2011 Hyundai Sonata review

I've gotten tired of writing about the next good Hyundai.

And according to the late night profanity-laced messages left on my voice mail, so have Detroit readers.

So let's just stop acting surprised every time Hyundai rolls out an impressive car or crossover. This is a quality operation and its lineup is going to continue to improve. (For those keeping score, I also say the same thing about Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.)

The next piece of evidence: the 2011 Hyundai Sonata.

In the past, Hyundai was seen as the lower-priced alternative. Many consumers never considered it because they would drone methodically, "must buy another Camry" with the same appreciation for their car as their washing machine. (The top-selling Camry proves how little 400,000 people annually appreciate dramatic styling, well-appointed interiors and taut performance -- as it has none, none and none.)

But here's the scoop: The new Sonata blows the doors off of the Toyota and Honda midsize entries with a more stylish exterior, better gas mileage, comfortable interior and more four-cylinder power than just about any midsize sedan around.

The 198 horsepower 2.4-liter with gas-direct injection engine outmuscles all of the mainstream four-cylinders available including the Accord (161 horses); Nissan Altima (180 horses); Camry (169 horses); Ford Fusion (175 horses) and Chevrolet Malibu (169 horsepower).

Add to that best-in-class fuel economy at 35 miles per gallon on the highway and you've got a serious contender that customers should not overlook. If you're looking for a family sedan that will serve all of the roles of daily life, pass over the Sonata at your own peril. This car just looks sharp.

By the end of this year, Hyundai plans to add a 2-liter turbo model that could improve the gas mileage and a gas-electric hybrid to soothe those eco-minded customers. Hyundai calls the exterior design "fluidic" and you can almost see the ripples of water flowing it. If you look at this sedan's front end, you can see the waves of water moving out from the neatly creased hood and grille.

There's a motion to this car, even when it's standing still, that makes you want to look a little closer. Along the side, there's a piece of chrome trim that moves through the bejeweled headlight all the way past the second door. The cutting line along the doors may be a little over the top, providing more lines on the front fender than a cat's cradle, but it still looks good Lightweight and quick

The ride on the Sonata is excellent. In the past, midsized sedans with small engines seemed to want for power, so much so that you almost had to buy the V-6 model just to feel like you could merge with highway traffic.

But this is changing for every midsize. Hyundai doesn't even offer a V-6 version of the new Sonata (instead it will continue to offer a V-6 version of the Azera sedan for people suffering from cylinder envy). But by keeping the V-6 out of the Sonata family, Hyundai has managed to keep the weight off of the Sonata. It weighs in at just 3,200 pounds -- only the Nissan Altima is lighter. But the Sonata launches quickly and offers plenty of power.

The new six-speed automatic transmission (a manual six-speed is also offered though maybe one in 10 buyers will select it) is extremely smooth. It also does an excellent job of staying in the right gear when you need it.

It's a confidence-instilling tranny that makes driving that much more enjoyable. The ride is also extremely quiet. Even when you're hitting 80 mph on the highway, the Sonata slices through the wind. There is some noticeable road noise but, still, it was never overwhelming.

Like some other automakers, Hyundai uses electric power steering to help achieve the best gas mileage. But the steering feel is solid and nicely balanced. The car leans into tight corners and pulls out of them with aplomb. It's nearly fun to drive -- which is high praise for any midsize sedan. Lots of room, safety inside

Inside, the Sonata is just as enjoyable.

The interior is well laid out and full of high tech surprises. Nowadays customers expect satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free phone operation and touch-screen navigation screens -- and Hyundai delivers all of that.

On a side note, Bluetooth connectivity is something that has become more important because more states are passing laws banning drivers from talking directly into their phones -- instead requiring drivers to jam a silly ear piece into their head that leaves your ear sore. The Bluetooth system also controls a car's stereo, turning it down when the phone rings; it simply works better than any hands-free device people stick in their ear. Trust me, if you had a Bluetooth connection in your car, you wouldn't look so stupid walking down the street talking to your self.

The optional 400-watt stereo system (which comes with the navigation system) blasts music and can make even the worst traffic fade away to the soothing rhythms of Steely Dan. There's a slew of standard safety features as well, starting with electronic stability control and six airbags, including front, front seat-mounted side-impact and front and rear side curtain airbags. Safety should never be an option and any carmaker who charges more for some safety features is just wrong.

There's also lots of room inside the Sonata, a key feature for a midsize sedan.

The wheelbase stretches 110 inches and lets Hyundai create a lot of livable space in the cabin. There's more than 45 inches of legroom in the front and 34.6 inches of legroom in the second row.

With 103.8 cubic feet of passenger space inside the cabin, the Sonata is technically a large sedan, just like the Honda Accord; but both compete in the midsize segment. Even the trunk is spacious and deep, providing more than 16 cubic feet of space. Surprise wearing off

But the real value of the Sonata begins with its price.

The base GLS model starts at $19,195 and a fully loaded Limited model hits $27,395. This is a lot of car to get for under $28,000, especially considering the number of features and the car's performance. It will make buyers feel like they've pulled one over on the dealer when they drive away from the lot -- and who doesn't like that?

So get used to hearing good things about Hyundai in 2010.

The company has taken nearly two decades to transform itself and all of that work has paid off for consumers.

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen couldn't have said it better: With the Sonata, you're feeling the change of the guard.

And next time Hyundai rolls out a sharp, hot car, no one should act so surprised.

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