2011 Hyundai Sonata review by G. Chambers Williams III

Among them is the newest generation of Hyundai's midsize sedan, the Sonata, now available in dealerships as an early 2011 model.

The South Korean automaker introduced the new model to automotive journalists during a recent ride-and-drive event that showcased the car's capabilities on a variety of coastal and mountain roads in the San Diego area.

Prices begin at $19,195 (plus $720 freight) for the base GLS model with a six-speed manual gearbox, and $20,195 for the GLS with a six-speed automatic transmission.

With the "popular equipment" package, the GLS starts at $20,945, which is the model and price Hyundai expects the majority of buyers to choose. Add navigation to that, and the price rises to $22,645.

The midlevel model, the SE, begins at $22,595, including automatic transmission, and tops out at $25,195 with the navigation system and sunroof.

At the top of the line is the Limited, which starts at $25,295 and lists for $27,395 with the navigation system.

The new Sonata is the second vehicle in Hyundai's push to bring seven all-new models to market within a two-year period, creating a product renaissance for the South Korean automaker. The first, the redesigned 2010 Tucson compact crossover, arrived in December.

Hyundai is one of the few success stories in an otherwise bleak car market over the past year, with its sales growing as other automakers have struggled.

Helping the company to lead the industry in sales gains in the past year are the fuel efficiency of its vehicles, its top ranking for quality among non-luxury brands, and the Hyundai Assurance program, introduced in January 2009, which allows a buyer to return any new Hyundai vehicle, leased or financed, in the event of a loss of income within the first year of ownership. The program has now been extended through the end of this year.

The redesigned Sonata is also the second vehicle to be styled with Hyundai's new "fluidic sculpture" design theme, first introduced on the 2010 Tucson.

Already, Hyundai was the industry leader in fuel efficiency, and that position led the company to eliminate the V-6 engine option from newest Sonata. A gasoline-electric hybrid model is coming later this year.

For now, under the hood of all 2011 Sonatas is a new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 198 horsepower and 184 foot-pounds of torque. That beats the top competitors in the midsize sedan class, including the Honda Accord (177 horsepower), Toyota Camry (169), Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion (175), and Chevrolet Malibu (169).

With a dual-exhaust system on the SE (sport) model, this engine is rated at 200 horsepower. It's also the first four-cylinder engine in the segment with gasoline direct injection, which helps increase fuel efficiency. Even with the extra power, this engine will beat all of the above competitors in fuel economy.

EPA ratings are 23 mpg city/35 highway with the automatic transmission, and 23/34 with the manual. That compares with 22/33 for the Camry four-cylinder, 22/31 for the Accord, 23/31 for the Altima, 23/34 for the Fusion, and 22/33 for the Malibu (with automatic transmissions).

Later this year, Hyundai also plans to offer a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Performance numbers have not been announced yet.

This is among the roomiest sedans on the market, and is larger than its midsize competitors. With 120.2 cubic feet of interior space, it qualifies as a large car under EPA guidelines.

There's a decent amount of trunk space, as well -- 16.3 cubic feet. That's 17.1 percent more than that of the Accord and 9.3 percent more than the Camry's.

Exterior design cues include a chrome accent that runs down both sides, and there is a new, larger grille. Available wheel sizes are 16, 17 and 18 inches.

The car has a new four-wheel independent suspension, which gives it a soft, smooth ride along with precise steering and road handling. Coil springs are used on all four corners.

Both the GLS and Limited models come with new low-rolling-resistance tires, which are designed to help increase fuel economy. The SE model, created for those who want more of a driver's car, has a sport-tuned suspension with stiffer springs, larger stabilizer bars, unique dampers and low-profile 18-inch tires.

Standard on all models is electric power steering, which also helps increase fuel economy, Hyundai says. The car also is the first in its class to have a standard Bluetooth hands-free phone connection, and first with optional heated rear seats and factory-installed HD radio.

The Sonata has a narrow turning diameter of 35.8 feet, better than that of the Camry, Accord, Altima, Fusion and Malibu.

It's also lighter than most of its peers, even though it's larger. Base curb weight is 3,199 pounds, compared with 3,307 for the Camry and 3,269 for the Accord. The Altima is lighter, at 3,180 pounds.

Among safety features are an ultra-high-strength steel body, electronic stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution, active front headrests, front seat-mounted side air bags, roof-mounted side-curtain air bags for both rows, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

Four audio systems are offered, including the 400-watt system that is included with the touch-screen navigation system. XM satellite radio is standard on all models.

The Sonata continues Hyundai's value-pricing strategy. The base GLS with automatic is $2,384 less than a comparably equipped Camry LE, $1,650 less than a similar Accord LX, and $1,645 less than the Altima 2.5S.

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