2011 Hyundai Sonata Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
November 5, 2012

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata takes some smart styling and performance risks to raise its profile.

It’s true in cars as it’s true in politics—to rise above the clutter, you need to make a dramatic statement. While Hyundai won’t be telling anyone it can “see Russia from its house!” anytime soon, it’s given its mainstream, mid-size Sonata a refreshing new look and a new mission.

The goal: to dislodge some Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion buyers (along with shoppers considering the Camry, Malibu and Accord) and bring them into the Hyundai fold.

So, how’s the hopey-changey thing working out for the big Hyundai four-door? Very well, thanks. Sales are the best ever, and it’s largely a matter of the right look, matching up with the right features and the right fuel-economy number on the sticker. The Sonata’s ditched formality for fab new lines, inside and out. It’s skipping the V-6 route and instead fitting the car with a four-cylinder that rates up to 35 mpg—a little lower if it’s fitted with a turbocharger, considerably more if it’s teamed with Hyundai’s new hybrid technology. In any version it meets our performance expectations; both the Hybrid and 2.0T versions thrill us beyond the norms, for their own distinct reasons.

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Inside, there’s more usable room than ever, and it’s finished in an agreeable way, though we’d love to see softer seats and a little less gloss black plastic. The steering could use some more refinement in feel, too. It works great in sweeping turns, but wanders a touch on some highway surfaces. While they’re at it, Hyundai needs to buckle down on interior noise. On asphalt roads, the Sonata’s low rolling resistance tires generate lots of noise, overpowering even the good mid-level speakers.

You’ll probably overlook those minor flaws given the Sonata’s extremely smart pricing. All this space, frugality and good looks can be had for less than $20,000—and comes with USB, Bluetooth, and satellite radio. The turbo version adds more than 80 horsepower, but only raises the price to about $25,000 base. The Hybrid will earn around 39-40 mpg in highway driving—with a base price of about $26,000, not much more than the much smaller Honda Civic Hybrid.

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2011 Hyundai Sonata

Styling

Hyundai joins Ford and Nissan in crafting a compelling look for its mainstream sedan.

In four previous generations of sedans (five, if you count one version not sold in the U.S.), the Sonata’s been a conservatively styled piece. For the 2011 edition, Hyundai’s chucked caution out the driver’s window and endowed the Sonata with an intriguing blend of crests and curves. They call it "fluidic sculpture" design language. We think it’s a daring look for a family sedan, with lots of curves and arcs accentuated by a deep sculptural strake in its side. There’s lots of movement implied in the side view, and the grille has some of the “wave” look of the latest Infinitis.

In all, it’s exciting and engaging, particularly parked next to the more utilitarian 2010 Sonata—and with the Altima and Fusion, it’s among our favorite sedans to see. There are some imperfect details, though. You might notice the gathering of cutlines where the mirror meets the front fenders, and the unusual arrow of chrome that rolls down the front fenders. Overall, the Sonata’s handsome, jazzy, and a visual standout in its class.

The cabin takes its own chances, winning most of its bets, but it’s a little out there, on the edge of cutting edge for traditional family-sedan shoppers. The interior shares some themes with the big Hyundai Genesis sedan, including the vents that flank a big LCD screen atop the dash. The new Sonata has even more dramatic sculpturing in its steering wheel and dash cap than the Genesis, and gets cut-tube-style instruments as well as an iconographic climate control shaped like a human. It’s adventurous and functional, and maybe a little more dramatic than some families will want—especially in contrast with the 2010 Sonata’s sedately good-looking dash. The Sonata can be had with a variety of dash trim: the SE gets metallic, grained plastic trim that will wear well, but painted plastic trim on the steering wheel, which won’t. The Sonata Limited has piano-black trim, save for beige-interior cars, which get woodgrain.

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2011 Hyundai Sonata

Performance

Ride quality and fuel economy are strengths, but the Sonata's steering could be smoother.

For 2011, the Sonata will be offered with only a four-cylinder engine, leaving buyers to move up to a Hyundai Azera if they want a V-6. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder will make 198 horsepower, thanks to direct injection and other advanced engine technology; PZEV versions with cleaner emissions are rated at 190 hp, while the Sonata SE’s nearly identical engine gets a boost to 200 hp. Because this Sonata weighs a bit less than the competition, it’s a bit swifter than, say, the Camry or Malibu four-cylinders; between highway passes and switchback curves, we rarely felt the Sonata straining for power, even with three adults in tow.

Opt for the 2.0T model, and the engine is downsized from 2.4 liters to 2.0 liters, but straps on a twin-scroll turbocharger to provide a 274-horsepower rush. It's accompanied by 269 pound-feet of torque that arrives low in the power band, giving the 2.0T a flexible feel without the turbo lag you may have felt in other cars with the "2.0T" badge.

The ample power boost is clear, especially when contrasted with the Hybrid version, which takes the standard four-cylinder engine and adds on electric motors and a lithium-polymer battery pack to give the gas engine a break throughout the powerband. Hyundai’s hybrid is different from others, in that it uses a standard six-speed automatic transmission and one of its electric motors to provide seamless shifts, rather than a CVT. What we noticed is, well, almost nothing: aside from some slight surging, a prototype we drove in Korea felt absolutely unaffected by the addition of hybrid pieces, save for a slower acceleration pattern. Hyundai says this version will hit 60 mph in 9.2 seconds, well within the acceptable range for a family sedan.

A six-speed manual will actually be offered, but almost all Sonatas will be outfitted with the same new six-speed automatic that gets a sport-shift mode on Limited cars and slightly flimsy-feeling paddles on SE versions. It’s Hyundai’s own transmission and it’s a smooth-shifting unit, mated well with the quiet, balanced hum from the engine.

Will the Sonata please enthusiasts along with the EPA? Probably. Its well-sorted ride quality is its best feature, while steering feel is inconsistent. For a family sedan, the engine-speed-sensitive electric power steering actually feels better the faster you go. On switchbacks during our test drive, the Sonata’s steering felt hefty on center and meaty through a string of medium-speed curves. In town it got more nervous, at the transition point where the steering effort had been programmed to lighten up. The result makes the Sonata a little wandery on the highway as well. The Sonata rides very well, though, with a light touch to its damping, lower road noise, and on SE versions, monotube shocks that seem to snuff out body roll without costing the Sonata too much compliance. Braking felt fine—we encountered an emergency stop and the Sonata responded ably—and the base 16-inch wheels grow to 19-inch wheels on some trims.

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2011 Hyundai Sonata

Comfort & Quality

Ample interior room meets comfy cloth seats, with noticeable plastics kept out of touch.

You’ll find plenty of room even for large adults in the Sonata, as we did during a driving route that curled through the hills east of San Diego on one of many Sonata drives we’ve enjoyed this year.

Already a big car, the 2011 Sonata is officially a “large” car by EPA rules, with 120 cubic feet of interior and trunk space. In the class, only the Honda Accord passes that hurdle. The driver and front passenger have plenty of knee and head room; we liked the Sonata’s cloth seats for their bolstering better than the optional leather buckets, and the textured fabric’s almost Nike-sportswear feel probably will be durable. The leather seats in front feel a bit flatter up front. 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.

The 16.4-cubic-foot trunk is about as large as that in the Ford Fusion, and the trunk gets larger when the rear seats are flipped forward. In the cabin, a deep center console and glovebox hide valuable goods; there’s a niche near the audio controls for cellphones, a flat open bin in front of it for clutter, and a bin hidden behind a flip-down lid to conceal other goods—perhaps a radar detector?

The Sonata also has dual power points, eight cupholders for those frequent cross-Sahara side trips, and coat hangers to keep your blazer looking sharp.

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2011 Hyundai Sonata

Safety

The Sonata tops the IIHS ratings; NHTSA scores are coming soon.

The 2011 Sonata arrives in showrooms wearing one big safety badge—a Top Safety Pick award from the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety).

No NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) tests are available yet but Hyundai is hoping for five-star scores across the board as the federal government revises its testing for the 2011 model year. We’ll update you when results are released.

Standard safety equipment on the Sonata is extensive, and includes dual front, side, curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control; and active headrests.

Visibility from inside the Sonata is good, even to the rear quarters where minuscule triangular windows seem to be in place just to keep the side view flowing—even rear-seat passengers won’t see much through them. A rearview camera is available only on the top trims, though.

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2011 Hyundai Sonata

Features

Entertainment options rival those in the Fusion, but most are bundled into expensive packages.

The Sonata nearly matches the Ford Fusion’s array of entertainment features. Standard equipment on all models includes Bluetooth connectivity and steering-wheel audio controls; an MP3-CD player with iPod and USB connectivity; daytime running lights; a tilt/telescoping steering wheel; cruise control; and power windows, locks and mirrors.

The Sonata SE adds paddle shifters, a sport-tuned suspension, and some slight trim differences. Both the Sonata SE and Sonata Limited have parking sensors and push-button start. The Limited also gets standard heated front and rear seats; a sunroof; a backup camera; automatic climate control; and an automatic dimming rearview mirror.

Options are kept simple, bundled in packages. The base GLS can be upgraded to include a power driver seat and alloy wheels; the SE’s options include a nicely executed navigation system packaged with a sunroof. There’s also a new “Dimension” speaker package for some audio systems. The Sonata Limited adds on a CD changer and HD Radio, and can be equipped with an Infinity 400-watt audio system, bundled with the touchscreen-driven navigation system and the rearview camera.

The nav system includes XM NavTraffic and Bluetooth streaming audio, as well as 8GB of flash memory for music storage. We’ve spent a lot of time in the Sonata, and this system stands out as particularly easy to use. One feature we’d like to see updated, though: when you unplug your music player, the Sonata remembers your last song—but forgets if you’ve chosen a playlist or a feature like shuffle. Most other systems keep that info on hand, and it’d be appreciated here.

Pricing for the Alabama-built 2011 Hyundai Sonata will start at just $19,195 for the base GLS model equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission. Adding an automatic, the price rises to $20,915. Moving up to the SE model will run up a bill of $22,595, while the range-topping Limited model is available from $25,295. The 2.0T turbo version arrives later this fall with an estimated price range from $25,000 to $30,000; the Hybrid shows up before the end of the year with a price starting around $26,000 and nudging $30,000 in Limited trim, an extraordinary value that’s even better when federal and state incentives are included. A base Hybrid, with tax deductions like those that were applied to the Ford Fusion Hybrid when it was launched, would cut the Sonata Hybrid’s base price to about $22,000 for the first fortunate, smart shoppers.

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2011 Hyundai Sonata

Fuel Economy

Any version of the new Sonata gets class-leading fuel economy; the Hybrid version stands out for its extreme highway economy number.

The Sonata earns a standout fuel-economy rating of 35 mpg highway for base versions--while the Hybrid outranks all other family sedans with a highway rating of 40 mpg.

The gas-only Sonata comes with a six-speed manual transmission, a rarity in this class. And that's what helps it earn such a strong fuel-economy figure in base trim. The EPA gives the entry-level Sonata a rating of 24/35 mpg, which falls only to 23/35 mpg when the six-speed automatic is specified.

Add on a turbocharger to the automatic-equipped car, and the resulting Sonata 2.0T gets a rating of 22/33 mpg.

The Sonata Hybrid hits the highest gas-mileage numbers of the lineup. Initially rated at 35/40 mpg, the sedan sports some of the best highway fuel-economy figure in the mid-size sedan class; the Ford Fusion Hybrid emphasizes city fuel economy more, in earning its 41/36 mpg rating.

The 2011-201 Sonata Hybrid is one of a set of vehicles found to have overstated fuel-economy numbers. Hyundai initially submitted figures of 35/40 mpg and 37 mpg combined to the EPA, which allows automakers to self-certify fuel economy. On a confirmation check of several vehicles, the EPA found the Sonata Hybrid's actual tested fuel economy to be 34/39 mpg or 36 mpg combined. Owners can register with Hyundai to receive reimbursement for the gas consumed above and beyond expected levels; more details are found at HyundaiMPGInfo.com.

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August 30, 2016
2011 Hyundai Sonata 4-Door Sedan 2.4L Automatic GLS

Love my Hyundai!

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Great mpg, good power, excellent handling & ride, stylish inside & out, enjoyable to drive, nice base features..dependable..
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May 13, 2015
2011 Hyundai Sonata 4-Door Sedan 2.4L Automatic GLS

A real work horse

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I bought this car on lease @ THE $199 SPECIAL. When the lease was up I couldn't part with it! I bought it from the leasing company...I now have 100,000 trouble free miles on the car! I would get another if... + More »
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April 16, 2015
For 2011 Hyundai Sonata

Very good value for the money

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Great gas mileage, comfortable and many bells and whistles. Would buy again
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April 13, 2015
For 2011 Hyundai Sonata

Overall a very nice car with panache

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I purchased the new, redesigned 2011 Sonata back in mid-2010 when it had just been introduced, and at that time nothing else compared for the money. Attention grabbing style? Yes. Interior style? Yes... + More »
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