2011 Hyundai Sonata
2011 Hyundai Sonata
2011 Hyundai Sonata. Click image to enlarge

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Hyundai Canada

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Review and photos by Chris Chase

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2011 Hyundai Sonata

La Jolla, California – I’m sure you’ve heard this before: Hyundai launches a new or redesigned model, and we in the media call it the best car the company has ever produced, blah, blah, etc, ad nauseum.

The company has just set the latest generation of its Sonata mid-sizer loose, and guess what? Okay, it’s not absolutely the best car the company has ever produced (that would be the Genesis sedan) but without a doubt, it’s the best car the company has ever entered in such a relevant segment (mid-sized family sedan). Just as importantly, it’s a car that brings a lot of style to a market segment that’s not exactly chock full of knock-your-socks-off lookers.

2011 Hyundai Sonata
2011 Hyundai Sonata . Click image to enlarge

The look is the result of Hyundai designer Phil Zak’s influence, and what he calls Fluidic Sculpture Design. More tangibly, the car bears a striking resemblance to the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class and the Volkswagen Passat CC. A number of years ago, saying so would have been a disservice to the German brands, but given the strides Hyundai has made in quality and driveability, that’s certainly not the case now.

The floofy-sounding fluidic design thing refers specifically to the character line that runs along the side from the front wheel arch to wrap around the rear corner, above the taillights. That line is accented by the chrome strip that traces the beltline but, unexpectedly, stretches forward to meet the headlight housing. This in particular is a nice touch that appears even on the most basic GL model.

The Sonata is the second of seven new models Hyundai plans to launch in a roughly 24-month timeframe. The first was the 2010 Tucson, with the balance being a new Accent, Elantra and Santa Fe, plus an uber-lux sedan called the Equus and an all-new sporty coupe/crossover that doesn’t have a name yet. With that in mind, this car is a good omen of things to come for a company that has already come a long way.

2011 Hyundai Sonata
2011 Hyundai Sonata
2011 Hyundai Sonata
2011 Hyundai Sonata
2011 Hyundai Sonata. Click image to enlarge

Steve Kelleher, Hyundai Canada’s CEO, says the company put a lot of effort into making the Sonata’s interior the best it could be for the price. As he says, Hyundai is going against the grain by putting nicer materials into its cars, rather than cheaping out with lower quality pieces. The effort seems to be paying off, as the Sonata’s interior felt like an equal to that of the larger Genesis, with plenty of soft-touch materials. A number of details look like ideas lifted from upscale brands, like the arrangement of controls under the navigation screen (Infiniti) and the manual climate control (which apes Volvo’s anthropomorphized air distribution selector). Still, it adds up to an interior that looks and feels beyond the Sonata’s pricing, which starts at $22,649 for a GL with manual transmission ($24,249 with the more popular automatic), and tops out at $30,999 for a Limited with navigation.

Furthermore, Hyundai claims the new Sonata has the most interior volume (passenger area and trunk combined) of any car in its class. Interior space is quite good, though the sloping rear roofline means there isn’t as much rear seat headroom as there could be.

The base engine is a 2.4-litre four-cylinder that, notably, employs gasoline direct injection (GDI). Also notable is that there will be no six-cylinder Sonata this time around; instead, a turbocharged 2.0-litre GDI engine based on the turbo-four in the Genesis Coupe will join the lineup later this year as the power upgrade, along with a BlueDrive hybrid model – but those powertrains are stories for another day.

Hyundai credits the use of direct injection and variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams for the engine’s 198-horsepower rating, a number that the company says makes the motor the most potent four-cylinder in the class. This is the latest iteration of the company’s Theta powerplant (officially, Theta II), and the first Hyundai engine to use GDI. Other technical notables include the use of a timing chain instead of the more common toothed rubber belt, which makes for a much longer service interval; also, the GDI fuel system delivers two squirts of gasoline per compression stroke, something Hyundai says allows the engine and catalytic converter to warm up faster, in turn reducing cold-start emissions. And as direct injection engines tend to run hotter than those with more common port-injection, the GDI motor uses piston-cooling oil jets to keep temperatures in check.

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