Big rock bands tend to have famous influences. Coldplay's early music was inspired by U2's, for instance, and Madonna's long career has no doubt provided inspiration for Lady Gaga. It's the same song and dance on the world's automotive stage. Could there be any denying that the previous Hyundai Sonata was inspired by the Camry and Accord? But the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, like a maturing great band that comes into its own, has become worthy of headliner status in the family-sedan arena.
Powering the new Sonata is a 2.4-liter inline-4. Notably, this is the only engine offered for now, though there will be turbocharged and hybrid versions available later. In the meantime, though, the base engine is really all most buyers will ever need as it makes a robust 198 horsepower (200 in the SE trim) and returns a thrifty 26 mpg combined when matched to a six-speed automatic. In addition to delivering both brisk performance and high fuel mileage, this drivetrain exhibits a refined demeanor.
All of this is even more impressive when you consider that the Sonata is one of just two cars in its segment (the Accord is the other) roomy enough to be deemed a "large" sedan by the EPA. The 2011 Sonata also boasts improvements in driving dynamics to give it a tauter, more composed feel, though it's not quite up to the sport sedan bar of the Ford Fusion Sport, Nissan Altima and Mazda 6. The SE trim's sport-tuned suspension helps the Sonata inch up closer to that bar, but in the process, the ride gets a little too rough.
Of course, being a Hyundai, the Sonata brings along a strong value proposition. Despite the fact that its starting price can be a couple thousand dollars cheaper than its rivals' MSRPs, the base Sonata GLS offers a number of features as standard -- such as satellite radio, iPod connectivity and Bluetooth with phonebook download -- that are optional or not even available on its peers. The top-of-the-line Sonata Limited, meanwhile, comes standard with everything except navigation.
All things considered, the latest Sonata manages to stand out in a segment chock full of good choices. It's more refined than the ubiquitous Accord and Camry, and though the Altima, Mazda 6, Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion are also good picks, the Sonata has the price advantage. With its spirited performance, impressive fuel economy, solid build quality and strong value, we have a feeling that the 2011 Hyundai Sonata will have no problem climbing the charts.
Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options:
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata is a midsize family sedan available in GLS, SE and Limited trim levels. Standard equipment on the GLS includes 16-inch steel wheels, keyless entry, air-conditioning, cruise control, full power accessories, heated sideview mirrors, a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, a trip computer, a 60/40-split rear seatback, a six-speaker stereo (with CD/MP3 player, satellite radio, iPod/auxiliary audio jacks and steering-wheel-mounted controls) and Bluetooth with phonebook download.
Two optional equipment packages are available. One adds alloy wheels, automatic headlights and an eight-way power driver seat. The other includes all these plus a navigation system and upgraded speakers for the audio system. The sporty SE features all the above (except the navigation system and premium speakers) and adds 18-inch alloy wheels with performance tires, foglights, a dark chrome grille, a sport-tuned suspension, keyless ignition/entry, leather/cloth upholstery and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. An optional package bundles a navigation system with premium speakers and a sunroof.
The plush Limited has all the SE's features (minus the 18-inch wheels, sport suspension and cloth/leather upholstery) and adds side mirror turn signal repeaters, a sunroof, leather upholstery, heated seats (front and rear), dual-zone automatic climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, an upgraded audio system (with HD radio and CD changer) and unique interior accents (either wood grain or gloss black). Seventeen-inch alloy wheels are also standard. The Limited's sole optional package bundles a navigation system with a back-up camera and Infinity premium speakers.
Powertrains and Performance:
The standard and only available engine on all Hyundai Sonata trim levels is a 2.4-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine good for 198 hp and 184 pound-feet of torque. The SE, with its dual exhaust, has a bit more power at 200 hp and 186 lb-ft. A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the GLS while a six-speed automatic is optional on that trim and standard on the other two.
The Sonata's EPA fuel economy estimates are impressive for a car of this size. Models with the manual transmission are rated at 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway and 28 combined, while those with the automatic net a 22/35/26 mpg rating.
All Sonatas come well stocked with antilock brakes, traction control, stability control, front seat side-impact airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and active front head restraints.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata earned the agency's "Top Safety Pick" designation. It aced both frontal offset and side-impact crash tests, and also scored top marks in the new rear impact test (done only if the headrests meet certain requirements) as well as the new roof crush test.
Interior Design and Special Features:
Fit and finish of the cabin is very good. The controls operate with a feel and precision befitting a more expensive car. We're big fans of the standard iPod interface, which is easy to use and quite speedy in operation. The Limited trim level is particularly upscale, with its available two-tone color schemes, piano black trim and padded door panels.
Now classified as a large car, the Sonata boasts enough room to allow four adults to stretch out and enjoy the ride. As with most cars, five will fit, though the rear middle passenger won't be as comfortable as the others. Headroom is just barely adequate front and rear, however, as 6-footers will likely find their heads uncomfortably in the ceiling. The trunk has a slightly smaller opening than the norm, but its 16.4-cubic-foot capacity is at the top of the class.
With its well-balanced chassis, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata provides both a supple ride and sure-footed handling. The steering lightens up considerably at low speeds to ease parking maneuvers, though at times the Sonata's steering can feel a bit artificial in quick transitions. The Sonata SE's suspension tuning is indeed sportier, but in testing we've found it leads to a rather rough and uncomfortable ride quality on rougher roads.
The 2.4-liter four's strong performance should be enough for most drivers; it pulls willingly and smoothly right up to the tach's redline. Gearshifts from the automatic are seamless, and it steps down when needed for quick passing or merging. Shift quality with the manual transmission is precise, but a less-than-ideal throttle calibration can lead to jerkiness during upshifts.