2012 Hyundai Sonata Expert Review:Autoblog
Imagine, for a moment, that you're forced to invent a new candy with the specific objective of taking a bite out of the market segment comfortably satisfied by M&M's, Skittles and Reese's Pieces. Sounds daunting, right? With that in mind, the all-new 2011 Hyundai Sonata is being placed right back into the middle of the hotly-contested family sedan segment, already occupied by such established players as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu, to name just a few.
Completely redesigned for 2011, the Sonata is freshly styled and more spacious than its predecessor. It brings a few innovations to the game, including a new direct-injected four-cylinder powerplant mated to a six-speed automatic – yet it has no V6 option. We put a couple hundred miles on the new Sonata in San Diego. The weather was nice, but how was the car? Does Hyundai's all-new family sedan have what it takes to be an outstanding sweet in the candy dish? Find out after the jump...
Photos by Michael Harley / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
Erase everything you know about yesterday's Sonata. Forget those memories, delete the images. Reformat the hard drive. About the only significant things the all-new 2011 model has in common with its predecessor is the name badge on the decklid (now moved to the other side of the trunk) and the fact that they both burn a liquefied petroleum product and roll to their destination on pneumatic tires.
Now in its sixth-generation, the newest Hyundai dumps its consistent ho-hum styling in favor of what the automaker calls a "fluidic sculpture design." Created by the Hyundai Design Center team in Irvine, California, the sleek new four-door is a fresh face in a segment full of cookie-cutter sedans. Interesting and stylish, the Sonata offers an engaging mix of traditional sedan and four-door coupe rolled into one. Take special note of the chrome strip running from the tail of the headlamps clear to the base of the C-pillar, and the door handles deliberately positioned at different heights to aesthetically complete the bold character lines. The exterior is unique, rather exhilarating, and it looks downright expensive. We like it.
While the styling visually suggests otherwise, the Sonata is among the shorter "mid-size" vehicles within its competitive segment. The 2011 Hyundai Sonata and the Honda Accord are the only two in this class with an EPA "large car" classification – the Camry, Altima, Fusion and Malibu are all considered "mid-size" cars by the agency. Interestingly enough, the Sonata has the most total interior volume in the segment.
The Sonata's cabin continues the same "sculpted" theme as the exterior. Understandably, it debuts as a much more modern (um, futuristic?) looking cockpit. There are plenty of bluish lights, digital displays, buttons and even a hat-tip to Volvo for the humanoid-look climate control display. With knobs and buttons abound, it takes a few minutes to get accustomed to the vehicle's operation. But, after a few hours behind the wheel, it comes naturally. In practice, the human interface works even better than it looks, which is what really counts.
Under the hood is Hyundai's new direct-injected DOHC 2.4-liter GDI four-cylinder. The all-aluminum powerplant, fitted with continuously variable valve timing, is rated at 198 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 184 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm (the SE model bumps those to 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque). The Korean automaker offers two different transmission choices. The first is a traditional six-speed manual (M6GF2), the same transmission offered on the Hyundai Tucson. (Hyundai says "only a few percent" of owners will opt for the manual gearbox, so don't expect to see many in showrooms). The other transmission is the automaker's all-new six-speed automatic (A6MF2), also shared with the Tucson. This is Hyundai's first proprietary six-speed automatic (the Genesis and Veracruz use an outsourced Aisin gearbox) that's 26.4 pounds lighter and has 62 fewer parts than its five-speed predecessor. Fitted with a SHIFTRONIC manual shift mode, the SE trim level adds steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for those Schumacher dreamers.
Unlike last year's model, the 2011 Sonata will not offer a six-cylinder option. Hyundai obviously realizes the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu – the Sonata's primary competitors – are all offered with four- and six-cylinder powerplants. However, the Korean automaker isn't flinching. When asked why the new Sonata doesn't offer a V6 option, John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, boldly predicts that "V6 engines are going the way of the dinosaur." (Krafcik even went so far as to predict that no midsize sedans will have a V6 option in 2016 – the year more stringent EPA fuel economy regulations are enacted).
Power-hungry mid-size family sedan buyers shouldn't worry, as Hyundai is expected to introduce a turbocharged variant of the 2.4-liter GDI four-cylinder very soon. When talking about that engine, Krafcik smiles and says the yet-to-be-released turbocharged engine is "very delicious" (his exact words, not ours). It has an "endless reservoir of power... and we are shooting for the same EPA fuel economy as the normally-aspirated variant," he boldly adds.
Sure, a direct-injected four-cylinder is technically advanced and innovative, but it really isn't big news these days. What is big news is fuel economy and this is where the 2011 Hyundai Sonata climbs to the top of the podium. According to official EPA numbers, the Sonata earns 24 miles per gallon city and 35 mpg highway with the manual transmission and 22 mpg city and 35 mpg highway with the automatic. While those impressive efficiency numbers equal its four-cylinder challengers in the city cycle, all fall behind the Sonata in highway testing. When you consider even the strongest competition cannot muster more than 190 horsepower from their four-cylinder offerings, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata doesn't just beat its competition in the fuel economy battle, it frankly slaughters them. More on this later.
Posting big fuel economy numbers isn't easy. Hyundai not only focused its attention on the powertrain and fitted the Sonata with the aforementioned direct injection and efficient six-speed automatic transmission, but it has also added a "smart" alternator that pulls its power primarily when coasting. There is a low friction driveline with a unique bearing design, and low rolling resistance tires on all four corners. The body was sculpted with an aerodynamic design – an impressive drag coefficient of .28 – presenting a sleek profile to the wind. Lastly, the engineers optimized the body structure to save weight.
Tipping the scales at just 3,199 pounds, the 2011 Sonata is lighter than nearly all of its four-cylinder competition – 70 pounds lighter than the Accord and upwards of 108 pounds lighter than the Camry. It pays off in power-to-weight ratio, with the Sonata again leading the pack as it hauls around just 16.2 pounds-per-horsepower (for comparison, the Camry is 19.6, the Accord is at 18.5 and the Fusion is at 19.1). Don't think the lightened structure compromises safety either – the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the 2011 Hyundai Sonata one of its Top Safety Picks for this year.
The new chassis boasts improved body rigidity over the outgoing model, creating a more capable platform for the suspension. Speaking of underpinnings, the 2011 Sonata wears independent MacPherson struts up front and an independent multi-link design in the back. There are stabilizer bars front and rear and the SE trim level gets sport suspension tuning. Disc brakes are fitted on all four corners and tucked inside standard 16-inch wheels (the Limited models wear 17-inch alloys, while the sporty SE models have 18-inch wheels). An electrically-assisted steering rack alters boost based on engine speed (the SE trim level features a "sport" feel) and the Sonata also offers a class-leading turning diameter of just 35.8 feet (the Accord and Fusion add a couple of feet to that – kissing curbs).
Hyundai is offering three trim levels (GLS, SE and Limited) for the 2011 Sonata and several equipment packages. By the time you mix and match the trim levels, transmission and option packages, there are eight different models altogether.
Base price for the standard GLS model starts at just $19,195 (add $720 destination to all pricing), the sporty SE from $22,595, and the top-of-the-line Limited begins at $25,295. All models share the same engine, transmission choices, and full complement of safety equipment. To briefly summarize: The GLS starts with a manual transmission, cloth upholstery, manual seat controls, steel wheels, remote entry and a long list of power convenience equipment. An available "Popular Equipment Package" adds a power driver seat, 16-inch alloy wheels and interior trim upgrades among other things. The SE model starts with the automatic transmission, cloth upholstery, sport suspension, 18-inch alloy wheels and differentiating trim. The Limited models are fitted with leather upholstery, dual-temp climate control, a power-operated sunroof and 17-inch alloy wheels. Navigation with a high-res touch screen is also optional on all trim levels. Hyundai predicts about 60 percent of buyers will opt for the base GLS model, 10 percent will choose the SE, and the remaining 30 percent will step up to the Limited.
Consumers will be happy to hear that every 2011 Hyundai Sonata comes with iPod/USB connections, XM Satellite radio and Bluetooth phone connectivity as standard equipment – items are still optional on some cars costing three times as much. The base audio package feeds 104 watts through a six-speaker system (with AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3). A 360-watt system, adding a subwoofer and a six-disc CD changer, is optional on the GLS and SE and standard on the Limited. Audiophiles who buy the Limited may also upgrade to an even more powerful 400-watt system by Infinity.
We took first pick from more than a dozen brand-new Sonatas lined up outside our hotel, each with a set of keys ready to go. Attempting to satisfy the enthusiast within us, we jumped into a "Venetian Red" SE model first. Your writer's six-foot two-inch frame slid into the driver's seat with plenty of room. In fact, the seat had to be moved forward a bit for comfort (later that afternoon, we jumped into the rear seat behind "ourselves" and discovered that space and legroom was more than adequate). Outward visibility is good, and we didn't find any large blind spots on either side that wasn't solved with a simple mirror adjustment. We did find ourselves wanting some back-up sensors – no camera, just the simple beepers – to let us know where the rear bumper was during backing maneuvers.
Foot brake released and transmission in gear, we pulled out of the hotel. First impressions – the important ones – are that the new four-cylinder powertrain is just fine. Sure, it's no dragster, but it will chirp its front tires pulling away from a corner (would that be the litmus test?). We merged with traffic smoothly and settled down to a sedate cruise as we looked for the road out of town. The in-house six-speed transmission shifted nearly imperceptibly as it conducted the engine delicately through its paces. Power delivery of the 200-hp four is smooth, but the engine sang in a typical four-pot key (read: not so pleasant). The low rolling resistance tires did make a bit of a racket, but it was only evident because wind noise and is surprisingly low, even on the highway.
Hyundai will never claim the Sonata is a four-door sports car. Nevertheless, our burgundy SE sedan held more than its own when pressed into the corners. The steering was nicely weighed, and the vehicle's overall balance was surprisingly good. Nobody at Hyundai could tell us the weight distribution from memory, but the vehicle's overall low mass and suspension tuning made it enjoyable to drive at spirited speeds. We likely pushed the Sonata harder than most owners will during an unexpected emergency maneuver – and lived to talk about it.
Later in the afternoon, we took a higher-end Limited model for a 75-mile spin. Though the steering was slightly less responsive than the SE and the ride was marginally softer, it never put us off – although we admit preference for the sportier model. Funny thing, our wives, girlfriends, in-laws, neighbors and friends would rationally prefer the standard softer suspension for their Sonata family sedan. Not us, we like the SE.
We'd be remiss to not discuss fuel economy, as the Sonata's left a huge impression on us. As mentioned, the EPA rates the automatic models we were driving at 22 mpg city and 35 highway. In usual fashion, we typically take those EPA number and subtract a couple points to get "real world MPG," right? Well, it seems the 2011 Hyundai Sonata is also out to dispel that age-old calculation. In our "real world" driving up and down the hills surrounding San Diego, the on-board computer calculated 37.8 MPG during the morning trip... and we could have easily pushed 40 MPG had we attempted some hypermiling tricks.
Demonstrating the impressive mileage from the new direct-injected four, the Hyundai team hosted a fuel economy contest. Most drivers arrived back at the hotel with fuel economies in the high-30s and more than a handful dropped into the mid-40s. The day before our arrival, two teams topped an amazing 47 mpg and won a nice dinner for their efforts. Even if we assume the on-board computer was a few miles-per-gallon optimistic, the Sonata was still delivering efficiency more commonly associated with hybrids.
Fuel economy will undoubtedly draw consumers to the new Sonata. Others will be "emotionally connected" and impressed by the upscale styling and the spacious, modern interior. Some will take comfort in the automaker's 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and the five-year unlimited-mile roadside assistance program. Many will be drawn by a window sticker that represents value. Regardless of the motivation, Hyundai has been very successful getting people to buy its products lately. Recent sales figures show its new introductions, both car and SUV, have all been very well received by consumers. The 2011 Sonata is yet another sweet addition to that proven lineup, and it's got a pretty hard candy shell to boot.
Photos by Michael Harley / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
We've watched with a sense of awe as Hyundai has gone from a discount also-ran brand into a genuine industry powerhouse in startlingly short order. But we've also long suspected that its vehicles have gained so much ground by being among the best values in their respective segments – not because they've necessarily been the best vehicles to drive. The addition of the Genesis Coupe may have served notice that Hyundai isn't content to just be the industry's value leader (see Battle of the Sixes), but the keystone draw of most of the brand's offerings has remained their affordability. Which is not to suggest this is a bad thing – Hyundai's steroidal growth speaks to the inherent soundness of its strategy. But as enthusiasts, we've been waiting for the company to not only out-value, but to categorically outsmart and outplay its rivals. With introduction of the 2011 Sonata, Hyundai appears to have done exactly that.
We admit that we weren't sure whether the Sonata's outré styling would play in that most milquetoast of markets: the family sedan segment. When the sheet was pulled on the 2011 model, it was as if Hyundai had strolled into a Sunday morning prayer breakfast with Kathy Griffin on its arm – we didn't know exactly what was going to come of it, but we knew it was going to be fun to watch. Thankfully, the Sonata has proven to be far more than just a styling stunt. Packing big space, a rock-solid chassis, accomplished handling and unmatched power and fuel economy from its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the Sonata has gained widespread acceptance and acclaim in a historically conservative slice of the market.
But while the normally aspirated sedan got our attention, the promised 2.0-liter turbocharged model had our enthusiast hearts bound up in anticipation. The specifications revealed at this spring's New York Auto Show were enough to have visions of a proper cut-rate sport sedan dancing in our heads: 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque plunked into a chassis that's among the very lightest in its class. So when Hyundai invited us to hop a plane to Seoul to sample their new force-fed family schlepper, we had our bag packed and were at the airport before you could say "pass the Kimchi."
The Sonata 2.0T's new Theta II engine is obviously the main attraction here, and it deserves top billing because it's loaded with meaningful tech. Hyundai has utilized costly bits like a twin-scroll turbo and an electric wastegate actuator, the latter of which precisely governs boost pressure to improve efficiency and trigger quicker exhaust catalyst light-off for reduced emissions. All-in, the package is good for a staggering 137 horsepower-per-liter – a figure that was reserved for motorsport use just a few years ago. To put that metric in proper perspective, the Theta II turbo positively obliterates its rivals in this category, from the 220-hp 2.0T Buick Regal (110 hp/liter) to the 263-hp Ford Fusion V6 (75.1/liter) and everything from Japan Inc. – regardless of their cylinder counts. And it does so while sipping regular fuel. Outsmart and outplay? Check.
Officials tell us that because the company chose to go with a four-cylinder-only lineup, the Sonata's engineers were able to optimize other components because they didn't have to cope with an optional V6 package's larger dimensions and mass. That sort of focus has resulted in a best-in-class weight-to-power ratio of 12.2 pounds per horsepower, a figure just .1 horses shy of Ford's lauded 2011 Mustang V6. Its closest in-class competitor is actually the similarly feathery Nissan Altima V6, which chimes in at a commendable 12.4. Naturally, light weight also pays dividends in fuel economy, so it should come as no surprise that the 2.0T is estimated to return 22 miles per gallon in the city and 34 out on the highway. That's just two mpg shy of the 2.4-liter on the urban cycle and one on the freeway, and both numbers are still well ahead of the competition. Those figures strike us as a small penalty for an extra 76 horses, and besides, the normally aspirated Sonatas we've driven have actually served up fuel economy numbers well above EPA estimates, and we wouldn't be surprised if the turbo manages the same trick.
But enough technical talk. How does it drive? Well, our time behind the wheel in Korea was extremely limited and conducted in 2.0T prototypes that didn't yet have their final calibrations dialed-in, so consider these observations to be tentative. We drove Limited-spec models (18-inch alloys, panoramic roof, dual exhausts) on Hyundai's Namyang high-speed banked oval as well as on a handling course, but didn't manage to score any time on the region's public roads, That's just as well, really, as they were traffic-choked to the point of eroding any hopes of actual dynamic assessment.
Like most direct-injection engines (including the naturally aspirated 2.4-liter in the base Sonata), the Theta II turbo doesn't make the most sonorous of noises at tickover, but inside, noise is well controlled in both volume and tone, no matter the speed. All 274 horses gallop in at a rather lofty 6,000 RPM, but the 269 lb-ft of torque pushes in at just 1,800 RPM and hangs out until 4,500 is showing on the tach, at which point the power begins to taper off. Burying the pedal while getting up to speed on the big 2.8-mile bowl, we not only observed strong acceleration that would seem to jibe with Hyundai's 0-60 mph estimate of 6.5 seconds, we also noted impressive high-speed stability at speeds in excess of 140 miles per hour.
Hyundai's Namyang proving grounds offers more than 45 miles of roads spread out over 34 different test tracks of all varieties, with 71 different types of surfaces. In other words, it's a massive facility – 408 acres of research and development, all in. Beyond the four-lane oval, we were limited to stints on a mid-speed handling course where we found ourselves in the engine's wheelhouse more often than not. Doing so was easy, and not just because Hyundai has fitted the same spoke-mounted paddle-shifters (right tab up, left tab down) used on the 2.4L SE to all turbo Sonatas. There's no Sport mode to cut down on the cog-swap time and nobody is going to confuse the A6LF2 six-speed auto for a quick-shifting dual-clutch unit, but Hyundai's Shiftronic tech is still a useful piece of kit. Left to its own devices, the all-new internally developed six-speed is a model of civility, easily a match of other gearboxes in the class.
Since suspension and steering tuning has yet to be signed off on, it would be imprudent to make sweeping judgments about handling. But so far, we like what we see. With so much power funneled through the front wheels, we were concerned that torque steer would be a real liability, but at least on the track's smooth surfaces, it wasn't a distraction. Even when we intentionally stomped on the gas in a haphazard fashion coming out of the corners to provoke the condition, we didn't notice an objectionable amount of torque steer from the MacPherson strut-suspended front end. Steering effort and feedback is still on the lighter side, but the same thing can be said for most of the Sonata's challengers.
Like the exterior, the cabin of the 2.0T is all but identical to that of the 2.4, which is to say that it offers straight-forward ergonomics, plenty of space and storage, and sadly, surprisingly hard and flat seats. If you're wondering what dining room chairs are doing stuck in a sport sedan, it's because Hyundai doesn't actually have truly athletic aspirations for the 2.0T– it views this model as a straight V6 replacement, not a performance entry. Yes, you will still be able to get the modestly improved dynamics in the 2.0T SE model (monotube shocks, 20 percent firmer springs, larger anti-roll bars and 18-inch performance rubber), but at the end of the day, Hyundai has elected to point the barrel of its bat at the meat of the market, not dish out a red in tooth and claw special that targets a few thousand enthusiasts.
From a business perspective, that's smart thinking, but it also leaves the door open for a more focused future performance variant – something that officials we spoke with refused to rule out. We think there's plenty here to work with: an astute chassis that can clearly handle high-horsepower applications, aggressive styling and a team of talented engineers that has already proven they know how to build a bona fide performance car. Still, the plain-Jane Sonata 2.4 is already at or near the top of the heap dynamically, so if you're getting the impression that the turbo is all soft and squidgy, you've got it wrong. In our brief drive, we noticed no unwelcome additions to the Sonata's dynamic portfolio, so there's really no reason to be disappointed – we've just been left wanting more.
While we'll withhold a firm verdict until we can get a production model back on U.S. soil, for the moment, the Sonata 2.0T appears to be an almost supernaturally accomplished entrant in the family sedan sweepstakes. Daring lines paired with unmatched power and freakishly impressive fuel economy has shown that the Korean automaker isn't afraid to innovate. The 2.0T may not yet be the affordable sport sedan of our dreams, but if Hyundai can deliver on its projected price point of under $25,000, it will add untouchable value to what's already shaping up to be a class-leading proposition. If the Sonata nosed ahead of its rivals when the 2.4 came on the market, this new 2.0T is poised to eclipse them completely. Outsmart and outplay indeed.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid hails from a nation where Buddhism is one of the dominant religions. After all, this slippery sedan's design is the gas-electric's equivalent of The Middle Path – a road that the company hopes is truly the way to automotive enlightenment.
In the still-young history of the modern hybrid automobile, there have been two prevailing schools of thought on design: As the less costly path, The Low Road to hybridization is already a crowded one – it's a design route that basically calls for the electrification hardware to be buried beneath a familiar bodyshell that's shared with a conventional internal combustion-only model (see: Lexus LS 600h, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Chevrolet Silverado, etc.). The driving philosophy here is to keep production costs in check while also appealing to audiences that might be otherwise reluctant to embrace "new" technology.
By contrast, The High Road calls for swoopier model-specific bodywork – if not an entire dedicated platform – enabling a "greener than thou" halo for its owners and parent company. Unfortunately, this high-visibility strategy also costs a boatload of cash, and the only such model that has managed to make a solid business case for itself is the Toyota Prius, a vehicle that's become the de-facto postercar for the green movement.
But here's the conundrum that Hyundai has keenly recognized: Despite being on the checklist of every politician, environmentalist and Hollywood glitterati, hybrids don't sell in America – they account for less than two percent of new vehicles purchased in the U.S. every year, and their high technology bandwidth means that they require a disproportionate amount of money to develop. Basically, Hyundai knows that the Sonata Hybrid is a necessity for improving its technological capabilities, as well as for burnishing its industry-leading CAFE scores, but it also seems to understand that it is almost certain to lose money on each one it builds. Which is why they've taken The Middle Path.
In this case, the Sonata Hybrid tries to integrate the best of the other two hybrid strategies – create a distinctive new model with a unique look that says "I care more about the earth than you do" without incurring the cost of a whole new platform and all-new sheetmetal. Have they been successful? We flew all the way to South Korea to find out...
While it shares its platform, doors, glass and roofline with the conventional gas-powered models, the Sonata Hybrid has a surprisingly assertive look all its own. Just check out its gaping hexagonal air inlet with a floating bumperette and license plate holder – it looks nothing like the controversial wavy slat assembly on the gas Sonata. The same goes for the piercing new headlamps with integrated light tube ribboning, as well as the wing-shaped chrome garnish on the hood's leading edge. The Sonata Hybrid's visuals are actually bold enough that one could be forgiven for thinking that Hyundai might have reserved it for the forced-induction 2.0T model. We wouldn't call it a pretty face, but it's clearly got aggression to spare.
Move along the Sonata Hybrid's profile, and you first notice the KitchenAid-spec 16-inch alloys and the subtle rocker panel extensions employed for better aerodynamics. Out back, the rear bumper cap has also been resculpted to more cleanly detach air (notice the harder-edged lines around the corners), and a blacked-out lower fascia helps to visually lighten the design. The Sonata Hybrid's coolest design element? Its clear rear lights, because the brake lamps appear to incorporate an atom symbol graphic when lit. All of those changes help drop the coefficient of drag from a slick 0.28 cD to a positively eel-like 0.25.
The Sonata Hybrid's Middle Path approach continues beneath the skin. While Hyundai is the first to make use of lithium polymer batteries in a mass-production hybrid, it also incorporates some more common hardware, including a conventional six-speed automatic it shares with other Sonata models. By eschewing the complexity of a continuously variable transmission, Hyundai has cut costs while delivering a driving experience that's closer to that of a normal internal combustion vehicle. In this application, the house-developed gearbox is attached directly to the electric motor – there is no torque converter. A small clutch pack with an electric oil pump can uncouple the 169-horsepower 2.4-liter Theta II engine entirely, allowing the 30 kW motor to deliver its 151 pound-feet of torque, whirring car and driver noiselessly to speeds up to 62 miles per hour.
Although Hyundai hasn't downsized the Sonata's gasoline engine for hybrid duty, it has converted it to run on a more efficient cycle. While abandoning Nicolaus Otto for James Atkinson generally results in improved fuel economy, it also comes at the expense of low-end torque (in this case, 156 lb-ft at 4,500 rpm). Conveniently, twisting down low is exactly the electric motor's strong suit, so it picks up the slack to help the Hybrid deliver a more traditional driving experience.
Additional good news arrives in the form of the Sonata Hybrid's LiPo battery pack. It may have cost more than a nickel metal hydride solution, but Hyundai claims that the magazine-like prismatic cells offer greater robustness and lighter weight than other batteries. Compared to the yestertech NiMH pack in the Toyota Camry Hybrid, Hyundai claims that its 1.4 kilowatt-hour pack is 20-30 percent lighter, 40 percent smaller, and a tenth more efficient. You might expect for this to pay dividends in the area of cargo capacity (the batteries are located in the trunk), but in truth, the Hyundai's 10.7 cubic-foot trunk is still dramatically smaller than that of a gas-only Sonata (16.4 cubes) and it's about the same size as its competitors. Even if the flat-pack configuration doesn't help free up more luggage space, Hyundai says the cells have improved thermal efficiency to help prolong life – the company's durability targets for the pack stands at 10+ years and 150,000 miles.
Thanks in part to the LiPo batteries and the Sonata's already light construction, the Sonata Hybrid checks in at 3,457 pounds, meaning that not only does it weigh a good bit less than the Ford Fusion Hybrid (along with the rest of its rivals), it actually undercuts the Blue Oval's sedan in V6-flavor.
Unfortunately, we didn't really get a feel for how this lightness impacts handling because we were limited to very brief, largely straight-line runs in prototypes at Hyundai's Namyang Proving Ground outside of Seoul. What we can tell you is that at first blush, the Sonata Hybrid accelerates and shifts gears like a normal family sedan. By this we don't mean "normal for a hybrid"– it just gathers speed in an utterly familiar, drama-free fashion. Yes, if you're reserved with the throttle, you'll generally be able to accelerate to around-town speeds without awakening the 2.4-liter until the battery's depleted, but when driven as you would normally, you'll realize that Hyundai's decision to go with a conventional stepped gearbox over a CVT was a smart choice as the drivetrain acts and sounds like any other four-cylinder powertrain – no wonky stretched rubber band sensation or soundtrack that many CVT units deliver. We did notice a couple of incidents where the transmission 'clunked' a bit from gear to gear under part throttle, but Hyundai engineers acknowledge that they still have some bugs to work out before the car enters production.
Hyundai quotes a total combined power estimate of 209 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 194 pound-feet of torque. Both figures are actually slightly better than the gas-powered Sonata's 198 hp and 184 lb-ft, although obviously the Hybrid is heavier. The gas-only car already has class-leading fuel economy figures of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 35 on the highway, while Hyundai estimates the hybrid will drum up 37 mpg in the urban cycle and 39 mpg out on the highway. As we've already observed over 40 mpg on the highway in a non-hybrid Sonata, we're guessing that the factory estimates may be under-reported a bit. Even still, as with most hybrids, you're really only likely to garner huge fuel savings – about 40 percent – if most of your driving is conducted in the city, not out on the open road. Either way, Hyundai has yet to officially reveal any other performance metrics, but we did note a Powerpoint slide suggesting 0-62 mph in 9.2 seconds, which seems a tad conservative.
The Sonata Hybrid's cabin is nearly identical to other models in the range, with its most noticeable departure being the 4.2-inch LCD sandwiched in the middle of the gauge cluster. It displays the usual types of data for a gas-electric vehicle – mpg, EV-mode, energy flow diagrams and so on. As is the way these days, there's also a video game-like mode to tell the driver how eco-conscious he or she is being, with points accumulated over time and a visual efficiency telltale that ranges from gray to bright blue. Beyond the gizmology, interior differences are expected to include a hybrid-specific color option as well as different seat patterns. All of which is fine by us, as the Sonata already has one of nicest interiors in the family sedan segment (though we admit we're getting a bit tired of the blue gauge backlighting).
We'll have to wait to arrive at a verdict on the Sonata Hybrid until pricing is revealed and we get substantially more time behind the wheel of a production model, but thus far, it looks pretty compelling. Treading The Middle Path for its development has not only saved Hyundai cost in certain areas (e.g. shared body panels and transmission), it's enabled the company to splash out and go for broke in the ones that are important (LiPo batteries, distinct front-and-rear ends). Will it lead to a state of euphoric enlightenment for hybrid shoppers? Hyundai sure hopes so.
Here in the U.S., the mid-size sedan market is thought to be all but impregnable to newcomers. Ruled for decades by models that have become icons of the industry, the segment has enjoyed a long and peaceful reign by the likes of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. But the funny thing about success is that if you're not very, very careful, it breeds complacency. While the titans of the four-door kingdom have been sleeping on beds of cash made on the innovations of two decades ago, Hyundai has been busily polishing its reputation and pouring over $550 million into fresh research and development for new and advanced drivetrains for its 2011 Sonata.
One of the long accepted tenants of the mid-size sedan is "Thou Shalt Have a Six-Cylinder Option." Ironically enough, this mode of thought arose as a challenge to the previously held belief that if you wanted to move four-doors in America, you had to offer a V8 under the hood. But when Japan's Big Three proved they could dish out V8 horsepower with six-cylinder fuel economy, the eight-cylinder family hauler all but disappeared from the scene. Now, Hyundai is out to repeat history by debuting a turbocharged four-cylinder designed to rattle the cages of Toyota, Honda and Nissan.
Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL
From the exterior, there's little to differentiate the Sonata 2.0T from its non-turbocharged siblings other than a few subtle badges. The sedan retains the same beautiful "fluidic sculpture" design as the 2.4-liter four-cylinder variant, so buyers can expect the same swept nose, complete with artfully-pointed headlights and sculpted hood up front. Likewise, the profile is still dominated by a single, arching crease that reaches from just below the front fender well to meet the wrapped taillights at the rear. In all, the look is cohesive and is about as far from the copycat designs of the company's past as you can get. We dig it.
Inside, buyers won't find the interior any different from what's available in the base Sonata. The same high-quality soft-touch dash remains in place, as does the smattering of piano black accents along the door panels and center stack. Speaking of the door panels, soft material insets just above the armrest do much to improve their feel.
The Sonata's center stack is dominated by easy-to-navigate dual climate controls and an attractive navigation/entertainment touchscreen. While we typically rail against the easily-scratched faux-metal trim that frames the rest of the waterfall, it serves the Sonata cabin well. Perhaps the best praise we can lay on the interior of the Sonata is that it has its own personality – you're simply not likely to mistake the cabin for that of a Toyota or a Honda, despite the fact the material quality is finally on par with those makes.
That's not to say that everything's right as rain inside. The Sonata 2.0T packs a heap of intelligent engineering solutions under the hood, and those tricks had to have cost some serious money. Even so, Hyundai has kept the vehicle's base MSRP down to a miserly $24,145 without destination (compared to $19,195 for the basest of naturally aspirated Sonatas). That means that some things had to be done to keep the price point at an acceptable level, and while most of those concessions remain well out of sight of both driver and passengers, the Sonata's gear selector feels more than a little flimsy. The shifter lock button comes across as light and hung-up more than once during our time behind the wheel. Likewise, the overall action of the transmission stalk felt sloppy and lacked the precision inherent in the rest of the vehicle.
Still, we think we can forgive Hyundai for a cheap-feeling shifter given all that's going on under the hood. The company has managed to successfully blend its direct-injection system with forced induction to create a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder good for a dizzying 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque. Even better, all of that twist comes in at a low 1,750 rpm, so you can nearly forget about turbo lag. Of course, slapping a turbo onto a small-displacement, direct-injection engine and calling it a day is nothing new – look no further than the Ford line of EcoBoost mills or some excellent-but-unbranded engines from General Motors as proof – but Hyundai has chucked in a few of its own tricks to both improve response and ensure the engine is as bulletproof as any of the company's other powerplants.
The little 2.0-liter engine packs some pretty advanced tech, including a cast stainless-steel exhaust manifold. In addition to boasting slightly better thermal properties than a standard cast-iron piece, Hyundai says that the manifold was specifically built to handle pressures well in excess of what the Hyundai-designed, Mitsubishi-built twin-scroll turbo can handle. Why? Longevity. The engineers say this engine has been put through a grueling 300 hours of testing at wide-open throttle. Once that was wrapped up, the powerplant was then subjected to a further 20 hours of testing at engine speeds above the redline.
Of course, that stout manifold is only a small part of the recipe. In order to help keep the engine's temperature under control, Hyundai has implemented something it calls "aluminum thermal sprayed counter spiny liner," which is essentially a new way of layering aluminum onto the exterior of the cylinder sleeve to increase surface area. That greater surface area allows for improved cooling efficiency. According to Hyundai, this is the first application of the counter-spiny liner in the automotive industry.
Speaking of keeping things cool, Hyundai is also using a unique air channeling system on the vehicle's intercooler. The guide routes air to the intake and outlet areas of the intercooler, and Hyundai claims it keeps intake air up to 50 degrees cooler than with no guide. All these refinements help contribute to that nearly instantaneous throttle response and lofty horsepower figures.
But here's the real shocker. Hyundai has tuned the four-cylinder to have a compression ratio of just 9.5:1. That means that even with all of that grunt on tap, this engine drinks regular unleaded gasoline. Even better, it drinks very little of it. Fuel economy sits at 23 mpg city and 33 mpg highway, though the company has included an Active Eco button that helps flatten out throttle fluctuations to keep fuel consumption as low as possible.
Bolted behind the engine is the same proprietary six-speed automatic transmission found in the regular 2.4-liter Sonata. Hyundai has thrown in a set of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for manually rifling through the gears, and while the pieces serve up a satisfying click and feel solid enough, the gear changes are a bit too reluctant to be worth using all the time. Our recommendation is to simply leave the car in Drive and let the computer do the thinking. The shift logic on the Sonata 2.0T is crisp, putting the car in the right cog for the right speed no matter what your driving style.
We spent our time behind the wheel of a Limited model, which comes packed to the gills with all kinds of interior niceties, though Hyundai also offers up an SE model with sport-tuned dampers and springs. Even so, the Limited simply feels good to drive. It has the sort of confident, planted feel that has all but evaporated from the mid-sized import sedan segment, and we have to admit that we're glad to have it back. The ride is comfortable without being marshmallowy soft, and the four-door moves well through bends despite its substantial size. Curb weight has been kept to around 3,400 pounds depending on equipment, and the Sonata 2.0T comes with brakes that are more than capable of handling the tonnage.
And there's more than enough power to get this show moving, too. The four-door dispatches traffic with glee, all without so much as a peep from under the hood. The revs swell, and there's a slight sense of urgency from under the hood, but the cabin isn't inundated with buzzing from the thrash of four tiny pistons out front nor any whine from the turbo. You simply dart quickly away from surrounding traffic. Hyundai says that the jump to 60 mph from a dead stop takes just 6.8 seconds, and we're inclined to believe them. Even better, there's next to no torque steer, even when your right foot gets overzealous.
It's hard not to be genuinely surprised by the 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T. With more power and better fuel economy than the V6 variants of the Camry, Accord and Altima, all at around $3,000 less than the majority of its major competitors, we just can't find a coherent all-around argument against the turbo'd Korean. Regardless of how many of the cars hop off of the lot when they go on sale this week, it looks like the days of the V6 mid-sized sedan are numbered.
Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL
New Car Test Drive
All-new lineup includes fuel-efficient hybrid and turbo versions.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata is an all-new midsize sedan, completely redesigned and re-engineered. The 2011 Sonata comes a wide range of models, including a hybrid that can be driven at highway speeds in fully electric mode, and a turbo designed to deliver fuel-efficient acceleration performance.
The new Sonata Hybrid features a full parallel hybrid system allowing the car to be driven in zero emissions, fully electric drive mode at speeds up to 62 miles per hour or in blended gas-electric mode at any speed. The new Sonata 2.0T, meanwhile, uses a four-cylinder turbocharged engine that gets an EPA-estimated 33 mpg Highway rating while boasting 274 horsepower and on Regular gas. The 2011 Sonata lineup starts with the Sonata GLS, which retails for less than $20,000 and delivers more power than other cars in its class. No V6 is offered, as Hyundai is using turbocharged four-cylinders and battery assist motors to increase power.
A four door, midsize sedan that accommodates five passengers, the Sonata competes with Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, and Nissan Altima, to name a few.
In a head to head match-up with direct comparables of those five brands, the Hyundai Sonata models are more powerful, while hanging right in there with the other brands on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's fuel economy ratings. The base 2.4 liter engine delivers 198 horsepower (190 hp in states using California emissions regulations) or 200 hp with a dual exhaust system, which is substantially more power than what's found in the base models of the other midsize sedans. The 2.0T model's fuel economy on the highway is better than all but the Fusion. The Hybrid tops the Honda and Camry hybrids in EPA City and Highway fuel economy ratings and bests the Fusion's Highway rating.
That 2.0T turbocharged engine is Hyundai's more economical and more affordable answer to Americans' perceived need for speed. It's not only more powerful than the V6 that powered the 2010 Sonata and the competition's V6s, but also generally less thirsty, by almost eight mpg over the Malibu in EPA's Highway rating, to pick the best example. An extra bonus is that Hyundai went against the grain in its selection of transmission for the 2011 Hybrid. While the Fusion, Altima and Camry hybrids all have a gearless, continuously variable transmission, the Sonata gets a full-on, 6-speed automatic that drives and sounds like a car should, with actual upshifts and downshifts instead of virtual gear changes artificially created by computer software.
We're not sure the new Sonata is the sharpest looker in the class, but at least it's not a copycat of any of the other midsize sedans, a couple of which could leave a buyer confused were it not for the oversized, trademark logo in the grille or on the trunk lid. Inside, features, materials and fit and finish are as good as the best of those, and better than a couple, especially in quality and tolerances.
Buyers need not be limited to those seeking a daily commuter, either. The Hybrid covers the need for green-ness and the Sonata SE actually is fun to drive, especially the 2.0T, while the GLS handles interstates with ease and the Limited brings luxury. Hyundai has tuned the suspension calibrations differently for the different models, so each has its own character.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata comes in GLS, SE, and Limited trim. (All New Car Test Drive prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include destination charge and may change at any time without notice.)
Sonata GLS ($19,195) comes with cloth upholstery, air conditioning, Bluetooth, AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 system (with three-month subscription to XM) with six speakers and iPod/USB and auxiliary input jacks, tilt/telescope steering wheel, steering wheel audio controls, trip computer, power door locks, power mirrors, power windows, cruise control, remote keyless entry fob, 60/40 split folding rear seat, P205/65R16 tires on steel wheels. The GLS comes with a 6-speed manual transmission or six-speed automatic ($20,195). The Popular Equipment Package ($750) upgrades with 16 inch alloy wheels, power driver seat and manual lumbar adjustment, chrome interior handles, faux leather interior panels (in place of the base molded, hard plastic), and automatic light control. The navigation package ($1,700) adds a touch screen navigation system and premium speakers pumped up with a subwoofer and an external amplifier along with everything from the Popular Equipment Package.
Sonata SE ($22,595) and Sonata 2.0T SE ($24,145) comes standard with the 6 speed Shiftronic automatic, steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, leather trimmed steering wheel, shift knob and seat bolsters with cloth inserts, eight way power driver's seat, automatic light control, faux leather door panels, front fog lights, P225/45R18 Hankook tires on silver alloy wheels, chrome tipped dual exhaust, proximity entry, push button start/stop, dark chrome grille with body color hood trim. The SE rear suspension gets beefier springs and a larger stabilizer bar. Options for the SE: a Navigation and Sunroof Package ($2600) that includes the touch screen navigation system, a power tilt and slide sunroof, and the speaker and amplifier upgrade.
Sonata Limited ($25,295) and 2.0T Limited ($27,045) upgrade with full leather seating surfaces, dual zone automatic climate control with outside temperature display and floor console mounted rear vents, Infinity audio system with in dash, 6CD changer, heated front and rear seats, turn signal indicators in the outside mirrors, dark chrome grille and hood trim, Piano Black or Woodgrain interior trim accents, powered tilt and slide sunroof, auto dimming rearview mirror with compass, and P215/55R17 Kumho tires on aluminum alloy wheels. The 2.0T Limited also has paddle shifters and an outside temperature display. Options are limited to the Navigation Package ($2,100) comprising the touch screen navigation system (which displaces the CD changer), an integrated rear backup video camera and top level Infinity speakers. HD radio technology is included in the 2.0T Limited's premium sound system.
Sonata Hybrid features and option list essentially mirrors that of the SE models, including the outside temperature display but excluding the paddle shifters.
Safety features standard on Sonata include front airbags; driver and front passenger side impact airbags; front and rear seat side air curtains; anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), and brake assist; electronic stability control with traction control; active front-seat head restraints; rear-seat child safety seat anchors; and tire-pressure monitors. The rearview camera that comes in the Limited Navigation Package can reduce the chance of running over someone when backing up.
The all-new, 2011 Hyundai Sonata is classed as a midsize sedan but it's large by those standards. Measured by total enclosed space, it just sneaks in at the bottom of the large sedan class.
Hyundai's designers throw around phrases like fluidic sculpture design language and monoform side profile in describing the new styling. They say their goal was to design a car that no one could say, looks like brand X. As to the former, the word busy seems apt in describing the Sonata's styling cues. And as to the latter, observers should be forgiven if on catching sight of the new Sonata their first thought is of one of those cars that wear the three pointed star emblem. This isn't to say the Sonata's looks aren't striking or pleasant, because neither is true. It's just that neither are they necessarily unique.
The front end on all but the Hybrid stays with a pinched nose look echoing that of the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Sculpted creases flowing forward and inward from the A-pillars (the windshield's side frames) draw the eye to the grin like grille and the outsized Hyundai logo. Headlight housings start at the outer edges of the grille and wrap around the front fenders beyond the leading arch of the wheelwell, visually lessening the front overhang. The lower fascia sports a wide mouth air intake flanked by squinting recesses for the uplevel fog lights.
The Hybrid's forward territory shows much of the same shapes and sculpting but gets an entirely different and quite striking grille treatment, an oversized, hexagonal opening split by an oversized horizontal bar. Hyundai wants no one to miss that this Sonata is something special. The Hybrid's headlights make a similar statement, highlighted with a string of LED running lights laced around the projector beam lenses.
Side aspect shows three, sharply defined character lines below a roofline with a severely raked windshield and rear window, which combines with a short trunk lid to minimize the car's mass. The highlight is a chrome strip that starts at the headlight housing and runs along the car's beltline (where the side windows meet the door panels) all the way to the rearmost tip of the rear quarter glass. Below this is a knife edge crease sweeping up from the front quarter panel through the door handles and finishing as an eyebrow for the taillight housings. Another knife edge crease cuts across the bottom of the doors just above the rocker panels before leapfrogging the rear wheelwells to melt into the rear bumper. On the Hybrid, a chrome strip accents this crease. All three tire sizes fill perfectly circular wheelwells, giving the car a balanced, front to rear proportion.
From the rear, quite frankly, the Sonata could be a top of the line Lexus or Mercedes Benz, save, of course, for the Hyundai flying H logo. It's an elegant look, with understated taillights, minimalist chrome bar topping the license plate indent and a lower bumper element that mirrors the lower front fascia, even to the reflectors framed to match the front fog lights. Distinguishing the Hybrid are intricately designed taillights, with what looks somewhat like electrons looping around an atom's nucleus.
Our first impression of the interior in the new Sonata is much like that of the exterior: busy. But then the swoops and angles and different textures begin to come together, actually more successfully than the sculptured and borderline over stylized exterior. The general impression is more toward a luxury look and feel than the anticipated cost consciousness.
Metal trim bits are muted. The understated textured dash material kills daytime glare but still gives the surface some depth. Wood grain accents are glossy but positioned where and in ways that ensure minimal distraction. Instruments are tastefully done and easy to read with a glance, save for bright sunny days when the hood fails to shield the bottom half of the tachometer and speedometer housings.
Seats are comfortable with adequate bolsters, especially given the Sonata doesn't invite rambunctious motoring. One noteworthy change is the replacement of the previous Sonata's lever-actuated, mechanical lumbar for the driver's seat with an electric air bladder for the 2011 Sonata; the bladder spreads the added lumbar over a wider area, adding immeasurably to the comfort level. The cloth seat coverings feel and look durable. The optional leather is neither too slippery nor too supple but still feels as if it would be cold in winter and clammy in summer. In a Goldilocks sort of way, the leather/cloth combo combines the best of both.
The buttons and knobs populating the center stack of all three trim levels clearly communicate their function and are spaced properly for ease of use. The optional rearview camera's guidelines bend as the steering wheel turns, a tweak of this increasingly popular visual aid that some high end sedans wearing domestic and import labels haven't managed to code into their cars' firmware.
The steering wheel has the right heft, as does the shift knob. The Shiftronic function is properly located on the driver's side of the shift gate. Oddly, the ignition key slot on the Sonata GLS is in the steering column, while the Start/Stop button on the Sonata SE and Limited is in the traditional place, on the lower dash to the right of the steering column. We think the ideal arrangement would be an ignition key on the dash.
Hyundai offers three sound systems on the 2011 Sonata. The base system has the usual multi media capabilities and speakers and pumps out respectable sounds. The premium system wears the Infinity brand, also has the usual multi media capabilities but adds a six disc changer and transmits its entertainment through an Infinity speaker array with subwoofer and external amplifier. The sounds reflect the premium label, with crisp highs and lows and mellow intermediates. Where the Sonata breaks new ground is with its mid grade system adding a 6CD changer and an off-brand subwoofer and external amplifier to the basic audio system and its six speakers. The clarity of its sounds are not quite the equal the Infinity's, but probably only to an unrepentant audiophile's ears; as for volume, it's easily a match with the Infinity. So if you don't want to spring for the Infinity system, the mid-grade is a good compromise.
There's ample storage for carpooling or for long vacation drives. Every door has a map pocket with a molded in cup/bottle holder, even the bottom of the line GLS with its hard plastic interior door panels. The center console boasts two receptacles, as does the rear seats' fold down center armrest. That front center console is a bi level unit, with a shallow bin directly under the pad and a deeper bin below that. There's a drop down bin in the base of the center stack for odds and ends, and the glove box, while not notably spacious, will hold a few maps along with the owner's manual. The Sonata trunk, at 16.4 cubic feet (10.7 cu. ft. on the Sonata Hybrid), is the largest in the class save for the Ford Fusion's, at 16.5 cu. ft. (11.8 cu. ft on the Fusion Hybrid). The trunk opening, however, is a mite cramped, due to the abbreviated trunk lid dimensions necessitated by the stylists' craving for that sporty, long hood/short boot proportion.
Compared against the other sedans in this class, only the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima have more headroom, and the Sonata beats the Altima in rear-seat headroom. The Sonata's front-seat legroom bests all in the class, but pays with the poorest rear-seat legroom, where the Sonata comes in last, by almost four inches against the Toyota Camry, three inches against the Chevrolet Malibu and more than two inches against the Ford Fusion. The concaved backs of the front seats help some in providing vital knee room, but people long of leg will notice. In hiproom the Sonata effectively splits the difference with the others, trailing the Accord and the Altima and coming in ahead of the Camry, the Fusion and the Malibu. In short, the Sonata is great for long-legged drivers, but it's not so good for long-legged back-seat riders.
With the slightest tweaks of suspension elements and the different tire/wheel sizes, Hyundai has managed to deliver a different ride in each of the Sonata's three trim levels, each well fitted to its target buyer.
The Sonata GLS delivers a smooth ride but with some road noise and not the crispest turn in at modest speeds. The GLS steering feels light, needing corrections in gusty crosswinds. Ride quality in the Sonata SE models is firmer, the steering slightly heavier, the combined effect of different tuning of the power steering pump and shorter, stiffer tire sidewalls. The latter sharpens the steering response. The SE models' thicker rear stabilizer bar keeps the car on a more even keel when it's gingerly pushed along winding, two lane mountain roads. The ride is not as wallow free as that of the Hyundai Genesis Coupe but impressive nevertheless for a sedan of this heft and price. Ride quality in the Sonata Limited is more supple than gentle but clearly not firm; again, it's the Goldilocks syndrome. To the naked ear, the Limited seems quieter, too, although that may be due to a higher grade of interior trim and materials. Fusion buyers likely are the only ones who will get a more comfortable and a quieter ride or, if they pick the right model, a better handling sedan.
The non-turbocharged SE's two additional horsepower and pound feet of torque aren't enough to be detected by an uncalibrated posterior, but the car does feel sprightlier; perchance it's the power of suggestion, eh? That added power, by the way, wasn't a design target but merely the unexpected benefit from bolting on honest to goodness dual exhausts and the lower backpressure that came with the freer breathing. What is noticeable in the non-turbocharged and non-hybrid Sonatas is a curious, free wheeling like sensation that sometimes follows lifting off the throttle after a brief acceleration, like on a mild grade, when a slowing of the car would be expected but doesn't happen quite as and when expected. It was nothing that unnerved or lingered beyond the briefest of moments, but it still was there.
Gear changes in the automatic happened smoothly, being tangible, but subdued, in full auto or driver-selected via the Shiftronic. Response to throttle pressure was prompt across the full line of Sonata models with shifts necessitated by changes in load effected almost invisibly, dropping down a gear or two without the driver not noticing until seeing that the tachometer needle had jumped a couple thousand rpm. Kudos to Hyundai, too, for sticking with the same automatic for the Hybrid, in lieu of the gearless, continuously variable transmission the competition bolts to their hybrid powerplants. A hybrid with a transmission that shifts gears just like in a real car adds immeasurably to the driving experience.
The 2.0T, no surprise, was the most energetic, yet without fussy power surges. Those 74 additional horses and 85 pound-feet of torque over the base four-cylinder will push the 2.0T's speedometer needle well into the three digits. The 2.0T does not, however, deliver Germanic, autobahn-competent sureness; at 130 mph on Hyundai's high-speed track in Korea, the 2.0T evidenced some twitchiness and vulnerability to cross breezes.
At the opposite end of the eco-scale lies the Hybrid. Hyundai states that the Hybrid can reach 62 miles per hour in pure electric mode before the engine lights off and takes over; this is optimal, though, requiring all accessories to be turned off, pavement as flat as an Interstate in Kansas and the most gentle pressure on the throttle. In normal driving, with only minimal, but necessarily conscious attention to throttle pressure, 30 mph on the motor alone can be achieved. Transitions between motor alone and motor/engine combined were nigh impossible to discern. A thoughtful, fuel-saving touch is a coasting function that shuts down the engine when there's no pressure on the throttle, even at highway speeds.
Braking response was strong and linear on all trim levels and powertrains. The ample dead pedal gave good bracing for the left foot on twisty mountain roads and during long, high speed runs on the interstates. Speaking of which, during one leg of the test drive in Southern California east of San Diego that covered about 90 miles split about evenly between both types of roads, a Sonata GLS returned 31 miles per gallon while averaging 65 miles per hour, including several extended runs at 75 and 80. The Hybrid managed a very respectable 47 mpg over a similar but shorter route, about 50 miles, and driven much the same way.
With the 2011 Sonata, Hyundai takes another major step along the path it has laid out for itself in the U.S. market. This is a high quality sedan, in all of its iterations, with remarkably good manners and markedly improved quality and efficiency, all at an impressively competitive price.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Diego.
Hyundai Sonata GLS ($19,195); SE ($22,595); Limited ($25,295); 2.0T SE ($24,145), 2.0T Limited ($27,045); Hybrid.
Montgomery, Alabama; Asan, Korea (Hybrid).
Options As Tested
Popular Equipment Package plus Navigation ($2,450) includes navigation system, XM NavTraffic, XM NavWeather, XM sports, XM stocks, premium speakers with subwoofer and external amplifier, power driver seat, driver lumbar support, chrome interior door handles, leatherette interior door panels, automatic light control, 16 inch alloy wheels.
Hyundai Sonata GLS automatic ($20,195).
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