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It used to be a wallflower, but then the Hyundai Sonata bloomed. New in 2011 with daring styling and bristling with confidence, the Sonata has mounted a three-pronged attack on the mainstream four-door sedan market--and it's working. The Sonata's now one of the top sellers in the segment, fresh off an award-winning year and a nod as TheCarConnection's Best Car To Buy 2011.
The Sonata's intriguing blend of crests and curves sets it far apart from the blandness that colors the Toyota Camry and, maybe less so, the Accord, Passat, and Malibu. It may not stand the test of time as well as some designs, but for now, the Sonata's a calling card for the entire Hyundai brand. It's a clean break from the me-too past of Hyundai styling and it works well in many places--at the rear of the roofline and across the tail, it's clearly an homage to the Audi A6. Some other passages are a little knotty: the point at the side mirrors where five different panels join up is a noticeable wart, and not everyone here at HGM is a fan of the chrome spears that glint off the hoodline and front fenders. Inside, the styling's just as adventurous, with dramatic sculpturing across the dash and even on the steering wheel. A big LCD screen sits atop the dash and fits in well with the futuristic look. We prefer the metallic trim to the woodgrain on beige-interior cars, which looks out of place in the swoopy Sonata.
All Sonatas are four-cylinders, and the mass-market versions are 2.4-liter fours with up to 200 horsepower, direct injection, and a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmissions. We haven't ever seen a manual-transmission base model; luckily, the automatic is perfectly appropriate for the class, and is a responsive, seamless gearchanger. It's rare to feel this version strain for power, since the front-drive Sonata weighs only a little more than 3,300 pounds, or a quarter-ton less than a Chevy Malibu. Highway mileage of 35 mpg gives the standard Sonata a standout selling point in the mid-size class.
Two alternatives exist to the base four. There's a turbocharged 2.0T model, with displacement dropped to 2.0 liters and horsepower boosted to 274 hp in all. The power surge is clear, and there's not much turbo lag--and as a bonus, the automatic transmission adds shift paddles, and in this instance, the manual shifter works with above-average smoothness. On paper it's quite a bit stronger than, say, a Buick Regal turbo, and Hyundai's estimates of 0-60 mph times of about seven seconds are strong for a model not really sold as a sporty alternative, but more as a V-6 alternative. With the added power, highway gas mileage is still rated at 33 mpg.
There's also a Hybrid edition, which pairs the 2.4-liter four with electric motors and a lithium-polymer battery pack, and a high threshold that allows the Sonata Hybrid to run on battery power alone at highway speeds. The Hybrid's unusual in that it uses a conventional automatic transmission instead of a CVT or an eCVT to change gears; in our experience, the shift quality between gas-electric and electric-only mode is lumpy, and needs more refinement to rival vehicles like the Camry Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid. Hyundai says this version will hit 60 mph in 9.2 seconds, well within the acceptable range for a family sedan, while delivering gas mileage of 34/39 mpg.
The Sonata's ride and handling are fine for the mainstream, but the steering responses could use more feedback and less wandering on the highway. We like the ride damping, which is set a little on the firm side even before the SE's monotube shocks and 19-inch wheels are added into the mix.
The firm ride is amplified a bit by the Sonata's firm seats. A roomy car, almost "large" by EPA standards, the Sonata provides soaring headroom and leg room in front, and an unusually long front-seat track so driver and passenger can have as much space as they need. The back seat sits at a good angle of recline, and only the tallest passengers will touch heads against the fabric headliner and the hard-plastic front seatbacks.
A Top Safety Pick according to the IIHS, the 2012 Hyundai Sonata has the usual standard safety equipment with a rearview camera available on top trim levels. Other standard equipment includes Bluetooth; a USB port; power windows, locks and mirrors; a tilt/telescoping steering wheel; and cruise control. SE and Limited editions add parking sensors and pushbutton start; the Sonata Limited also gets standard heated front and rear seats; a sunroof; a backup camera; automatic climate control; and an automatic dimming rearview mirror. New this year is Hyundai's Blue Link telematics system; like GM's OnStar setup, it uses live operators to provide information and directions, while also connecting the car via streaming data to the Web, which allows it to find destinations newer than the ones provided on its hard-drive-based GPS maps. Blue Link is offered in a few different packages, with tiered pricing; access to a Web site is bundled in, and allows drivers to set limits on the car's stereo volume, speed, and geographic distance from a certain point.