At last, Hyundai has an entry in the all-important mid-size sedan field - one that is both dramatically styled and more capable than before: the 2011 Sonata, representing a complete redesign.
The new Sonata seems well worth considering, though not a hands-down winner. And bear in mind that the impressions herein are based on a test vehicle that stickered above $28,000 - a top-of-the line "Limited," with a $2,100 navigation / XM radio and rear camera package - but a four-cylinder engine. Hyundai might be best known for cheap cars, but many of its current models can get pricey. The Sonata is not available with six cylinders, though most competitors are.
The four-cylinder engine is, however, new, and I think its 198 hp. will satisfy all but those who often take highway trips with heavy loads or towing a trailer. It offers more power than the standard Accord, Camry, Malibu, Fusion or Altima engines and performs quietly and smoothly while delivering peppy acceleration.
But the EPA's fuel economy estimates of 22 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 on the highway seem optimistic; I averaged 19 mpg in a week of mostly suburban local driving.
Sonatas begin at $19,915 with freight for 2011 for a version with a stick shift. Automatic models start at $20,915.
The Limited tester's interior was as beautiful as it was functional. The split rear seat back can be folded down to accommodate large items of cargo. Just two complaints from this quarter: The fuel gauge doesn't stand out from the others as boldly as it should, and the Sonata's redesign clipped 2.4 inches from rear seat legroom, leaving it short of at least two competitors - the Accord and Camry (but with a larger trunk.) Otherwise, except for a wheelbase stretched by almost three inches, the sixth-generation Sonata is nearly identical dimensionally to its predecessor.
The federal government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn't yet published a safety rating for the 2011 Sonata, but the private Insurance Institute for Highway Safety deems it a "top safety pick" for its protection in frontal, side, rollover and rear-impact crashes.
Hyundai's vehicles have been improving steadily in quality and, as a group, were rated above average in J.D. Power and Associates' latest ranking, released earlier this summer, of customer satisfaction with vehicles in the first three months of ownership. Even the hard-to-please people at Consumer Reports have five Hyundai models on their recommended list - though not including the new Sonata because the magazine has no owner feedback yet on its reliability.
Whether it's the car for you, the new Sonata at least represents another strong entry well worth considering if its quality turns out to be as competitive as its Mercedes-like styling and performance.
2011 Hyundai Sonata
Engine: 2.4-liter, four-cylinder, 198 hp.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Safety: Six air bags; 4-wheel disc brakes w/anti-lock, stability control and brake assist; fog lamps, daytime running lamps, tire pressure monitoring, rear video camera
Place of Assembly: Montgomery, Ala.
Trunk: 16.4 cubic feet
EPA Fuel Economy Estimates: 22 mpg city, 35 mpg highway
Price as Driven: $28,415 with freight
Bottom Line: Nipping at the heels of Accord and Camry.