Hyundai’s Portfolio Keeps Getting Better

Hyundai Motor America

2011 Hyundai Sonata

The Hyundai display at last winter’s Greater Los Angeles Auto Show was quite telling with regards to the company’s status in the auto industry. While many brands reduced the size and pizzazz of their showcases (or weren’t there at all), Hyundai pulled out all the stops, with a dazzling show floor to highlight their newest models.

One of the centerpieces of their exhibit was the 2011 Sonata sedan, which debuted at the auto show and went on sale this past spring. As with other models they’ve introduced in the past couple of years, this one is a top-notch car with no apologies needed. The two previous versions of the mid-size Sonata have been “good,” then “very good,” respectively. The 2011 can now be called “excellent.”

In the past, the Sonata might have been thought of as the car you bought if you couldn’t quite swing the sticker price for a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Now, it’s a standout in its own right, with the new Hyundai winning the recent Cars.com 25,000 Sedan Shootout. The Sonata beat out not only the Accord and Camry, but such other notable cars as the Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion, both of which have won other awards recently.

So Hyundai now has a competitive mid-size sedan at just the right time. Sales of SUVs have waned quite a bit, and many people are now remembering that they used to get by just fine in a nice four-door sedan. The Sonata also has a very strong warranty (100,000 miles on the engine and transmission) which is probably peace of mind to buyers who may have concerns about their personal finances into the future.

One interesting thing about the 2011 Sonata against its competitors is what’s under the hood. Nearly every car in the segment offers a V6 option over the base four cylinder engine. Hyundai has decided that if they offer a good enough four, a larger engine with lesser fuel economy wouldn’t be necessary. So for now, their 198 horsepower four is all you can get. (Variations of the engine will be coming along.)

Hyundai has improved their cars in many areas, and engine smoothness is one of them. The auto industry uses a term called “NVH” which stands for noise, vibration and harshness. Ideally, a car will have very little NVH, but sometimes the less expensive cars do come with a bit of it. (By contrast, companies like Rolls-Royce and Bentley don’t even use the term – it’s a given that their six-figure cars have none.)

So Hyundai’s gotten its act together with smoother engines, a strong warranty, good build quality, and a nice range of models including a luxury line called Genesis. The last thing that needed to be dealt with — in the case of the Sonata anyway — was styling.

If you were to look at a 2010 and a 2011 Sonata side-by-side, you’d be almost blown away by what an improvement the new model is. Gone are slab sides, replaced by sweeping creases that give the car a real sense of grace. The grill is much bolder and more upscale looking, and even the taillights are about as stylish as taillights can be in a mainstream car.

The interior is an even bigger leap forward in style, with flowing shapes, great textures, and even a bit of sportiness that gives the car a definite upscale appearance. I would bet you could remove the emblems and put somebody into the driver’s seat, and I don’t think they’d even guess that it’s a Hyundai. Backhanded compliment? Maybe. But this is how far the company has come with the car.

One of the advantages of only offering a four cylinder engine is the fuel economy figures. Every car company will have to meet stricter federal standards for mileage numbers in about five years, so keeping your fleet fuel efficient is a wise move. Estimates for the Sonata with automatic transmission are 22 mpg city and 35 mpg highway. (The 6-speed manual transmission does better on the city cycle, but I suspect very few buyers will choose it.)

Fuel economy will improve soon enough when a hybrid version of the car debuts, further proof that Hyundai is now a front running car manufacturer. Hybrids are seen as high-tech as well somewhat upscale. There will also be an optional turbo version of the engine even sooner, arriving in showrooms by the end of the year.

You get a lot of car for your money with the Sonata. Base price for the GLS trim with automatic is $20,195. Stepping up to the SE model (which I drove) costs a still reasonable $22,595, or $25,295 with the Navigation and Sunroof Package. (The nav system works very well, and even has the freeway traffic map.) The most you can spend for a Sonata is $27,395, and that would be for the Limited model with everything.

The new Sonata scores on all counts. Great looks; strong warranty; upscale features; and an appealing price point. No more excuses. Hyundai has arrived in the mid-size sedan segment.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.

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