Value for a song

December 15, 2010
by Thomas D’Monte

PURCHASINGB2B MAGAZINE, OCTOBER 2010: Hyundai has certainly established a reputation FOR offering great value for dollar, but the conversation usually stopped there. Cutting-edge design and advanced engineering were not high on the list of attributes associated with the Korean automaker—until now.

The completely redesigned 2011 Hyundai Sonata is now in the same tier as the Camry and Accord—the sales leaders in the segment. In fact, some may argue that the combination of styling, engineering and fuel-savings shoots the Sonata to the front of the pack. Most importantly, this four-door now makes a bold statement in the crowded midsize family sedan market. And when you add Hyundai’s focus on value, fleet buyers emerge as the real winners.

The statement in this vehicle begins with the exterior styling, which the automaker describes as “fluidic sculpture”.

“The goal is to make the vehicle look as though it’s moving while standing still,” says Hyundai’s vice-president of marketing, John Vernile. “Each line flows from piece to piece. When you walk around the car from the tail lamps, through the A, B, and C pillars, to the very distinctive front grill, you get the sense that this vehicle was designed to flow from head to toe.”

You’ll understand what he means the first time you see that large, multi-tier chrome grill. It has two prominent creases—one on either side of the Hyundai emblem. Those lines flow onto the hood, making the two sections blend into one. That fluidity continues with a chrome line that starts from the rear tips of the triangular headlamps, outlines the windows, and finishes behind the rear doors.

Everything feels connected. The exterior as a whole has an elegant and upscale quality. You could easily mistake this car for a product out of Germany rather than Hyundai’s California Design Center.

Spacious interior
The Sonata’s interior also shares that sculpted quality. The lines of the dashboard begin at the centre stack and arc gracefully out to the windows in a manner that is both pleasing to the eye and gives the illusion of space.

But there are no tricks here. The interior is cavernous for a four-door sedan, with abundant head, hip and leg room for all five passengers. In fact, the Sonata is so roomy that it earned a “large car” designation from the EPA. The Honda Accord is the only other car in the segment with similar dimensions. If your fleet vehicles are used to chauffeur clients, the space and comfort inside the Sonata make it an ideal choice.

The interior materials are mostly of good quality. The centre stack is trimmed in a matte aluminum that has the same eye-grabbing quality as the front grill. The upper dashboard is made from nicely-textured soft touch black plastic. However, the lower half of the interior—both at the front and on the doors—is made from a harder, cheaper-feeling light grey plastic. That said, all the seams are tight, and everything is well assembled.

Most controls are logically placed and have a quality feel to them. The one exception is the sunroof switch, which feels a little flimsy. At the centre of the dash, there’s a button in the shape of a seated passenger that’s used to adjust the air vents. It’s a small detail, but it adds an upscale touch.

The Sonata is also well connected. Inputs for MP3/Aux and iPod-USB are standard on all models. They’re conveniently located at the base of the centre stack beside two 12-volt outlets.

All the seats are large and comfortable. Most importantly, it’s easy to find a proper driving position thanks to a standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel.

However, the seats have minimal side bolstering, so you’ll want to alert your passengers before making a spirited turn. If you want to impress, it’s a good idea to upgrade to the Limited model, which includes leather-trimmed units, as the cloth upholstery looks dated.

The 464L trunk is one of the larger ones in the segment, but some of that space is eaten up by the large hinges for the trunk lid. They’re the type that crush anything put underneath them. However, you can expand the cargo space significantly by dropping the split-folding rear seats.

Efficient engine
There is only one engine offered in the 2011 Sonata, but it certainly delivers. Hyundai calls it the Theta II GDI. It’s an all-aluminum 2.4 litre, four-cylinder that makes a healthy 198 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The GDI stands for Gasoline Direct Injection technology. That’s where the fuel is sprayed directly into the combustion chamber of each cylinder rather than the air intake. Translation—more efficient combustion, more power, and better fuel economy. Hyundai paired it with variable valve timing, giving this four-cylinder best-in-class performance.

“We are in fact the first manufacturer to make GDI standard,” says Vernile. “It’s a technology offered by competitors, but only in higher trim levels.”

In fact, Hyundai is so confident in this powertrain that it decided to drop the V6 engine from the Sonata line-up altogether.

“Consumers are getting smarter with the way they spend their money. They want a low cost of ownership, which translates into fuel savings. Moving to a standard four-cylinder made sense in today’s marketplace,” Vernile adds.

Buyers seeking more power also have the option of 2.0L turbocharged GDI engine, making 274 horsepower. “It’s just arriving in dealership showrooms as we speak. That engine offers consumers V6 performance with four cylinder fuel consumption.”

The standard transmission in the Sonata is a six-speed manual unit, but our GLS model tester was equipped with a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic that was programmed for great pedal response. You can pull away smoothly on a green light, or punch it half way and feel the car launch forward without a hint of hesitation. You’re never left wishing that the car would pull harder, and there are none of those annoying thuds during quick rolling stops.

The only time this powertrain ever shows a sign of a struggle is during highway passing manoeuvres. That’s because the Sonata’s peak 198 horsepower comes at a high 6300 rpm. When you punch the gas to pull in front of another vehicle, you can hear the engine spinning hard. It’s not intrusive, but it is noticeable.

With the automatic gearbox, Hyundai says the Sonata consumes a miserly 9.4/5.7L per 100km in city/highway driving. Hyundai reached those impressive numbers by adding some simple technologies including a smart alternator. It charges the battery while the car is coasting, rather than adding an extra load on the engine when you’re trying to accelerate. The 205/65/R16 tires have low rolling resistance. And the sleek exterior design creates very little drag. It all adds up to fuel economy that’s better than a similarly equipped Accord or Camry.

Now, if you want a hint of sportiness while making a long drive out to a sales call, the automatic transmission also comes with a Shiftronic mode. You just slide the shift lever to the right, and select the gear you want with a slight tap forward or back.

The Sonata handles well for such a large vehicle. The suspension, composed of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link design in the rear, is calibrated for comfort. It means there is some body roll during hard cornering, but it always feels controllable.

The ride is ideal for long road trips, and turned my frustrating daily commute into a pleasant hour-long cruise. The car does tend to float slightly at highway speeds. The buoyant ride is compounded by the light feel of the steering. The wheel is easy to turn in tight parking lots, but it can feel vague at higher speeds.

Stopping power is good thanks to a power-assisted braking system featuring large ventilated discs up front and solid discs in the rear.

Competitive pricing
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata is available in three trimlines. The base GL, starting at $22,649, includes standard items that would cost an arm or leg on some higher-end sedans. They include air conditioning, Bluetooth, cruise control and steering-mounted controls for a six-speaker audio system. Electronic Stability Control and Traction Control are also standard. Most fleet buyers will pay the $1,600 to move up from the six-speed manual transmission to the smooth-shifting automatic.

The mid-level GLS, at $26,249, includes the automatic transmission and adds a power-adjustable driver’s seat. The top line Limited model features a seven-speaker premium sound system, dual-zone climate controls, and a heated rear seat. Even if you deck out the Limited model with the navigation system, the price still comes in at a very competitive $31,000 before taxes and dealer fees. Any way you cut it, this car screams value. That factor alone pushes it past some of the competition, which also includes the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, and Nissan Altima.

If you want to save more fuel and make an eco-friendly statement, Hyundai plans to have a Hybrid Sonata in Canadian showrooms by the end of the year. “We may not be the first to the party with a hybrid vehicle, but we will be the best,” says Vernile. “We’re going to leap-frog all the competitors with the best battery technology in the industry.  Our Sonata Hybrid will be powered by a lithium-polymer battery. It’s lighter, provides more power, and it has a lot less charging time.”

One thing is certain, whether it’s the standard GDI, the turbocharged model or the hybrid, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata gives big bang for your buck.

Thomas D’Monte is Automotive Reporter for 680 News Radio, which is broadcast by Rogers Media in Toronto, Ontario.

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