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Nobody asked me but . . .

Hyundai has been selling cars in the US since 1986.  And after a bit of a sputtering start, the last decade has seen years of steady growth for Hyundai in this market.  Starting at a mere 0.6 percent market share in 1998, Hyundai reached 3.0 percent penetration in 2008 and in 2009, a year in which world-wide recession and plummeting auto sales affected virtually every auto maker in this market, Hyundai sales rocketed to a 4.2 percent share of market.

So what has Hyundai been doing right?  Seems like just about everything: Quality products competitively priced.  J.D. Power quality and North American Car of the Year Awards.  Attention grabbing warranty programs.  A job-loss vehicle return program.  Depreciation lower than Toyota and Ford.  High-tech powertrains.  Industry-leading fuel economy.  More standard features than the competition.  Leadership in active and passive safety technologies.  Oh, and did I mention styling?  Say hello to the eye-stopping 2011 Hyundai Sonata.

Not only is the new Sonata state-of-the-art (and frequently beyond) in every category worth mentioning, but also the art of its design statement is beyond anything ever seen in the midsize family sedan segment.  Hyundai calls it fluidic sculpture design.  I simply say, ‘wow.’  At first glance your eyes are attracted to the coupe-like rake of the roof, flowing sleekly and smoothly from the base of the A-post into the decklid in one sweeping arc.  Two key elements of this visuality are a chrome strip extending from the front headlights all the way along the lower edge of the side windows to the rear of the third side window.  This last small triangular piece of glass is useless for outward vision, but it’s critical to the overall design because it allowed Hyundai’s stylists to cleverly complete the sweep of the roof.  There’s no thick C-post to make the rear of the car look heavy and boxy.  Below this chrome strip is a bold character line running from just behind the front wheel opening and sweeping through both door handles all the way to the rear of the car around the taillights and into the decklid.  These elements force your eyes into focusing on the flowing fluidity of the design from nose to tail.

The sporty elegance of the exterior is matched by an interior that makes almost every other midsize sedan look and feel like 1990.  The dash is boldly sculptured with the four vents as key design elements . . . form and function beautifully integrated.  The center stack sweeps gracefully into the console with brushed chrome accents telling your eyes to follow the curves.  You see this same attention to detail in the shaping of the steering wheel openings and the flowing lines of the door panels.  Full marks to Hyundai’s American design team for daring to boldly go where no midsize sedan has ever gone before.

My first thought when someone talks about emphasizing style in a midsize sedan is ‘What about function.’  And the first car that comes to mind is the sharky Ford Taurus.  That was a sedan that sacrificed much of its function and practicality to swoopy design: A low roof line that forced you to duck down during entry and a rear door opening that forced passengers to contort themselves like pretzels to climb into the rear seats.  This is not the case with the Sonata.

Sonata style is also combined with class-leading interior volume.  When I heard this, I started looking for a rabbit with a top hat to pop out of the sunroof.  Hyundai didn’t provide interior dimensions—head, leg, hip or shoulder room—for comparison with other midsize sedans, but they did have both a current Camry and Accord for subjective evaluations of interior space.

Both the 2011 Sonata and the 2010 Honda Accord are rated as “large” cars by the EPA for their interior volumes.  The Accord achieves this rating by virtue of its larger exterior dimensions.  The Sonata by more efficient packaging.  That said, the Accord is roomier inside.  But the only place the Sonata suffers is in rear head room where by my measurements the Accord enjoys about a 2-inch advantage.

The 2010 Camry is rated midsize by the EPA but still has an edge in rear head room of about 1.5 inches compared to the Sonata.  This is the only downside of the Sonata’s swoopy styling that I noted.  Six footers can fit comfortably in the rear of a Sonata.  Whether this is enough for your family and friends is a question only you can answer.

What is not open to question is the Sonata’s value equation.  Model for model the Sonata offers more equipment for less money than the competition.  As one example, the GLS model with automatic has standard Bluetooth hands-free phone interface, USB input, illuminated sun visors with extensions and heated exterior side mirrors, features that are either optional or not available on the Camry, Accord and Altima.  And the savings range from about $1650 to almost $2400 versus the Sonata’s competition.

Every one of the Sonata’s key competitors is offered with a 4-cylinder engine of 2.4-2.5 liters displacement.  Every competitor also offers an optional V6.  But not the Sonata because Hyundai believes its DOHC 2.4-liter with Dual Continuously Variable Valve Timing (DCVVT) and Gasoline Direct Injection (GDI) has more than adequate power.  The Sonata’s inline-4 comes with class-leading horsepower, torque and fuel economy: 198 bhp @ 6300 rpm, 184 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm and EPA estimates of 22 mpg city and 35 mpg highway.  This engine is matched to an all-new Hyundai developed 6-speed automatic, which is more than 26 pounds lighter than its 5-speed predecessor and is standard on sporty SE and luxury Limited models and optional on the GLS.

So how does this powertrain combo perform in the real world?  Very well thank you.  Our Southern California driving route consisted of a mix of freeways, city driving and many miles of twisting secondary roads with elevations reaching 3000 feet.  None of the three different Sonata models I drove, all with automatic, ever felt overmatched.  I had power, torque and the right gear for every condition.  The engine is smooth and quiet with only a bit of 4-cylinder buzz as you approach max revs at 6500.  It’s quick off the line and flexible throughout the rev range, the automatic providing seamless gear changes up and down.

Up until 4-5 years ago it would have been hard to write a sentence that connected the words fun-to-drive with Hyundai.  The 2011 Sonata is just the latest example of how competent Hyundai chassis tuners have become in understanding the wants and needs of the American consumer.  Caution: the Sonata, even in its sporty SE livery, is not a sports sedan.  Rather it is a midsize family sedan with balanced ride and handling that fit nicely in the middle of its competition with the Camry and Accord falling on the softer, more plush side of the equation and the Fusion and the Altima on the firm side.  The Sonata is perfectly content to drive you down the freeway sedately.  Yet on a twisty road it will reward an enthusiast with well weighted steering featuring good on-center feel, smooth turn-in and response that precisely follows your every input.  The ride is supple and well controlled, assisted in this regard by the Sonata’s independent, multi-link rear suspension.

The sportier SE model features stiffer springs, shocks and rear anti-roll bar along with 18-inch alloy wheels and performance tires.  The results are quicker steering response, even flatter cornering and a noticeably firmer ride.  But no shake, rattle or vibration issues thanks to body structure that is even more rigid in bending and torsion than the previous Sonata’s already stiff platform.

The great Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige didn’t get a chance to pitch in the Major Leagues because of the color barrier until he was well over 40 years old.  Paige estimated that during his career he pitched more than 2600 games.  A 300-win career is a guaranteed E-ticket ride to Cooperstown for any pitcher playing in the Bigs.  Paige had 300 shutouts, 55 no hitters and countless other wins.  But then, who was keeping score?  Paige was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971, but is easily as famous for his philosophy and wit as Yankee catcher Yogi Berra.

One Paige quote: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” is appropriate to every 2011 Hyundai Sonata competitor.  If the Toyotas, Hondas, Fords, Chevrolets and Nissans of this world haven’t been looking closely at their rear view mirrors these fast 10 years, it won’t surprise me if they have been blindsided by the 2011 Sonata as it has passed them by.  Now it’s the Sonata that’s being chased.  And Hyundai has written a new paige in the history of midsize sedans in America.

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