Imagine, for a moment, that you're forced to invent a new candy with the specific objective of taking a bite out of the market segment comfortably satisfied by M&M's, Skittles and Reese's Pieces. Sounds daunting, right? With that in mind, the all-new 2011 Hyundai Sonata is being placed right back into the middle of the hotly-contested family sedan segment, already occupied by such established players as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu, to name just a few.
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Completely redesigned for 2011, the Sonata is freshly styled and more spacious than its predecessor. It brings a few innovations to the game, including a new direct-injected four-cylinder powerplant mated to a six-speed automatic – yet it has no V6 option. We put a couple hundred miles on the new Sonata in San Diego. The weather was nice, but how was the car? Does Hyundai's all-new family sedan have what it takes to be an outstanding sweet in the candy dish? Find out after the jump.
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Erase everything you know about yesterday's Sonata. Forget those memories, delete the images. Reformat the hard drive. About the only significant things the all-new 2011 model has in common with its predecessor is the name badge on the decklid (now moved to the other side of the trunk) and the fact that they both burn a liquefied petroleum product and roll to their destination on pneumatic tires.
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Now in its sixth-generation, the newest Hyundai dumps its consistent ho-hum styling in favor of what the automaker calls a "fluidic sculpture design." Created by the Hyundai Design Center team in Irvine, California, the sleek new four-door is a fresh face in a segment full of cookie-cutter sedans. Interesting and stylish, the Sonata offers an engaging mix of traditional sedan and four-door coupe rolled into one. Take special note of the chrome strip running from the tail of the headlamps clear to the base of the C-pillar, and the door handles deliberately positioned at different heights to aesthetically complete the bold character lines. The exterior is unique, rather exhilarating, and it looks downright expensive. We like it.
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While the styling visually suggests otherwise, the Sonata is among the shorter "mid-size" vehicles within its competitive segment. The 2011 Hyundai Sonata and the Honda Accord are the only two in this class with an EPA "large car" classification – the Camry, Altima, Fusion and Malibu are all considered "mid-size" cars by the agency. Interestingly enough, the Sonata has the most total interior volume in the segment.
The Sonata's cabin continues the same "sculpted" theme as the exterior. Understandably, it debuts as a much more modern (um, futuristic?) looking cockpit. There are plenty of bluish lights, digital displays, buttons and even a hat-tip to Volvo for the humanoid-look climate control display. With knobs and buttons abound, it takes a few minutes to get accustomed to the vehicle's operation. But, after a few hours behind the wheel, it comes naturally. In practice, the human interface works even better than it looks, which is what really counts.
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Under the hood is Hyundai's new direct-injected DOHC 2.4-liter GDI four-cylinder. The all-aluminum powerplant, fitted with continuously variable valve timing, is rated at 198 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 184 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm (the SE model bumps those to 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque). The Korean automaker offers two different transmission choices. The first is a traditional six-speed manual (M6GF2), the same transmission offered on the Hyundai Tucson. (Hyundai says "only a few percent" of owners will opt for the manual gearbox, so don't expect to see many in showrooms). The other transmission is the automaker's all-new six-speed automatic (A6MF2), also shared with the Tucson. This is Hyundai's first proprietary six-speed automatic (the Genesis and Veracruz use an outsourced Aisin gearbox) that's 26.4 pounds lighter and has 62 fewer parts than its five-speed predecessor. Fitted with a SHIFTRONIC manual shift mode, the SE trim level adds steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for those Schumacher dreamers.
Unlike last year's model, the 2011 Sonata will not offer a six-cylinder option. Hyundai obviously realizes the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu – the Sonata's primary competitors – are all offered with four- and six-cylinder powerplants. However, the Korean automaker isn't flinching. When asked why the new Sonata doesn't offer a V6 option, John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, boldly predicts that "V6 engines are going the way of the dinosaur." (Krafcik even went so far as to predict that no midsize sedans will have a V6 option in 2016 – the year more stringent EPA fuel economy regulations are enacted).
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Power-hungry mid-size family sedan buyers shouldn't worry, as Hyundai is expected to introduce a turbocharged variant of the 2.4-liter GDI four-cylinder very soon. When talking about that engine, Krafcik smiles and says the yet-to-be-released turbocharged engine is "very delicious" (his exact words, not ours). It has an "endless reservoir of power... and we are shooting for the same EPA fuel economy as the normally-aspirated variant," he boldly adds.
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Sure, a direct-injected four-cylinder is technically advanced and innovative, but it really isn't big news these days. What is big news is fuel economy and this is where the 2011 Hyundai Sonata climbs to the top of the podium. According to official EPA numbers, the Sonata earns 24 miles per gallon city and 35 mpg highway with the manual transmission and 22 mpg city and 35 mpg highway with the automatic. While those impressive efficiency numbers equal its four-cylinder challengers in the city cycle, all fall behind the Sonata in highway testing. When you consider even the strongest competition cannot muster more than 190 horsepower from their four-cylinder offerings, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata doesn't just beat its competition in the fuel economy battle, it frankly slaughters them. More on this later.
Posting big fuel economy numbers isn't easy. Hyundai not only focused its attention on the powertrain and fitted the Sonata with the aforementioned direct injection and efficient six-speed automatic transmission, but it has also added a "smart" alternator that pulls its power primarily when coasting. There is a low friction driveline with a unique bearing design, and low rolling resistance tires on all four corners. The body was sculpted with an aerodynamic design – an impressive drag coefficient of .28 – presenting a sleek profile to the wind. Lastly, the engineers optimized the body structure to save weight.
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Powertrain Lineup The Sonata’s entry-level engine is a direct-injection 2.4-liter four-cylinder that puts out 198 horsepower (200 ponies on the sportier SE trim level) and 184 lb-ft. of torque yet delivers an estimated class-leading 35 mpg on the highway with the optional six-speed automatic transmission (a six-speed manual is standard on the base GLS trim). Regardless of transmission, the Sonata is expected to be rated at 23 mpg in the city, but the manual is rated at 34 mpg on the highway.
Rather than using a V6 as the up-level engine choice, the Sonata employs a 2.0-liter turbo four that uses Hyundai’s latest 'Blue Drive' turbocharging and direct-injection technology to produce 274 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque. Mated exclusively to a six-speed automatic transmission with SHIFTRONIC manual shifting control, the Sonata 2.0T is rated at 22 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway on regular fuel.
Trim Level Breakdown Hyundai offers the Sonata with the naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine in three trim levels (GLS, SE, Limted), while turbo four-equipped models are offered in two trim levels (2.0T SE and 2.0T Limited)
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The entry-level GLS comes standard with power window and locks, A/C, cloth upholstery, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, remote keyless entry, 16-inch steel wheels with hubcaps and a trip computer. The GLS can be optioned with the Popular Equipment Package, which adds 16-inch alloy wheels, a power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar, upgraded interior trim and automatic head lamps. A navigation system and premium audio upgrade are also available.
The GLS gives way to the SE, which adds a middling two horsepower but also 18-inch alloy wheels, unique dark chrome exterior touches, fog lights, dual exhaust, a sport-tuned suspension and steering combination, proximity entry with push-button start and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob. The SE comes only with the automatic transmission and can be optioned with a moonroof, navigation system and premium audio.
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From there, the Limited adds leather seats, dual zone automatic climate control, automatic-dimming mirror with compass, CD changer, HD radio, upgraded audio, 17-inch alloy wheels, panoramic moonroof, exterior mirror-mounted turn signals, upgraded interior trim and rear seat vents. For the Limted, navigation, a rear backup camera and Infinity-branded speakers are all bundled together in an optional package.
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The 2.0T SE trim comes standard with a smart key, sport-tuned suspension and steering, steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, dual chrome-tipped exhaust pipes, push-button start, fog lamps, sport seats with leather bolsters and cloth inserts and 18-inch alloy wheels.
The 2.0T Limited model adds leather upholstery, heated seats front and rear, a panoramic sunroof, dual zone automatic climate control, a premium sound system and a choice of piano black or woodgrain interior accents.The only option is the Navigation Package. True to its name, it adds a navigation system with a high-resolution touchscreen display as well as a Infinity sound system and a backup camera.
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Hyundai is especially proud of the trio of audio systems tailored to the all-new Sonata. GLS and SE models get an AM/FM/CD player with six speakers and XM capability, but they will offer a Dimension-branded premium system with a touch-screen navigation. Limited models come standard with the Dimension audio system and a CD changer but offer a 400-watt Infinity audio system. Occupant Safety Every Sonata model comes standard with dual front, front side and side curtain airbags in addition to traction and stability control systems, active front head restrains, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.
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Key Competitors Hyundai designed the Sonata to go head-to-head with the most popular entrants in the mid-size sedan segment, which include the smooth and reliable Toyota Camry and the oft-lauded Honda Accord. Other worthy rivals include the Ford Fusion, which offers a relatively sporty driving experience, as well as the quirky but capable Suzuki Kizashi.