2011 Hyundai Sonata raises the bar for rivals

Hyundai wants the redesigned 2011 Sonata to change the midsize, family sedan segment.  It does take some daring steps:
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For one, it’s not so midsize anymore, not by the government’s definition of full size, which is 120 cubic feet of passenger and cargo space added together. Sonata, at 120.2 cubic feet, squeaks into full size, as has Honda‘s Accord (120 cubic feet) since its last redesign.

It seems likely, however, that real-world shoppers will consider them against Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu and other true midsizers (typically 112 to 116 cu. ft.) — rather than against the likes of Toyota Avalon, Cadillac DTS, Mercury Grand Marquis and other, more traditional full-sizers.

Two, Sonata offers only a four-cylinder engine. No more V-6 that Sonata used to offer as an option, and that rivals still do.

Hyundai’s U.S. CEO John Krafcik is certain that small, high-tech four-cylinder engines are the future, and he wants Hyundai there now. He wants the brand to be inarguably the highest-mileage car company in the U.S.

Sonata has a 2.4-liter four-banger with direct injection. That’s a premium technology that boosts power and fuel economy by precisely metering gasoline into the cylinder at exactly the proper time. It replaces the previous method of injecting the fuel behind an intake valve, where it waits momentarily for the valve to open and allow it into the cylinder to mix with oxygen. Direct injection keeps the fuel cooler, and times its spray so that the fuel burns neither too soon nor too slowly.

Sonata’s engine is rated 198 or 200 hp (depending on model) in a field of rival fours typically sporting 170 to 190 hp.

Three, Sonata is rated a commendable 35 miles per gallon on the highway, vs. 31 mpg and 32 mpg for the Accord and Camry fours. But the around-town rating of 22 mpg for the Sonata is little or no better than the others.

Despite the laudable power numbers, the engines in two test cars still had a slightly coarse sound that let you know you were not driving a V-6.

The six-speed automatic in the test cars, a GLS and sportier SE, had a bit of lug ‘n’ lag. The gearboxes leaned a bit toward sometimes keeping the engine in a higher gear than the driver favored. That ekes out a bit more mileage at the cost of clumsy response. You know how it goes: Throttle pushed as when passing, transmission dithers momentarily, engages lower gear with unwanted drama.

General Motors had brought such clumsiness to a high art before beginning to retune its automatics, realizing there’s more to motoring that mileage.

Once the GLS transmission even held back so aggressively at about 20 mph that it felt as if the engine might stall before the gearbox kicked down.

Upshifts were fine.

So were other key elements:

•Steering was firm, quite so in the SE, and kept the car pointed straight until the driver commanded otherwise. So simple; so rare among cars.

If you like over-boosted power steering, the front-wheels-on-ice steering feel, Sonata’s not your car.

•Suspension also was generally firm, again very much so in the SE, and cornering response was commensurately satisfying. No sweat handling tight, twisting freeway off-ramps approached at high speed.

•Brakes were delightful. Push ’em a little, slow a lot. Nothing spongy, vague or tentative. Very nice.

Classy interior and smooth-operating, firm-feeling controls were more like you’d expect in a near-luxury car. Even just operating the turn signal stalk or pulling the shift lever into gear could generate a tiny shiver of delight.

White and silver markings on the gauges didn’t seem such a great idea, though. Too light, and washed out into illegibility in bright sun. It’s an example of Sonata perhaps trying a little too hard to be cool on instrument presentation.

You might say the same for styling. On one hand, it certainly democratizes luxury, having a sweeping silhouette that evokes a Mercedes-Benz CLS sedan that’s three times the Sonata’s price, or at the very least a Lexus ES 350 that starts some $15,000 more than a Sonata.

But the creases and pieces that make up the look are better viewed from 50 feet than from up close, where they can seem overwrought.

Still, how fun to have the neighbors think you bought a high-dollar Mercedes-Benz. Or maybe not, if it sends them scurrying to the police gossiping that you must be selling drugs on the side because your modest salary never could make Benz or Lexus payments.

The 2011 Sonata accomplishes a mighty pair of feats.

It gives buyers a huge amount of refinement, driving enjoyment, comfort and style for not a lot of money.

And it forces other automakers to confront, and match or trump, Sonata’s package of attributes, which may be the new benchmark for midsize (roughly) family sedans: four-cylinder engine with direct injection and at least 200 hp, 35 mpg or more rating on the highway, six-speed automatic (instead of the five-speeds most still use) and a $20,000 starting price.

While they sweat bricks, you can turn the key, settle in and enjoy.

2011 Hyundai Sonata

•What? Sixth-generation remake, just big enough to qualify as full size but likely considered against midsize rivals by shoppers. Four-door, front-wheel-drive sedan.

•When? Went on sale in February.

•Where? Made at Montgomery, Ala.; 58% of the parts are South Korean.

•Why? Take a shot at being the snazziest, highest-mpg family car on the market.

•How much? Base GLS starts at $19,915 including $720 shipping with manual transmission, $20,915 with automatic. GLS test car was $23,465.

SE sport model starts at $23,315; SE test car was $26,015.

Limited, not tested, starts at $26,015.

•How potent? 2.4-liter four-cylinder is the only engine. It’s rated 198 horsepower (200 hp in SE due to dual exhaust) at 6,300 rpm, 184 pounds-feet of torque (186 lbs.-ft. in SE) at 4,250 rpm. Six-speed manual standard on GLS. SE and Limited available only with six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode.

High-performance 2-liter turbocharged four rated 270 hp and gas-electric hybrid version, both to be unveiled at the New York Auto Show, are due in showrooms in late November or December.

•How big? Like Honda Accord, just big enough to squeak into full-size category. Sonata is 189.9 inches long, 72.2 in. wide, 57.9 in. tall on a 110-in. wheelbase. Weighs 3,199 to 3,316 lbs.

Passenger space: 103.8 cubic feet, trunk 16.4 cu. ft. Full size is defined by the government as 120 cu. ft. or more of combined passenger and cargo space.

Turning circle diameter 35.8 ft.

•How thirsty? Manual transmission is rated 24 miles per gallon in town, 35 mpg highway, 28 combined. Automatic: 22/35/26.

GLS automatic tester’s trip computer showed 25.4 mpg in mix of city, freeway driving.

SE tester: 24.8 mpg in light-traffic suburban driving.

Burns regular, holds 18.5 gallons.

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