2011 Hyundai Sonata: Three ways to move, reviewed

May 9, 2010

2011 Hyundai Sonata:  Three flavors unveiled, two more coming

In concert music, a sonata often has three parts.  So does Hyundai's namesake.  For instance, its well-orchestrated traveling press preview arrived in Chicago on May 5th with a triple play:  GLS, SE and Limited sedans.  Michael Deitz, Hyundai's product planning manager, was the conductor. He says Hyundai will augment this lineup with hybrid and turbocharged versions.

As with most automotive press events, Hyundai offered trinkets.  From oversized coffee mug to its coaster, each was emblazoned 35.  Even my napkin, you guessed it, sported a giant 35.  Those digits trumpet the six-speed automatic transmission, four-cylinder Sonata's EPA-estimated highway mpg-an attractive figure.  Twenty-two is the city number.

Figures matter.  Besides improved fuel economy, Hyundai's designers remade the Sonata using its "Fluidic Sculpture" styling.  This slinky profile apes the coupe-like Mercedes CLS or VW CC.  Upswept body creases recall Sergio Sartorelli's work for Carrozzeria Ghia.

Underneath the Sonata's sexy sheet metal resides a 198-hp direct-injected aluminum-block mill.  In SE trim, dual exhausts bump that figure to 200.  No V6 engine is planned.  Hyundai will focus on four-cylinder power plants--an industry trend.

A well-equipped GLS lists for about $20,000 with a loaded Limited topping out at $28,000.  Only the GLS has a six-speed manual tranny.  SE and Limited versions get a Hyundai-developed six-speed automatic that weighs less and has fewer parts than the last-generation's. You'd think Hyundai would offer the manual on its SE, which has wider tires and bigger sway bars.  It won't.  Deitz claims few stick-shift buyers shop SE trim.

If you find the GLS's Rubbermaid-like interior bits low rent, the SE or Limited offers better padding and soft-touch trim.  A navigation system and upgraded audio systems are available..

Overall, the new Sonata presents itself as more refined than the previous model.  The occasionally gritty engine doesn't feel particularly powerful, despite Hyundai's strict efficiency-minded weight-watching diet. Perhaps that's because maximum torque arrives at higher engine rpm.  The automatic is biased toward low engine rpm operation.  The SE is livelier if you use its ‘manumatic' paddle-type shift controls.

The SE exhibits some turn-in bite.  Nonetheless, sports sedan enthusiasts will notice bobbing and cornering push.  Ride quality isn't as composed as it could be, but it's comfortable.

On our way to a Cinco de Mayo-themed luncheon, several journalists noticed that the Sonata's gauges lack contrast, some switches were awkwardly placed and only driver's seat had power adjustments on the fancy Limited.  Trunk hinges crunch luggage.  Be careful when you pack your cello. Yet, many thought Hyundai offers an attractive combination of style and features such as pushbutton start.

After lunch, I tried the Limited and joined hundreds of other motorists in an I-355 traffic jam.  Eventually, I performed a coda in the Chicago Automobile Trade Association's parking lot.  Trip computers indicated 24-29 mpg-evidence that Hyundai's latest midsize sedan might be inexpensive to own and operate.  For many, that's one reason for a Hyundai capitulation.

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