WHEN it comes to describing precisely what makes the 2011 Hyundai Sonata so undeniably excellent, the structural metaphor that applies best is, obviously, the crunchy taco.
What makes a great taco is its shell. If the shell is fresh, crisp and robust, it doesn’t get soggy quickly or crack and crumble, and the flavor of what’s inside will shine. Chicken, steak or pork carnitas, it’s all tastier when served in a perfectly fried corn tortilla taco shell.
Before Hyundai stuffed the all-new version of its midsize front-drive sedan, it built a great shell. By forgoing the option of a V-6 engine (unlike most of its rivals, as well as the previous-generation Sonata), the car’s basic structure could be optimized around 4-cylinder engines, which take up less space.
So the nose doesn’t have to cover a wider V-6, the engine bay doesn’t require the strength to carry a heavier V-6 and room need not be made for an exhaust system evacuating two banks of cylinders. Dozens of other less obvious challenges were also avoided. By sticking with 4-cylinder engines — in mild naturally aspirated, spicy turbocharged and righteous hybrid flavors — Hyundai made it easier to engineer a relatively lightweight, rigid and efficient shell.
There’s nothing exotic or even clever about the Sonata’s structure. It’s a standard steel unibody with a pair of MacPherson struts constituting the front suspension and a multilink independent rear suspension. Hyundai has just sweated the details better this time than it ever has before.
Size-wise, the new Sonata’s dimensions are almost right atop the Honda Accord sedan; the Hyundai’s 110-inch wheelbase is just 0.2 inch shorter than the Honda’s and the Sonata is within a half-inch of the Accord in overall width, height and wheel track. The “almost” lies in overall length, where the Sonata’s 189.8 inches is 4.3 inches shorter than the Accord. But despite that, the Sonata offers virtually the same interior room (the back seat is a little tighter) and 16.4 cubic feet of trunk space compared with the Accord’s 14.
Based on the interior volume, the Environmental Protection Agency rates the Sonata, like the Accord, a “large” car. But the Sonata, styled in Hyundai’s California studio, is a swoopy, sleek, streamlined looker compared with the aging Accord, which is blandly boxy from the blunt face of its fuddy to the trailing edge of its duddy.
The Sonata has the “four-door coupe” profile of a Mercedes-Benz CLS or a Volkswagen CC, without those cars’ compromised interior space. That’s a slick trick.
Fortunately, Hyundai didn’t stop thinking when it stuffed the Sonata’s shell. Even the base GLS, which starts at $19,915, includes nice touches like a pull-down handle built into the trunk lid and, below the ventilation controls, two easily accessible 12-volt power points, a USB port and an audio jack. The ventilation controls themselves are neat, featuring a human pictograph for choosing where the flow of air should be directed.
There’s a thoughtfulness that runs throughout every 2011 Sonata that pays off in nearly perfect ergonomics, nicely shaped seats, easily scanned instrumentation, standard Bluetooth cellphone integration with the sound system and an overall feeling of quality that Hyundai has frankly never even approached before.
This isn’t a small step forward for the South Korean company; the made-in-Alabama Sonata is a thumping bound to the front of its class.
The standard Sonata engine is a direct-gasoline injection 2.4-liter 4-cylinder with variable valve timing, a sky-high 11.3:1 compression ratio and a relatively long crank stroke for better torque production. Rated at 198 horsepower in the GLS and the more luxurious Limited, and at 200 in the sporty-trim SE, the engine is sweet natured until about 5,000 r.p.m. — after which it gets a bit ragged.
But the slick part of the Sonata’s drivetrain is the transmission. A 6-speed manual is standard on the base car, the GLS, but virtually all buyers will take the 6-speed automatic. Built by Hyundai itself, that transmission is a paragon of electronically controlled self-shifting virtue; the gears are perfectly spaced with fifth a 1:1 direct drive and sixth an overdrive. The transmission can be shifted manually using the floor-mounted shifter, but why bother?
Combine the GLS automatic’s modest 3,199-pound unloaded weight (about 80 pounds less than a comparable Accord) with the drivetrain’s talents and the result is a federal rating of 22 miles per gallon in the city, 35 on the highway and 28 combined — again slightly better than the Accord.
Car and Driver magazine tested a Sonata SE with the automatic and it waltzed to 60 m.p.h. in 7.8 seconds — nearly a second quicker than the 2010 Accord EX to which it was compared.
The real treat, however, lies in the new turbocharged Sonata 2.0T. Using a shorter stroke, smaller bore, 2-liter version of the same direct-injection engine, the intercooled turbocharger installation whips the output up to a robust 274 horsepower with outstanding torque from off-idle to the 6,500 r.p.m. red line — and does so on regular-grade gas.
No, the turbo 4 is not as silken as the V-6s from Honda or Toyota, but operating through the 6-speed automatic produces effortless thrust, excellent acceleration (0-60 in 6.2 seconds, again according to Car and Driver) and impressive fuel economy. The E.P.A. rates the Sonata 2.0T at 22 m.p.g. in town and a noteworthy 33 on the highway.
All that additional power does, however, point up some of the weaker elements. The suspension is a touch too soft and the speed-proportional electric power steering seems to vary its assist a half-beat behind the driver’s moves.
And since the turbo engine is available only in SE and Limited models, prices start at a dizzier $24,865. Yet considering the amount of equipment aboard, that still seems like a bargain.
The final variation on the Sonata theme is the Hybrid. The hybrid system itself is technically interesting and the redecoration of the car’s nose is pure funk, but the most significant element in how it drives is the same 6-speed automatic used in other Sonatas.
While most hybrids use a continuously variable transmission without fixed gears, the Sonata’s conventional gearbox makes for a more conventional driving experience. The Sonata Hybrid’s recalibrated version of the same 2.4-liter decelerates with the gear changes. For those of us who despise the engine drone associated with CVTs, that sound is a relief. Otherwise, the drivetrain machinations of the Hyundai hybrid system are almost invisible as long as the car is driven moderately.
In fact, if it weren’t for the electro-luminescent instrument panel and the liquid-crystal display between the tachometer and speedometer that graphically encourages economical driving, many drivers wouldn’t notice much difference between the Hybrid, with 206 horsepower (166 horses for the gas engine and 40 more for the electric motor) and the regular Sonata GLS. But they will notice the Hybrid’s stunning E.P.A. rating: 40 m.p.g. on the highway and 36 in the city.
The Sonata Hybrid just went on sale at a starting price of $26,545 — almost $1,000 less than the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which isn’t as well equipped and has a lower mileage rating.
Of course the Sonata isn’t perfect. Some will find its high beltline — the line below the side windows — disconcerting. The turbo model’s lack of a manual transmission keeps it from being a performance leader. And there are still some interior switches that operate raggedly. But this is the first car Hyundai has sold in America that’s so good and so keenly priced that any buyer shopping in its market segment must seriously consider it. It’s the first unavoidable Hyundai.
That’s why it is doing so well. Some 200,000 of the new Sonatas have been sold so far, Hyundai says. After all, everyone loves a tasty taco.