Reviews

2011 Hyundai Sonata Driving Impressions


With the slightest tweaks of suspension elements and the different tire/wheel sizes, Hyundai has managed to deliver a different ride in each of the Sonata's three trim levels, each well fitted to its target buyer.

The Sonata GLS delivers a smooth ride but with some road noise and not the crispest turn in at modest speeds. The GLS steering feels light, needing corrections in gusty crosswinds. Ride quality in the Sonata SE models is firmer, the steering slightly heavier, the combined effect of different tuning of the power steering pump and shorter, stiffer tire sidewalls. The latter sharpens the steering response. The SE models' thicker rear stabilizer bar keeps the car on a more even keel when it's gingerly pushed along winding, two lane mountain roads. The ride is not as wallow free as that of the Hyundai Genesis Coupe but impressive nevertheless for a sedan of this heft and price. Ride quality in the Sonata Limited is more supple than gentle but clearly not firm; again, it's the Goldilocks syndrome. To the naked ear, the Limited seems quieter, too, although that may be due to a higher grade of interior trim and materials. Fusion buyers likely are the only ones who will get a more comfortable and a quieter ride or, if they pick the right model, a better handling sedan.

The non-turbocharged SE's two additional horsepower and pound feet of torque aren't enough to be detected by an uncalibrated posterior, but the car does feel sprightlier; perchance it's the power of suggestion, eh? That added power, by the way, wasn't a design target but merely the unexpected benefit from bolting on honest to goodness dual exhausts and the lower backpressure that came with the freer breathing. What is noticeable in the non-turbocharged and non-hybrid Sonatas is a curious, free wheeling like sensation that sometimes follows lifting off the throttle after a brief acceleration, like on a mild grade, when a slowing of the car would be expected but doesn't happen quite as and when expected. It was nothing that unnerved or lingered beyond the briefest of moments, but it still was there.

Gear changes in the automatic happened smoothly, being tangible, but subdued, in full auto or driver-selected via the Shiftronic. Response to throttle pressure was prompt across the full line of Sonata models with shifts necessitated by changes in load effected almost invisibly, dropping down a gear or two without the driver not noticing until seeing that the tachometer needle had jumped a couple thousand rpm. Kudos to Hyundai, too, for sticking with the same automatic for the Hybrid, in lieu of the gearless, continuously variable transmission the competition bolts to their hybrid powerplants. A hybrid with a transmission that shifts gears just like in a real car adds immeasurably to the driving experience.

The 2.0T, no surprise, was the most energetic, yet without fussy power surges. Those 74 additional horses and 85 pound-feet of torque over the base four-cylinder will push the 2.0T's speedometer needle well into the three digits. The 2.0T does not, however, deliver Germanic, autobahn-competent sureness; at 130 mph on Hyundai's high-speed track in Korea, the 2.0T evidenced some twitchiness and vulnerability to cross breezes.

At the opposite end of the eco-scale lies the Hybrid. Hyundai states that the Hybrid can reach 62 miles per hour in pure electric mode before the engine lights off and takes over; this is optimal, though, requiring all accessories to be turned off, pavement as flat as an Interstate in Kansas and the most gentle pressure on the throttle. In normal driving, with only minimal, but necessarily conscious attention to throttle pressure, 30 mph on the motor alone can be achieved. Transitions between motor alone and motor/engine combined were nigh impossible to discern. A thoughtful, fuel-saving touch is a coasting function that shuts down the engine when there's no pressure on the throttle, even at highway speeds.

Braking response was strong and linear on all trim levels and powertrains. The ample dead pedal gave good bracing for the left foot on twisty mountain roads and during long, high speed runs on the interstates. Speaking of which, during one leg of the test drive in Southern California east of San Diego that covered about 90 miles split about evenly between both types of roads, a Sonata GLS returned 31 miles per gallon while averaging 65 miles per hour, including several extended runs at 75 and 80. The Hybrid managed a very respectable 47 mpg over a similar but shorter route, about 50 miles, and driven much the same way.

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