting at $19,195, the Sonata is $200 less than a Camry and $500 less than a Fusion when all are equipped with manual transmissions. Adding an automatic brings the Sonata's price up to $20,195.
At that, you get standard 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, cruise control, air conditioning, Bluetooth, USB/iPod integration and steering-wheel audio controls.
For $750, a popular equipment package adds 16-inch alloy wheels, a power-adjustable driver's seat and automatic headlights.
The base GLS can also get a navigation system as part of a $1,700 package that also adds a premium sound system. Our tester had the automatic, both packages and $100 floormats, bringing the total MSRP — including a $720 destination fee — to $23,465. That compared very favorably with four-cylinder competitors we had on hand; none of them had a manufacturer-supplied navigation system at that price or even slightly higher.
Speaking of navigation systems, Hyundai's is quite slick, with simple controls, an easy-to-reach touch-screen and crisp graphics. The upgraded sound system was also quite good.
The SE trim level ($22,595) adds a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, push-button start, fog lights, power seats with leather inserts, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, and the performance features mentioned above, all standard.
The Limited ($25,295) adds 17-inch wheels, a six-speed automatic transmission but no paddle shifters, fog lights, push-button start, dual-zone automatic climate control, rear floor vents, a premium sound system, heated leather seats in front and back, HomeLink, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and a power moonroof.
The 2011 Sonata is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, which goes a long way toward establishing Hyundai as a brand that not only sells inexpensive, mass-market cars, but also cars that offer peace of mind.
An electronic stability system is standard, as are six airbags. A backup camera is included with the navigation system only on the top-of-the-line Limited trim. We're not sure why you can get the navigation system but not the camera on other trim levels.
Sonata in the Market
Based on price alone, the new Sonata goes a long way toward wooing current Camry owners and others shopping the segment. The value, comfort and safety it packs for that price are as hard to ignore as is the bombardment of commercials promoting the new sedan.
I suspect only die-hard Accord owners — in love with that model's crisp handling — will fail to be impressed after test-driving a Sonata. The rest of the segment — which is beyond sizable — better look out.
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