I know I’ve told this story before but I always like to bring it up when I talk about Hyundai’s current midsize sedan: My first evaluation of a Hyundai Sonata was back in 1990. Hyundai had loaned our company a couple of Sonatas for evaluation purposes as we were contemplating adding them as a franchise. I was singled out to drive one home overnight and to report back on my general impressions of the Korean upstart.
Back then the Sonata’s styling, although bland, was not nearly as bad as some of the earliest attempts out of Japan. The interior, although basic, was inoffensive with decent enough fabrics. Overall fit and finish, although not up to current Japanese standards, was better than that of many domestics.
Driving dynamics, however, was quite another story.
This Sonata’s steering was vague, its suspension was soft and the brakes were barely up to the task. Opening the rear doors revealed two crudely-finished welds on the upper body door openings, one on each side, which joined the two side body stampings together. In a word, the car was awful.
To top it off, while I was demonstrating to some friends the fold-down feature of the rear seat backs, the cloth loop attached to the outboard side of the drivers-side rear seat which was designed to pull down the cushion ripped off in my hand. So much for the quality of vehicles from Korea
But that was then and this is now.
When it comes to the current Sonata, Hyundai need apologize to no one.
Given a complete redesign for the 2011 model year, the Sonata is just 1 inch longer, 0.1 inch wider and 0.1 inch lower than its predecessor. However its wheelbase was lengthened 2.6 inches and its curb weight, through the use of high-strength steel, was trimmed by 128 pounds. More importantly, the new body is 25 percent stiffer in torsion and 19 percent stiffer in bending rigidity than the previous generation, giving it a weight-to-power ratio of just 16.2 pounds per horsepower.
When it was introduced the new Hyundai sedan also raised the styling bar in the midsize segment. Based on the manufacturer’s “Fluidic Sculpture” design language, the Sonata boasts a sleek, sophisticated, flowing exterior. Its high beltline is accented by chrome trim strip that begins just behind the upper edge of the headlamp enclosures and follows the beltline until it terminates at the lower rear corner of the greenhouse.
The cab-forward design is further accentuated by a steeply raked windshield. Along the body a design crease begins about a third of the way down and just forward of the front door and gently sweeps upward terminating just above the rear taillights. There, it begins to angle down as it wraps around the trunk.
“Fluidic Sculpture” may be a variation on a theme, but it’s one that has previously only appeared on such vehicles as the Mercedes-Benz CLS and, more recently, the Volkswagen CC – vehicles featuring a price of entry ten to fifty-four thousand dollars more than a base Sonata.
Just as striking as the exterior is the Sonata’s twin-cockpit interior that makes liberal use of a variety of complimenting soft-touch points, putting many vehicles in this class, and some costing thousands more, to shame. The surfaces on everything from the steering wheel to the door panels are nicely done. The richly-grained dashboard is padded, while “metalgrain” and piano black are used as accent trim around the dashboard vents and door latches – a welcome respite from the hard plastics and fake wood found in more than a few models in this segment.
The cabin, itself feels large and airy. This is no illusion as passenger volume is nearly 104 cubic feet and, together with over 16 cubic feet of cargo volume push Hyundai’s midsize offering into the EPA’s large sedan classification.
Front seat occupants will find firm, supportive seats that are nicely bolstered to provide excellent lateral support. Even tall occupants will find plenty of head and leg room. The intuitive controls are large, easy to read, and within easy reach of the driver, while the switchgear is buttery smooth.
The view from the driver’s seat out the front and sides is excellent, although the sloping roofline somewhat hinders the view out the rear quarter. Rear seat passengers will find plenty of leg and shoulder room, although once again the roofline shows its limitations in the amount of rear headroom available.
On the road
The standard engine for both the base Sonata GLS and our Limited tester is Hyundai’s Theta II 2.5-liter direct injected inline-4 that produces 198 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque. Optional on the Limited and standard on the SE is the company’s Theta II 2.0-liter direct injection turbo with 274 horsepower and 269 lb.-ft. of torque. The 2.5 is rated by the EPA at 22/35/26 city/highway/combined mpg, while our observed fuel economy was an exemplary 28 mpg in primarily city driving.
Even with the base engine our tester had plenty of power on tap. Routine handling was also taught and buttoned-down. On the highway, the Sonata’s suspension soaked up pretty much everything the pothole-riddled, frost-heaved highways and byways of southeastern Michigan threw at it.
Tossing the Sonata into a corner elicited no drama whatsoever and very little body lean. Interior noise levels are also relatively good with only low levels of both wind and road noise apparent, even at freeway speeds.
Another plus: in the case of Sonata the engineers who calibrated its electric steering system did their homework. The end result is just the right amount of both on-center and overall steering feel for both highway and urban driving.
Even entry-level Sonatas come with a whole raft of standard equipment. GLS models come with power windows, locks and heated outside mirrors. A tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with integrated cruise, audio and phone controls are also part of this “base” model while solar glass, air conditioning, and a 6-speaker audio system with CD, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth and iPod and auxiliary input jacks are standard, as well.
Move up to our Limited tester and Hyundai adds, among other things, 17-inch alloy wheels, a tilt and slide sunroof, heated leather front and rear seats, dual automatic climate control, center console rear heat/AC vents and a premium audio system with HD radio.
Safety equipment for all Sonatas includes a full complement of 6 airbags, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control, vehicle stability control and downhill brake/hill-start assist control.
2013 Sonata pricing starts at $19,395 for a GLS model equipped with a manual transmission and can top out at over $32,000 for a fully-optioned Limited equipped with a turbo four.
Our Limited tester had a base price of $25,845. It was equipped with the Limited Premium Package at $2,900 which includes a panoramic sunroof, nav system with touchscreen display, backup camera, Infinity audio system and a 90-day trial of XM NavTraffic, NavWeather and Sports and Stocks.
The 2011 Sonata signaled that Hyundai was ready to play with both the Camry and Accord, two vehicles that, until then, pretty much had the sandbox to themselves. Its sales success also vindicated Hyundai’s gamble that buyers in the midsize segment are looking for more than boring reliable transportation – and that a large dose of style would gain them a slew of new customers.
So here, as I see it, is the bottom line: car buyers looking for a roomy and dependable midsize sedan that looks a lot pricier, both inside and out, than it really is should put Hyundai’s Sonata at the top of their shopping list.