The Best Mid-Size Base Model Money Can Buy

One might think that the shapely, coupe-like roofline (yes, we said it) would take its toll on interior volume, but it's quite the contrary in the Sonata. Hyundai's clever packaging has made for a car that has more interior volume than most of its competitors, with good amounts of headroom for passengers both fore and aft. Rear legroom is a bit of a sore spot, though – at only 34.6 inches, even a Volkswagen Golf offers more comfortable accommodations.

Once you're settled in, the first thing you'll notice about the Sonata's interior is how the exterior design carries over onto certain parts of the cabin, namely the front doors, steering wheel and dashboard. The Hyundai easily has the most stylish interior among all mid-size sedan offerings, though all interior functions are still quite intuitive. The Volvo-esque airflow monitor, backlit instrument cluster gauges and Hyundai-standard soft blue lighting really make the Sonata's interior seem more upscale than its price tag would suggest. As you would expect, many of the touchable surfaces inside the GLS aren't as soft or smooth as what you get in SE or Limited trims, but they certainly aren't lacking in quality. The whole package is more attractive than what you'll find inside a Ford Fusion while being less cluttered than a Honda Accord. By comparison, the Chevrolet Malibu feels downright third-world.

Most people shopping the mid-size sedan segment value style, comfort and levels of standard equipment more than power or driving dynamics, but Hyundai still delivers in this regard. Gone for 2011 is any sort of V6 offering, and while hybrid and turbocharged powertrains are on the way, the vast majority of Sonatas will be equipped with the automaker's all-new direct-injected 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine. This engine makes its debut in the Sonata, and with an EPA-estimated 35 miles per gallon on the highway (22 in the city), Hyundai has topped the Ford Fusion for the title of most fuel-efficient non-hybrid mid-size sedan. That's a great line for a press release, yes, but it's also a huge selling point for consumers who demand frugality in new car purchases. These aren't fluffed-up numbers, either, as we easily managed an average of 33 mpg during our week-long test through metro Detroit.

Rated at 198 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, the GDI 2.4 never feels underpowered, and unlike many older four-cylinder mills, you don't have to rev the bajeezus out of it to accelerate quickly. A relatively linear powerband coupled with a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic make for pleasant cruising. Pleasantly quiet, too – Hyundai's abundant use of sound-deadening materials make for an eerily quiet ride, with very little in the way of engine or wind noise making its way inside the cabin. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, because while the 2.4 liter is a honey of an engine, it's certainly not an aural treat. Not that you'll really notice. Those of you clamoring for a manual transmission will be happy to know that Hyundai does, in fact, offer one on the GLS, but as of this writing, only one solitary percent of Sonatas sold have been equipped this way. Such is life.

Out on the road, the base Sonata's soft suspension makes for a comfortable, cushy ride, though it never feels disconnected or floaty. The majority of buyers will prefer this setup, but those with an enthusiast mindset will still prefer the slightly firmer, more involving setup in the sportier SE. Hyundai has fitted the Sonata with its new electronic power steering first seen on the Tucson crossover, and while this system still feels touchy and overboosted at initial turn-in, the helm is nicely weighted once you get past the first 10 percent of the overall turning radius. We wouldn't necessarily refer to the Sonata's dynamics as sporty or enthusiastic, but its perfectly acceptable for a car that has to appeal to a very wide range of potential customers. In other words, it isn't a total snooze.

Weighing in at 3,199 pounds, the GLS feels light and balanced when tossed about, and the throttle and brake inputs are easily modulated. Sure, the SE is still our Sonata of choice, but the overall dynamics of the GLS are quite good for a car in this class. From behind the wheel, you generally feel more in tune with the Sonata's mechanics than you would in, say, a Camry, but it's never a challenge to drive in any scenario. Like we said before – this is pleasant cruising.

The fact that our well-equipped GLS stickered at $21,665 (including the $720 destination charge) only strengthens the Sonata's selling power. Not only is it arguably the most stylish car in its class with the best-looking interior, it's decent to drive and plenty functional, to boot. All Sonatas come standard with a raft of goodies like Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio, auxiliary and MP3 inputs, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and heated mirrors, not to mention the automaker's ten-year/100,000-mile warranty.

The 2011 Sonata proves that not only is Hyundai still capable of beating the competition in terms of overall value and bang for your buck, but that this Korean automaker is now creating vehicles that are best-in-class before pricing is even discussed.

Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL

Second Opinion: 2011 Hyundai Sonata SE
by Sam Abuelsamid

While our cross-town colleague Mr. Ewing was rolling around in the base GLS version of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, this reviewer was exercising the sportier mid-level SE version. From the outside, the SE is distinguished from the GLS by the same chrome grille and door handles found on the Limited model. However, only the SE gets the maxed out 18-inch wheel-and-tire package plus the dual exhaust. Ewing's right: The uprated hoops are a necessity to fill the arches.

The Sonata wins in the segment for the most visually attractive cockpit, although we still rank the Ford Fusion ahead of it in terms of materials execution. For example, the steering wheel features leather covering the top and bottom sections while the mid section that we typically hold is mostly plastic. The SE is the only Sonata trim level (until the turbo arrives) to get steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for the six-speed automatic and we found them to be quite useful. The combination of cloth and leather coverings on the seats of the SE are far more comfortable and supportive than the chairs in the old Sonata and offer adequate thigh support, a first for the Sonata.

Our SE tester also came with Hyundai's optional touch screen navigation system that first appeared last fall in the Genesis Coupe. There is some degree of voice control available in the Sonata for both the navigation and the audio system, and we found it worked reliably. Unfortunately, compared to Ford's Sync system, the voice menu is far more limited and doesn't allow for entry of items like points of interest by voice while driving.

Hyundai claims the SE's extra exhaust tip adds an extra two horsepower and two pound-feet of torque bringing the direct-injected 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine total to a nice round 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, but obviously the difference is indistinguishable. The compact six-speed automatic offered generally seamless shifts, although kick-downs while merging onto highways or making passes were a bit sluggish. We're guessing this has something to do with the programming required to hit 35 miles per gallon on the EPA highway rating. Fortunately, the SE's shift paddles gave us some measure of control, and while the shifts weren't instantaneous, they came much sooner than when the computer was left to its own devices.

While the extra power may not be noticeable under foot, the changes to the SE's suspension tuning definitely are. The stiffer springs and tighter dampers are a welcome upgrade even on decrepit Michigan roads. The Sonata never felt floaty, and while we were aware of the action going on below, it was not uncomfortable or obtrusive. Hyundai's calibration of the electric power steering assist is also one of the better implementations we've sampled. We didn't notice any dead spots on-center, and while we wouldn't mind a bit more effort, we can live with what's available in this family sedan.

The $1,400 premium for the SE over an automatic-equipped GLS is a worthwhile investment for both the visual and chassis upgrades. Our tester with the navigation system and sunroof package came out to a very reasonable $26,015, including destination and delivery charges, and averaged 28 miles per gallon. With its more controlled ride and excellent equipment level, the SE ranks at or near the top of the mid-size sedan heap.

Photos copyright ©2010 Sam Abuelsamid / AOL

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

Share This Photo X