Review: 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Limited
By Charles Krome
While the 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Limited came to my driveway loaded up with goodies, the most important thing the car brought with it wasn’t on the spec sheet. I’m talking here about expectations. As the car that nearly singlehandedly pulled Hyundai into the mainstream, the 2011 Sonata came with a strong reputation for satisfying customers, and I was particularly looking forward to seeing how it lived up to that rep. Of course, first I had to get used to seeing the vehicle itself.
I’d always been surprised that a car with such a relatively radical design was attracting so many customers, but after living with the Sonata for just a few days, most of its exterior design cues began to grow on me. The sedan’s silhouette is much sleeker than you might think at first glance, and it takes a nice stance on the road, with a surprisingly aggressive look that’s well enhanced by the character line flowing through its door handles. That character line blends backward into the Sonata’s tail-lights nicely, too, and the way the D-pillar flows down into the trunk area almost pulls off an Audi-esque feel. If I never had to look at the front of the car, I would have given the Sonata’s exterior a definite “thumbs up.”
Unfortunately, with so much going on ahead of the driving wheels, the front overhang looks huge, and it’s made worse by the large chrome grille and “wide” headlamp treatments. Regarding the former, I generally don’t like seeing that much shiny metal on a grille unless it’s on a car that’s older than I am, especially with horizontal grille bars. Hyundai seems wedded to the look, however, at least on its larger, more premium vehicles like the Genesis sedan and Equus. I much prefer the face on the Elantra and Tucson, though, where the vehicle’s smaller sizes mean designers don’t have room for all that chrome.
And when I mention the “wide” headlamps, what I mean is the way the clear casings extend so far from the body at certain angles that they look a bit like clear bubbles sticking off the car.
On the other hand, I know that’s all very subjective, and some people I’ve talked to have responded very positively to the Sonata’s design. Plus, the car did have one of the best paint jobs I’ve ever seen on a mainstream midsize sedan, a sparkling “Pearl White” that glistened in the sun almost as if it were some kind of custom coating. The Sonata passed the roof-seal test with flying colors, too; I’m talking about the rubber seals around the front glass and on the roof proper. It’s another of those little details that a surprising number of automakers seem to skimp on, but not Hyundai.
The Sonata’s cabin was a different story. There were certainly some nice touches, but overall, I was disappointed by its utilitarian appearance. The dash was particularly unappealing, with a lot of that tough, nubbly plastic and a noted lack of attention to detail. It was especially bad where two different design elements met; for example, where the top of the dash went around the cowling over the instrument gauges.
Also, there was no leather or wood on the dash, or even “leather” or “wood,” with Hyundai resorting to the “piano black” business for a lot of the accent work. The problem is, the shiny gloss of those pieces only served to make the rest of the materials look duller. And really, aren’t we just talking about more plastic with that stuff?
Other interior points to note: A special iPod cable is required to connect Apple’s wonder-machine to the sound system. It’s only $35 but it’s the principle of the thing that bothers me. It makes the Sonata seem a bit behind the times, technologically speaking. But there was plenty of useful storage, and the vanity-mirror lights, located in the roof, as opposed to on the visor, were … interesting.
Now, just to be clear here, it wasn’t that any part of the interior seemed cheap in the sense that I was worried about pieces coming off in my hands; to borrow a theme from our head Savant’s recent review of the Kia Sportage, it struck me as unrefined. It was nowhere near as sophisticated and sharp as the interior of the last Chevrolet Malibu I tested, and that was in one of the lower trim levels.
I got the same unrefined feeling as regards the actual driving experience, too: There were many highlights, but an equal number of areas that could use improvement in a $30,000 car. The seats were excellent, with plenty of support and adjustability, and I always felt very comfortable in the car. The controls were all well within reach and easy to use, and I especially like the stylized icon-thing, shaped like a person, for directing which climate vents were in use. The biggest problem here was with the nav screen, which was smallish and difficult to follow when I had to switch my gaze from the road to the map.
Hyundai designers also did an excellent job taking care of rear seat passengers. The Sonata is a very rare entry in the segment with heated back seats, and engineers managed to wedge in a small rear quarter-window that brought in some amount of extra light and airiness. A fold-down console that converted three-across seating in the back to a particularly comfy two-person setup was much appreciated by all.
But on the move, this expensive turbocharged model was never able to escape its roots as a more pedestrian sedan that, in its base configuration, stickers for under $20,000. Thus, as long as I didn’t put any real demands on the Sonata, everything was fine. There was plenty of power (274 hp/269 lb.-ft. of torque), and it was always ready for day-to-day driving, and overall, the car felt surprisingly light on its feet.
Yet it’s clear that this is no performance sedan. Stomping on the go pedal brings out a noticeable turbo lag, and the brakes were a bit soft when I tried to reel the Sonata in. I also had to fight the steering more than I’d like, although this is an inherent problem with trying to route any significant amounts of power through a car’s front wheels. And sometimes it felt like I was fighting against the steering as it firmed up during acceleration, not only in torque-steer situations.
Yes, the Sonata also was outfitted with paddle-shifters as well, and I goofed around with them enough to make sure they worked, but I’m not a big fan of these kinds of systems on these kinds of cars. They really don’t add much to the performance experience here, and they lack the ability to viscerally connect the driver with the machine in the way true manual transmissions do.
I also have to take a moment to specifically discuss the car’s fuel efficiency. I did spend some time with the Hyundai’s “Eco” button engaged—it was less painful than I thought it would be—but I also made sure I took full advantage of the Sonata’s turbocharged engine whenever I could. And I still turned up a mark of 27.65 mpg through 200 miles worth of driving. The EPA certifies the Sonata turbo at 22 mpg city/33 mpg highway/26 mpg combined, which means, obviously, that I actually exceeded the government’s ratings—a first in my test-driving experience.
Yet when you compare the Sonata 2.0T Limited to the higher trim levels in other six-cylinder mid-size sedans, that fuel efficiency turns out to be just about the sole advantage for the Hyundai. It’s really not sportier than its rivals, and it’s certainly not more luxurious. The automaker’s usual price/value advantage isn’t as much of a factor at $30,000 as it is atå $20,000, either.
In the end, I have to say that while I can deduce from this model exactly why so many people buy a standard Sonata, I also wouldn’t expect the more-expensive 2.0T Limited to add much volume on top of that.