Driving Northwest: The 2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS


by TOM VOELK / KING 5 Car expert


Posted on September 16, 2010 at 11:23 AM

Automobiles have gained tremendous advantages in the last 10 years but breakout design is generally not one of them.  A GM exec once confided to me during the launch of the current Malibu that the previous model was purposely drawn up plain because focus groups explained they didn’t want to be seen in a car that was too flashy.  He said the data almost made him cry.

Apparently Hyundai didn’t do much consumer testing with the 2001 Sonata.  Like it or loath it, their bold Fluidic Sculpture design theme that debuted with Tucson is a traffic stopper.  For the record I’m on board with it.  The strong swoopy lines certainly recall the “4-door coupe” theme of the Mercedes-Benz CLS.  Parked next to each it’s easy to see where the Hyundai gets its inspiration from.  The phrase “good artists borrow, great artists steal” comes to mind.  That’s not criticism.  Stealing means making something yours and Sonata is at once familiar and fresh.  

Paul Newman was right

The late actor said “good looks might get you in the door but if you can’t do the job you won’t be asked back”.  How true.  Sonata is a mid-sized family sedan competing in the fiercest segment in the US market and for years sales have been dominated by you-know-who, Camry and Accord.  They’re still sales heavyweights but others are challenging them including Korean and American brands waking from their slumber. 

The previous generation Sonata was certainly no slouch.  Owners crow about the terrific value and that remains with the all-new one (generation 6 if you can believe it).  Prices start at $19,915 with a 6-speed manual transmission.  My GLS tester with 6-speed automatic, optional navigation system and “Preferred Equipment” package stickers for $23,365.  Still a very good deal.  Bluetooth handsfree and iPod integration are not extras, they’re standard. 

You’ll never miss the 6

All Sonatas are powered by 4-cylinder engines.  Dropping the V6 allowed engineers to shave off 150 pounds of structure needed to support a heavier engine.  That and lots of ultra-high strength steel give Sonata the best power-to-weight ratio in its class.  For now all of them are motivated by a 2.4-liter direct-injected unit producing 198 HP.  The 6-speed automatic with manual shift mode is not only smooth and silky it’s Hyundai’s own design.  

A 2.0-liter turbo model packing 274 horsepower and the SE’s firmer suspension will arrive in November.  A hybrid with a total of 209 HP, unique grille and tailamps, and an average fuel economy of 38 MPG is slated for December. 

Afraid the base 4 cylinder is too wimpy?  Don’t be.  With satisfying torque off the line 0-60 briskly happens in around 7.5 seconds.  Ride quality is poised, comfortable and moderately quiet.  EPA rates fuel economy at 22 city, 35 highway, as good as it gets in this class.

Enthusiasts will recognize the electric power steering to be a bit isolated but overall Sonata does a nice job of keeping the general population happy.  Tuning radius is quite good and the anti-lock disk brakes are solid with minimal body dive during panic stops.

There’s style inside too 

The exterior is dramatic but it’s the interior that an owner sees the most of.  Here the ambience is often a grade higher than the competition.  Materials, many of them soft to the touch, look and feel good save for a seam on the steering wheel that constantly annoys my fingers.  Vent controls get an elegant Volvo-like selector, blue instrument panel lighting is classy, and there are plenty of storage nooks for sunglasses, phones and iPods.  Order satellite navigation and the sound gets upgraded to a decent Dimension audio system (Hyundai’s own product) with XM radio.  Limited models have HD radio receivers.  Visibility may be good but like many sedans these days the tail is raised for better aerodynamics.  GLS Sonatas do not get a backup camera like Limited models.

Gripes are few.  A few passengers note that they feel like they’re sitting too deep in the front passenger seat which doesn’t adjust for height (the driver’s powered chair has it). Crisp gauges look nice but reflect in the upper windshield at night.  Only higher trims get sunroofs, and auto climate control is restricted to the Limited model.  For what it’s worth at 5’1” my petite wife finds the the front seat just barely gets her within reach of the throttle pedal.

Sonata’s passenger room slots in between Camry and Accord so space is not a problem.  Most everybody in the carpool gang will be comfortable in the back seat with its ample legroom.  Put the shorter person in the middle though, there’s a raised seating position. Both seatbacks get map pockets and there’s a folding armrest but no power port to charge the kids electronics.

1,800 bundles of the 2-ply

Grab the party hats and horns, this is the 300th time I’ve done the TP test.  It’s been 7 years of people staring blankly at me while hauling a dozen bundles of bath tissue out of Costco.  At an average of 6 packs per trunk that works out to 1,800 bundles and nearly 65,000 individual rolls.  Averaging the cost over the years it comes to $27,000, the cost of a well equipped Sonata.  Special thanks to the folks at Warehouse #1 who let me borrow the stuff weekly. 

Gooseneck hinge arms politely raise the lid when popped from the fob but can squish things in a fully loaded trunk.   That would be a lot of stuff though, Sonata’s cargo hold effortlessly handles 7 packs, much better than average.  Also, not all back seats in the mid-size sedan class split when folding to max out hauling space (talking to you Accord).

Hard to argue with

Historically, Hyundai has grabbed market share by selling bang for the buck transportation and a solid warranty. Sonata reaches past that formula offering owners sweeping original style (even though designers of the CLS and perhaps Volkswagen CC would argue that point).  No doubt both of Hyundai’s Genesis models and Santa Fe are great vehicles but Sonata is pretty much a grand slam.  It’s hardly a surprise that Hyundai is straining to keep up with demand for this sedan and the equally curvy Tucson crossover.  Lingering memories of the poorly made Excell are fading, it’s time to understand this is a car company that’s on it’s A-game.

There’s a dizzying amount of product to shop in this segment-  Camry, Accord, Fusion, Malibu, Altima, Kizashi, Regal, Gallant, Passat, Optima and Mazda6 all want your hard earned cash.  It’s tough to argue with Hyundai’s performance/style/value proposition.  If that doesn’t seal the deal there’s the excellent 10 year warranty.  Mid-sized sedan shoppers only cheat themselves by leaving Sonata off their test drive list.