It used to be that the name Hyundai Sonata was more likely to upturn noses than turn heads, but with its new 2011 model that may all be about to change.
Swoopy was the word we most often used to describe Hyundai's newest sedan during our testing. Starting with its huge chrome grill, the sculpted sheet metal of the Sonata flows backward towards its tail, giving the sedan the appearance of motion even when stopped. This aesthetic is reinforced by the elongated, rear-swept headlamps and a chrome bar that visually connects them to the top of the door sills. Onlookers stated that it was unlike anything they'd seen before.
Look closer, however, and it's easy to see where Hyundai's designers drew their inspiration. The front end is reminiscent of an extreme version of the current Toyota Camry's. The Sonata's steeply raked front and rear glass give the sedan a slightly coupe-like silhouette, much like that of the Volkswagen CC. Viewed from the rear quarter, you can see a few lines cribbed from the likes of the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class. If you're going to steal, steal from the best, we say.
Though there are a few places in the interior where it's obvious that Hyundai has cheaped-out on materials, the automaker did a good job of making sure that all the places that the driver comes into contact with (the steering wheel, shift knob, dashboard, door pulls, etc.) feel substantial and pleasing. Push-button start and smart, keyless entry help to create an upscale feel. As an SE model, our Sonata featured leather-trimmed seats with cloth center inserts and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter meant to evoke a sporting feel. Factor in the great cabin technology suite and the Sonata's driver seat isn't an unpleasant place to be.
An optional touch-screen navigation system that helps drivers to get from point A to B lives at the top of the center stack. The system is fed by 8GB of flash memory, so there's not as much raw storage space as the average hard-drive-based system. However, the system is just as snappy and responsive, and with no moving parts (save the single CD transport for audio) it is a bit more rugged. The Sonata's maps are crisp and easy to read, but, oddly, there is no 3D view--only top-down 2D views. The system also features graphic lane guidance--which illustrates upcoming turns with lane data--and text-to-speech turn-by-turn directions.
The standard XM Satellite Radio connection pulls in XM traffic, weather, stocks, and sports data. Traffic-flow info is then overlaid onto the map as color-coded highways. When routing, if the navigation system sees heavy traffic or an obstruction, it will attempt to route around it. While navigating, if a new obstruction appears on the chosen route, the navigation system will notify the driver, giving the option to reroute around the slow spot at the touch of an onscreen button.
All Hyundai Sonatas feature standard Bluetooth connectivity. Pairing a Bluetooth phone is handled via voice activation with a four-digit PIN. Once paired, the hands-free system automatically downloads your phone's address book for voice-activated dialing. Bluetooth A2DP streaming is also enabled as an audio source if supported by the paired device.
Also standard are a USB connection and an analog auxiliary input. We were able to connect a USB mass storage device to browse folders for MP3 and, interestingly, photos. We were also able to connect an Android OS phone using mass-storage mode to access the audio files stored on its SD card.
Adding Hyundai's $35 iPod cable gives the Sonata full control of a connected iPod or iPhone. The cable features a 30-pin Apple dock connector on one end and a combo connector on the other that occupies both the USB and the auxiliary inputs. Connected in this fashion, the Hyundai's stereo is able to browse an iPod's songs by artist, album, genre, or any other category the iPod supports.
The Sonata's standard audio rig is a six-speaker AM/FM/XM system with a single-slot CD player with MP3 playback. However, our tester was equipped with an optional Dimension-branded seven-speaker system with a 360-watt amplifier. The system has a feature called Variable-EQ, which allows users to choose between three audio equalization settings that actually do make certain types of music sound better. The Sonata Limited gets a six-disc, in-dash CD changer and have access to yet another level of audio fidelity with an optional eight-speaker Infinity-branded system that boosts the amplification to 400 total watts.
The Hyundai Sonata SE is the sportiest of the three Sonata trim levels, but these days the term "sporty" more often refers to a sporting aesthetic rather than any performance gains.
In the SE's case, "sporty" means that its 2.4-liter direct-injected gasoline engine gets a 2-horsepower and 2 pound-foot boost over the standard Sonata GLS and Limited models. Power is now rated at an even 200-horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. Most users aren't going to be able to discern a 2-horsepower difference, but every pony counts toward bragging rights, we suppose.
Zero-to-60 mph acceleration isn't mind blowing, but the Sonata does a good job of hauling itself up to and above highway cruising speeds. Under normal conditions, the automatic transmission doesn't suffer from the gear hunting issues that some slushboxes do, but its tendency to want to stay in top gear makes sport driving a bit of a mess, with downshifts coming on unpredictably. Using the equipped paddle shifters somewhat alleviates this issue, but the shifts are still fairly laggy, requiring a good deal of forethought to get the timing right.
Fuel economy sits at 23 city and 35 highway mpg and doesn't change with different trim levels or transmissions. In our testing--which consisted of mostly stop-and-go city driving, curvy back road blasting, and just enough highway cruising to get between the two--we hovered at about 25-28 mpg.
A slightly stiffer spring rate, larger stabilizer bars, and uprated dampers boost the SE trim level's handling, and drivers are treated to a set of 18-inch wheels (the largest available on the Sonata) and dual chrome-plated exhaust tips. We weren't able to drive the SE back-to-back with a non-SE model, so we can't gauge how much of an improvement these mods make, but we were pleased with the SE's handling. She's no canyon carver, but we were able to power around cloverleaf off-ramps at speeds we're a bit ashamed to print.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata SE impressed us, not only as a great value, but also as a good car overall. At an as-tested MSRP of $25,950, the Sonata slots in at about $2,000 less than a similarly equipped four-cylinder Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. For your cash, you get a good-looking sedan with more power, better fuel economy, and a comparable suite of cabin tech.
|Model||2011 Hyundai Sonata|
|Power train||2.4-liter GDI four-cylinder|
|EPA fuel economy||23 mpg city/35 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||26 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional touch-screen navigation with 8GB SSD and traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard w/ A2DP audio streaming|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-disc CD player|
|MP3 player support||Standard USB-port and aux-input with iPod playback|
|Other digital audio||Standard XM satellite radio|
|Audio system||Seven-speaker Dimension premium audio with 360-watt amplifier|
|Driver aids||cruise control|
|Price as tested||$26,200|