Let the Mid-Size Sedan Wars Begin

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2012 Hyundai Sonata.

When it comes to passenger cars in the U.S., the mid-size sedan segment dominates. Sure, we can get all excited about the latest sporty coupe, big luxury sedan, or ultra-efficient purpose-built hybrid, but when it comes to sheer volume, the good old 4-door family car leads the way.

Twenty twelve will be a major year for the mid-size sedan, with several newly-revised models debuting between now and December. The Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, and Honda Accord will all roll into their respective makers’ showrooms with new styling and new technology. We also just got a new VW Passat, which seeks to be more of a player in the sales race.

And this past fall, Toyota completely revised their vaunted Camry, perpetually the best-selling car in the country. Period. Not best-selling mid-size car, but best-selling car of any type. (It’s not the best-selling vehicle, as that honor goes to the Ford F-Series pickup truck, which handily trounces the Camry and all other cars year after year.)

But while Toyota played it really safe with the 2012 Camry’s styling, Hyundai went a different direction with its 2011 Sonata, still looking fresh and sleek even though it’s about to be the oldest design in the segment. Hyundai has made a conscious decision to be the style leader in the segment. The 2013 Malibu and Fusion are raising the styling bar as well, in hopes that Toyota is wrong, and that mid-size buyers really do want a car that looks good, in addition to the other attributes expected of a modern mid-size sedan.

I recently got to revisit the Sonata, as I needed to demo a car that has Hyundai’s new BlueLink system. (It’s effectively their answer to GM’s OnStar, providing everything from emergency response to concierge service for a tiered structure of annual fees.) To my delight, the car Hyundai sent over wasn’t a full-zoot, top-of-the-line example, but a value-priced GLS trim model.

While my initial exposure to the Sonata was in a Limited trim model with everything but the kitchen sink, that version starts to push the $30,000 mark if you load it to the gills with the turbo engine and navigation system. The GLS is the entry car, available for under twenty grand if you like to shift your own gears via a 6-speed manual transmission. Choose an automatic GLS, and you’re just barely over $20,000.

So does that mean the basic Sonata is a “stripper”? Hardly. Before they decided to emphasize styling, Hyundai’s mantra was value. In other words, more car for less money compared to the competition. In this case, things like electronic stability control, Bluetooth hands-free phone link and remote lock/unlock are part of the long list of standard features.

Presumably because they don’t want their press vehicles being photographed with the standard 16” wheels with silver plastic wheel covers, Hyundai chose to equip this particular car with the Popular Equipment Package, which includes not only a handsome set of aluminum wheels, but a power driver’s seat and a few other things for the whopping price of … $750.

The GLS is really a delight to use in everyday driving. The 2.4 liter four cylinder engine is smooth and peppy, and the 6-speed automatic keeps you in the right gear at all times, especially where fuel efficiency is concerned. This car is rated at 24 mpg in city driving and 35 on the highway. Considering this is an impressively spacious car, that’s an impressive number.

The seats are comfortable, the controls are well laid out, and the Sonata is reasonably quiet. I could see this being a nice long-term commuter car, especially considering its 10 year / 100,000 mile warranty and $21,545 bottom line price.

And here comes the competition, each vying for a piece of that lucrative mid-size sedan sales pie. Styling, value, and fuel efficiency will be contested, and all for the better. Let the contest begin.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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