Hyundai officials just confirmed the redesigned 2011 Hyundai Sonata will make its U.S. debut at the 2009 LA Auto Show next week. Hyundai had previously said the Sonata would be unveiled in Detroit.
The Hyundai Sonata gains all new styling, new engines, and a thorough re-working nose to tail for the latest model year. The result is Hyundai's most competitive Camry-Accord-Malibu-Fusion fighter yet.Styling: The 2011 Sonata sheds staid sheetmetal for a body that echoes upscale cars like the Lexus ES350 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Hyundai calls the look “Fluidic Sculpture” and says it’s intended to “create the illusion of constant motion.”
The 2011 Sonata certainly is striking. Its headlamps sweep out of an aggressive front fascia and well back into the front fenders. The “beltline” that separates the body from the glass “greenhouse” is fashionably high and sports a chrome strip the length of the car. A radically raked windshield leads to a gracefully arched roof that places the 2011 Sonata among the new wave of sedans with coupe-like profiles.
The 2011 Sonata’s body length is unchanged from the 2010 model but the wheelbase is lengthened a significant 2.6 inches. Wheelbase is the distance between the front and rear axles, and lengthening it pushes Sonata’s tires out to the edges of the car. That shrinks the front and rear sheetmetal “overhangs” and gives this five-passenger four-door a modern, efficiently engineered look. Functionally, the longer wheelbase increases the space Sonata can devote to the passenger compartment.
The 2011 Sonata is redesigned inside, too. It gains a sporty, dual-cockpit theme with arched dashboard sections separated by a gracefully sloped center console. The speedometer and tachometer are in a metallic-finished double-barrel housing that would be at home in a sports car. From the durable standard cloth upholstery to the available leather seating to the heft of the cabin panels and feel of the dashboard controls – the 2011 Sonata’s materials quality is absolutely competitive with those of any mid-priced car.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata lineup consists of three model groups, divided by their powertrains. Based on its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the mainstream model is referred to as the Sonata 2.4, though it isn’t badged that way. The Sonata 2.4 has the 198-horsepower engine and should account for about 75 percent of Sonata sales. It comes in base GLS trim, sporty SE form, and upscale Limited SE trim. Visually distinguishing the SE and Limited are fog lamps and a chrome-accented grille and door handles in place of the GLS’s body-colored pieces.
The turbocharged version is called the Hyundai Sonata 2.0T and it’s expected to account for about 20 percent of sales. It’s offered in 2.0T SE and 2.0T Limited trim. The styling of the SE 2.0T mirrors the Sonata 2.4 SE, with 18-inch “Hyper Silver” alloy wheels, fog lamps, and dual exhausts, though its grille has darkened trim. Likewise, the 2.0T Limited is visually similar to the Sonata 2.4 Limited, including the 17-inch alloys. Both turbo models wear a “2.0T” badge on their trunklid.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is projected at about 5 percent of Sonata sales. It comes in a single trim level and is the most visually distinct 2011 Sonata. The automaker says hybrid buyers’ motivation is split 50/50 between environmental consciousness and wanting to be recognized for that consciousness. Indeed, some of the 2011 Sonata Hybrid’s unique look is cosmetic, including a gaping, darkened grille in place of the other models’ smaller, louvered opening, and band-of-light LED headlamp and taillamp inserts. There’s also a “hybrid” tail badge and, on the front fenders “blue drive” insignia, denoting the branding Hyundai is promoting for its hybrid technology. But the 2011 Sonata Hybird also has subtle creases along its lower rear body and rear bumper that Hyundai says play an important role in fuel-saving aerodynamics.
The 2011 Sonata Hybrid also has wind-cheating 16-inch alloy wheels. The Sonata 2.4 GLS comes with 16-inch wheels (steel standard, alloy optional). Both the 2.4 Limited and 2.0T Limited come with 17-inch alloys, and both the 2.4 SE and 2.0T SE have 18-inch alloys.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata offers three engine choices and two transmission options. The 2011 Sonata 2.4 versions have a four-cylinder with the same 2.4-liter displacement as that of the 2010 Sonata but now with direct fuel injection and other tech advances. Hyundai dubs this engine the Theta II and rates it at 198 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque in the 2011 Sonata 2.4 GLS and 2.4 Limited models. It has 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque in the 2011 Sonata 2.4 SE, which benefits from a dual exhaust system. Torque is 184 pound-feet. (Think of torque as the force responsible for getting a car moving, horsepower as the energy that keeps it moving.) The previous Sonata 2.4 had 175 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque.
The 2011 Sonata 2.4 models have more than adequate acceleration for most circumstances, though they can’t match the oomph of V-6 competitors when you want to step out quickly for high-speed passing maneuvers or snappy freeway merging. For that, the 2011 Sonata 2.0T models offer a 2.0-liter turbocharged version of the Theta II. It’s rated at 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque. Significantly, Hyundai is pitching the turbo less as a sporty performance engine and more as a 21st century substitute for a V-6. It claims the turbo 2.0 consumes 15 percent less gas than a V-6 of comparable output.
The turbo four quickly makes you forget the 2006-2010 Sonata’s 3.3-liter V-6, which had 249 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque. With its quick-spooling, twin-scroll turbocharger, the 2.0Ts furnish fine punch around town and impressive passing power with nary a trace of frustrating “turbo lag” when you hit the accelerator.
The Sonata 2.0T models were joined late in the model year by the 2011 Sonata Hybrid. Teaming a 2.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine with an electric motor, the Sonata Hybrid is capable of running on either or both of its power sources. It employs a Hyundai-developed lithium polymer battery pack based on the technology of lithium laptop-computer batteries but re-engineered with a series of cells that are flat instead of cylindrical. The system requires no plug-in charging, the battery pack being replenished by energy generated from the gas engine and captured during “regenerative” braking. It also saves gas by automatically shutting off the gas engine when the car is stopped.
Hyundai says its battery technology is more efficient than the nickel-metal hydride battery packs that have been the staple of hybrid cars until now. It says the lithium polymer pack will hold its charge 25 percent longer, enabling the Sonata Hybrid to increase its fuel-saving, electric-only range. And it says the 96-pound lithium polymer battery pack mounted behind the Sonata’s rear seat is 28 pounds lighter and 40 percent smaller than the nickel-metal hydride pack in the Toyota Camry Hybrid. (While hybrid versions of both cars have virtually identical trunk volume, at 10.6 cubic feet for the Camry and 10.7 for the Sonata, the Hyundai has a larger trunk to start with, 16.4 cubic feet versus 15 for the Toyota).
Combined gas-electric output for the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is 206 horsepower and 193 pound-feet of torque. No direct rival has more than 198 horsepower, though competitors don’t list torque figures. At 3,357 pounds, Hyundai says the Sonata Hybrid is lighter than any direct rival by some 260 pounds.
That still makes the Hybrid the heaviest Sonata model and our road test revealed it to have subdued acceleration and an unwillingness to work in easy harmony with the transmission. The result was unseemly peaks and troughs of power in mixed-speed driving and especially on hilly terrain. Part of that “hunting” behavior likely stems from Hyundai’s decision to equip the Sonata Hybrid with a conventional automatic transmission rather than a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. Virtually all other hybrids use CVTs, which deliver power in a seamless flow rather than via a set number of individual gear ratios like a conventional automatic. Hyundai says it put a conventional automatic in its hybrid because it provides a more orthodox driving feel than a CVT and because it’s better for highway fuel economy – it points out that 58 percent of America’s mileage is highway driving.
The automatic transmission in the hybrid is the same basic Hyundai-developed six-speed that’s also used in the 2011 Sonata 2.4 and 2.0T models. In those models it’s a paragon of harmonious performance, with alert shifts and a resistance to “hunting” that goes a long way toward convincing us that the future of midsize cars lies not with V-6s but with smartly engineered four-cylinder powertrains. This six-speed automatic replaces the previous Sonata’s heavier and less-efficient five-speed. In all models except the Hybrid, the automatic features Hyundai’s Shiftronic control, which allows manual-type gear selection via a separate gate for the floor lever. The 2.4 SE and 2.0T SE models also have manual-shift steering-wheel paddles. The alternative to this automatic is a six-speed manual transmission that’s available only in the Sonata 2.4 GLS model.
The 2011 Sonata remains a front-wheel-drive design, which puts the weight of the engine above the tires that propel the car, a benefit to traction on slippery surfaces. All-wheel drive is not offered, but 2011 Sonatas come with traction and antiskid control to improve grip on takeoffs and in changes of direction. Power steering assist is electric to reduce parasitic loads on the engine and antilock four-wheel-disc brakes are standard for improved control in emergency stops. Regardless of engine, Sonata SE versions have a sport-tuned suspension and steering and 18-inch tires.
No 2011 Sonata is less than very competent in any driving situation, with the Limited models providing the best balance of handling response and bump absorption. GLS and Hybrid models ride comfortably, but the Hybrid in particular succumbs to noseplow if you rush through a turn. The SE models have great grip in corners but tend to thump over pavement cracks and potholes, and they suffer noticeable road noise on even seemingly smooth surfaces.
All 2011 Sonatas track true on straightaways, but this car’s main dynamic flaw is revealed with an initial turn of the steering wheel where you’re apt to be annoyed by power assist that firms up rapidly and artificially rather than linearly and naturally.
Note that the 2011 Kia Optima is basically the same car as the Sonata, but with different styling inside and out and with slight variations in powertrain. Hyundai and Kia belong to the same South Korean parent company and share other vehicle designs in the crossover-SUV and subcompact-car segments.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata again flexes the features-per-dollar muscle that helped win the previous-generation model a place on shopping lists of people who never thought they’d own a Korean car.
Standard on every 2011 Sonata are power windows, locks, and mirrors; the Limited’s mirrors incorporate turn-signal indicators. All models have air conditioning, remote keyless entry, and a 60/40 split folding rear seatback. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes; SE and Limited versions get a leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob. Along with the Hybrid, they also get a power driver seat, which is optional on the GLS in place of a manual seat. The 2011 Sonata 2.4 Limited and 2.0T Limited also comes with heated front and rear seats. A power moonroof is standard on the Limiteds and optional on the 2.4 SE and 2.0T SE.
The GLS and Hybrid come with cloth upholstery, the SEs add leather bolsters with cloth inserts. Standard on the Limiteds and optional on the Hybrid are full-leather seating surfaces. The 2011 Sonata 2.4 Limited and 2.0T also have automatic climate control and replace some metallic cabin accents with piano-black trim. The 2011 Sonata Hybrid’s instrument cluster includes exclusive features, such as electroluminescent lighting and a 4.2-inch screen that displays fuel-economy information as an “Eco Score.”
All models also have an “Active Eco” button that triggers a web of computer-controlled measures that include throttle mapping and transmission shift points altered to improve fuel economy by as much as 7 percent, Hyundai says.
All 2011 Sonatas come with Bluetooth cell-phone linking. Their standard audio system includes XM satellite radio and both an auxiliary jack and a USB interface for iPods and other digital media. On all models, the steering wheel incorporates audio, Bluetooth, and cruise controls. Optional on the SE and Hybrid models and standard on Limited versions is a six-speaker stereo with subwoofer and external amplifier. Optional on the Limited is a 400-watt nine-speaker Infinity system.
Optional on all models is a navigation system activated by voice command and a 6.5-inch dashboard touch screen. The system includes 8 gigabytes of flash memory, Bluetooth streaming audio, and real-time XM traffic, weather, stocks, and sports service. It adds a rearview camera to Limited models. The GLS is available with a Popular Equipment Package that contains such features as the power driver’s seat, upgraded upholstery and trim, and 16-inch alloy wheels.