In straight-line acceleration and fuel efficiency, among four-cylinder non-hybrid mid-size sedans, Hyundai is out at the front of the pack. Simply put, we love the responsive yet responsible performance afforded by the new 198-horsepower, direct-injected 2.4-liter four in the new 2011 Hyundai Sonata. It performs better than any of the other base non-turbo rivals, and nearly as well as rival V-6 models (because it's lighter); and it's on par if not better for responsiveness than VW's 2.0T.
Base engine doesn't feel like a base engine
And even more power—and fuel efficiency—is on the way. Hyundai has decided to omit the customary V-6 engine and this time go with an all-four-cylinder lineup for the 2011 Sonata. Along with this base engine, a turbocharged engine will join the lineup later in the year, and a hybrid is expected next year.
When cold, or just starting up from a stop at low rpms, the Sonata's engine sounds notably more coarse than the base engines in the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, or Ford Fusion. It's one of the known tradeoffs of direct-injection designs.
We also liked the six-speed automatic transmission, which works with the engine's impressive torque curve and kept revs low, spinning into the higher rev ranges only when needed. nearly full throttle, promptly downshifts when your foot slams to the floor, and the manual controls—accessed through a manual gate, with simple plus/minus action—work exactly as expected.
Ecobox mileage in a big, refined sedan
Over a week and about 220 miles with the 2011 Sonata, we averaged well over 30 mpg (in a rare discrepancy, the trip computer showed 33 mpg, while our manual top-off suggested just under 31 mpg). In either case, that's excellent mileage for a mix of interstates and two-laners along with a bit of in-town driving—and close to the 35 mpg highway rating.
While some in the High Gear Media editorial staff think the Sonata looks handsome and exciting, this editor is a little less enthusiastic about the exterior, which follows “fluidic sculpture” design language and, in my opinion, looks like it might age quickly. The interior is very nice, though, with a flowing theme that doesn't sacrifice usefulness. The Sonata's almost pillowy ride and quiet, isolated cabin are unexpected delights in such an affordable car.
Seats were just fine for this taller driver, and the backseat was also roomy enough, with plenty of legroom and just enough headroom. And we liked the base mesh-like cloth upholstery. There were plenty of storage places, as well as cupholders, though both of the front cupholders are a little deep for the normal (small) size coffee cups.
Achilles' Heel...er, elbow
The Sonata is pretty close to perfect. Until you consider the steering. Hyundai just hasn't figured out electric power steering yet; it's as if the gear is alright, but the software controlling how it responds with boost is still in beta. While steering straight ahead, on the highway, we had to make way too many minor adjustments and it felt somewhat light. Then, on a twisty stretch of canyon road, we found it not at all enjoyable. As we steered away from center the steering gains a sort of artificial digital feeling; when you need to turn the wheel quickly in the opposite direction—for tight switchbacks, for example—there's a moment when it feels feather light then reinstates that artificial heft in the opposite direction. It can be disconcerting, but for most people who don't take on the twisties every day, it's probably not a deal-breaker.
And otherwise, the Sonata is quite a deal. Our test car was a GLS model, adding the “Popular Equipment Package 3 Plus Navigation,” which includes HD Radio, XM NavTraffic/Sports/Stocks, a touch-screen nav system, a speaker upgrade and subwoofer, in addition to upgraded door trim and alloy wheels. The total: a surprisingly low $23,365.