Review: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Limited

By Chris Haak

What’s the deal with with new cars today? In spite of uncertain fuel prices – which some experts feel are likely to spike again above $4 USD per gallon sometime during the next few years – when new cars are redesigned, they often times turn out to be larger and heavier than the model they have replaced. There are occasional exceptions, of course. Nissan’s 370Z weighs less than its 350Z, and its current Altima shrunk slightly from its predecessor’s size and weight. The 2011 Mazda2 and Ford Fiesta weigh less than did their non-US predecessors thanks to careful engineering and the application of high-strength steel. And now the 2011 Hyundai Sonata – the company’s volume model – is larger, more comfortable, more powerful and more attractive than the 2010 model. But somebody forgot to tell Hyundai that when cars gain size and power, they’re supposed to gain weight. This car weighs more than 100 pounds less than the model it replaced – and gets better fuel economy.

We’re not going to spill much digital ink re-hashing the Hyundai story, but the company made its US debut in the 1980s with the Yugo-competitive throwaway Hyundai Excel econobox, but has steadily improved the quality, engineering, performance, and design of its vehicles over the ensuing quarter century to the point that the company’s vehicles (as well as those of its Kia subsidiary) have made their way onto the shopping lists of many US consumers. As we noted recently, Hyundai-Kia has outsold Nissan-Infiniti in the US so far in 2010.

This sixth-generation Sonata made its Korean debut in late 2009 and hit the US market earlier in 2010, as a 2011 model. It’s built in Hyundai’s plant in Montgomery, Alabama. Rather than looking like an alternative to the 2003-2007 Honda Accord, Hyundai tore up the rule book and created arguably the most modern and stylish entrant in the midsize sedan class. With Hyundai’s so-called “Fluidic Scuplture” design language, you could argue that it either looks kind of like a one-third price Mercedes CLS, or like a cross between a wet bar of soap and a Toyota Camry Solara. We’ve heard both, but we tend to stick more with the “cheap CLS” school of thought. The car certainly attracts its share of double-takes, even from jaded auto writers like us. We caught ourselves stealing glances at the Sonata’s profile on a number of occasions as we walked past a window. The one major oddity in the design is the prominence of the hood cut line; on a car filled with curves that flow into one another, the decision to highlight that seam with a chrome strip is a curious one. As with most cars, larger wheels look better on the Sonata; the Limited’s 17s look better than the GLS’ 16s, while the SE’s 18s help the wheels stand out better proportionate to the car’s substantial length.

The Sonata’s interior is roomy. To test this, rather than taking the family minivan on an overnight trip to visit relatives, we thought we’d experiment with the Sonata to see if a large sedan was a viable alternative to the Sienna. With the van, it’s unnecessary to prioritize what items you plan to take along on trips, because there is so much space. We did leave a few items in the garage, but we fit two overnight bags, swimming stuff, a small cooler, and a child’s little bike in the trunk. Then, on the way home, we had to also squeeze in a small ottoman that my dad fixed for us, but we managed to do so without having to sacrifice any of the passenger cabin for bags that did not fit into the car’s trunk.

In the passenger compartment itself, we had fewer complaints from the kids than I’d have if we had used a smaller car like the family’s Cadillac CTS. The kids can still kick the front seatbacks, but they have to try a little harder to do so. The design of the interior is attractive and there are handy storage cubbies everywhere. The interior materials felt a little cheap, perhaps a grade below a Honda, though the upper dash itself is padded. The “leather wrapped” steering wheel is only halfway covered in leather, with the rest being pebble-grained vinyl – not really something we expected to see in the high-zoot Limited trim. The front seats were OK, not great, for long-term (90 minute-plus) comfort, and the leather on the seats seemed to be fairly low-grade. You sit low in the Sonata, which allows adequate headroom in spite of the sleek bodywork, but outward visibility was better than expected. Another demerit is that it’s easy to bang your head on the roof when getting into the Sonata because of the low roofline, but headroom was decent once inside the car. Tall folks may find themselves with numerous head bumps until they are conditioned to duck when getting into the car.

Today, a car’s gadgets and feature set nearly equal the importance of handling and fuel economy in the minds of some buyers. The Sonata Limited checks nearly all of the boxes; our tester had the optional ($2,100) navigation package, which has a high-resolution display and good touchscreen sensitivity, but is saddled with a somewhat smaller-than-average display. The navigation package also includes a 400-watt Infinity AM/FM/XM/CD audio system with a subwoofer, but the asking price seems to be fairly high for what it is. This audio system also features Bluetooth phone connectivity, which worked flawlessly and was nicely integrated with the audio system (unlike the early-production Genesis sedan that we sampled a few years ago), and also features iPod/USB connectivity. Four hundred watts might sound like a lot, but the audio system didn’t particularly stand out; it did its job, sounded fine, and didn’t make our ears tingle.

We found the Sonata to be impressively quiet on the highway, with the lack of wind noise most apparent. The ride in the Limited is softer than we’d prefer, but potholes seem to cause a pretty harsh thump through the steering wheel. For those who prefer a sportier ride, the Sonata SE has firmer suspension and adds two whole horsepower, to an even 200, thanks to its dual exhaust. Considering the car’s size and passenger space, the 198-horsepower 2.4 liter direct-injection four cylinder is a respectable performer, both in terms of power and economy. With this Sonata, Hyundai decided not to offer a V6, which is likely the direction that the midsize sedan market is taking anyway, and saves weight on this car by not needing to include that capability in the front structure. Acceleration is somewhat leisurely, but you’ll only miss V6 power and torque during the most extreme highway merges. For typical daily driving needs, this engine is more than adequate – as it should be, boasting class-leading horsepower.

The standard six-speed automatic is a good match for the 2.4 liter engine, helping to maximize available torque in the lower gears and to wring out the impressive highway fuel economy number in the higher gears. Downshifts don’t always come quickly, and there are no paddle shifters in the Sonata Limited, but driven like a sane person, it’s a good partner. The Sonata is equipped with an “Eco” mode that serves only to coach one’s driving habits when activated. Such habits reward the driver with a green “Eco” light on the instrument panel – not much of a reward, and it can be turned off. We observed 32.5 mpg on a 85% highway trip, and turned the car into Hyundai with the trip computer showing 30.3 miles per gallon. The Sonata is rated at 22 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway.

In terms of on-road behavior, comfort and cushiness are the stories of the day. As noted earlier, if you want sport, go for the SE. The Limited, however, isn’t Town Car floaty, but the car is at least reasonably surefooted. Unlike, say, a Chrysler Sebring. The car’s electric power steering feels artificially heavy, but we got used to it over time. The brakes – four wheel discs – are easily modulated and bring the “fun” to a halt with no drama.

A Sonata Limited starts at $26,015 including destination. This test vehicle had the navigation package, pearl white paint for $200, and carpeted floor mats for $100, for an out the door price of $28,415. There’s a lot of car for the money in that 28 grand.

While several of us feel that Hyundai is selling the best-looking midsize sedan currently on the market, the Sonata is about to see some intramural competition from Kia. Hyundai’s sister brand is launching an all-new Optima this fall that shares the same platform as the Sonata and will have similar dimensions and the same engines/transmissions. Some might prefer the Kia’s Saab-like looks and slightly sportier demeanor (this writer does), and I having sat in a 2011 Kia Optima, found that car to have a slightly nicer interior. If 35 miles per gallon aren’t enough, there’s a Sonata Hybrid coming in the next few months with an, ahem, unique front end treatment, and if 198/200 horsepower aren’t enough, there’s a 274-horsepower Sonata Turbo coming around the same time. The turbo car is likely to lose only a single mile per gallon from the standard car’s fuel-economy ratings. To me, that’s like having your cake and eating it too.

A friend who was a former Nissan Altima owner was in the market for a new car while the Sonata was in the Autosavant Garage, and partially thanks to seeing this Pearl White example in person and talking to me about our experience with the car, she made the plunge and bought the identical car (though sans navigation system). She had a little bit of a hangup about the brand and its previous reputation, but I pointed out to her that the Sonata is an all-new car for this year, while the 2010 Altima that she was considering is about to enter its fifth model year in basically the same form. So far, she is pleased with her choice.

The 2011 Sonata puts Hyundai in a very good position. Its good looks, reasonable price, excellent fuel economy, solid performance, and quality assembly make it a contender in the midsize sedan market in the US. The fact that its major competitors (Chevy, Ford, Toyota, Nissan and Honda) are all trotting out three- to five-year old designs for the 2011 model year means that 2011 is a year of opportunity for Hyundai to grab even more US market share.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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5 Comments

  1. One correction: The Eco “mode” is no mode. It’s just a light that comes on when you are driving in an efficient manner. A quick stab of the gas makes the light go out until you let off the gas again. It’s supposed to train YOU to drive with an eye towards gas mileage. Turning the Eco light on doesn’t change the car at all.

  2. Thanks, Doug. I was thinking of the M37’s Eco mode when I wrote that, and my memory failed me again. I appreciate the catch, and the post has been corrected.

  3. The pics I’ve seen of the new Kia Optima look VERY nice, I think it’ll be the best looking sedan on the market (including luxury brands). But of course, Kia has even more of a brand image to overcome than Hyundai.

  4. I corrected you too soon. The latest batch on Sonatas to arrive at my dealership have an “Active ECO” button on the dash next to the ESC button. The ActiveECO mode – according to the owners manual, adjusts the engine computer, throttle input and a/c to maximize mileage. The earlier Sonatas did not have this button, and the ECO mode was just an indicator.

  5. Thanks for the follow-up comment, Doug. Honestly, it’s been too long since I drove the Sonata, so I don’t know if the one I drove had the ActiveECO button or not.

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