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.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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9 Comments

  1. Heated rear seats? That’s not bad, not bad at all.

    Regarding the two-passenger setup for the rear seat, I don’t know why all full-size cars and smaller don’t have this. I know it’s pretty unusual that I ever need to put three people in the back of my Ford Five Hundred. In fact, it’s happened only twice in five years.

  2. What, no comment on the “wine” colored seats?? For me, the biggest letdown is the chassis set up. It just doesn’t have the right blend of control and comfort. I think you are being too harsh on the interior. Style-wise it hits all the right notes, and as far as material quality, have you been in a Camry or Accord lately? They are no better at all.

    Hyundai didn’t design the 2.0T to be a sports car, but as a V6 replacement. So it is not set up for canyon carving. The best deal is the SE 2.0T at $25k. You get the look, the power without the unnecessary leather and navigation.

    I do agree that the 2.0T is actually an superfluous. The regular 2.4 has plenty of power.

  3. I own a 2011 black Sonata SE. I have no problems with the interior. The only issue I have with the car is the ride can be a little rough sometimes, but this is more due to the larger wheels and lp tires that come on the SE. It creates a much better look, so I’m willing to sacrifice.

  4. I generally agree with you comments on the paddle shifters not adding much to the experience. What I have not noticed in reviews is, are they good for any thing else. In the Acura TSX that I usually get as my loaner I found that they still function to some extent when the transmission is in automatic. So, for instance, if you want to drop down to 4th while coasting down a hill to avoid braking you can hit the paddle and it will do that. This makes it quick and easy since you don’t have to move the shifter to manual mode first.

  5. I am surprised that no one noticed or commented on the continuous pull to the left at almost every speed. This is a problem Hyundai do not have a solution to and is annoying. I see a big recall coming.

  6. Interesting review. I was actually impressed with interior at auto show, I did not expect anything like it from Hyundai. It is nicely designed and I consider it as the best design in midsize class. Quality is also pretty good for this class. I was also impressed by quality of exterior and detailing.

    Then I test drove 2.0T and agree that after test drive not everything looks so sunny. E.g. power delivery is not linear – you press gas pedal and nothing happens and then suddenly car jumps ahead. Breaks are also difficult to modulate. Steering is kind of numb. In general overall feel is not as sophisticated as more established sedans like Fusion, Accord or Camry. I also would avoid 2.0T – it is not very well executed.

  7. B. S. This car is designed as a direct take on the likes of Honda and Toyota. We had 2 toyota avalon’s. My wives 2009 & the traded the 2001′( was a great car and maintained by the book) but this car is so much more engaging to drive,
    The throttle response rivals my wifes 2009 Avalon as well as my dad’s new north star 2011 dhs cadi…with all the optoins, and if you look up the #to weight ratio, as well as the # ft of tork, , you will realize this car is a bargain @30k and I can live with a few imperfections, I realize some cannot.
    I was in a show room for cad & buick, the turbo regal was 5k more , less hp, and looked ok… I said to myself , GM still don’t get it, iwas there when my dad bought a new 58,ooo cadi , without keyless entry, which is standard on my Sonota???

  8. I got the ’11 Sonata 2.0T after the lease came up on my ’08 infiniti G35. With the price of gas likely going to $4+ I wanted a lower payment and better fuel economy (also got private school for the kid to worry about next year). My G35 only got about 16 MPG on premium gas during my daily commute. The sonata gets 26-27 MPG on regular gas! Of course the Sonata can’t touch the G’s handling and throttle response (very few sedans can), but straight line acceleration isn’t that much worse, probably due to the Sonata’s lighter weight. Interior quality and amenities are similar on the respective trim levels I bought. Very happy with the Sonata. Sorry Infiniti the G with premium gas just isn’t nearly twice the monthly cost.

  9. MY 2011 SONATA 2.0T ENGINE IS A AT IDLE IS NOISY IS THIS COMMON

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