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2011 Hyundai Sonata (Hyundai)
2011 Hyundai Sonata (Hyundai)

Mid-size cars

The new breed of family cars Add to ...

Hyundai's new family sedan, the 2011 Sonata, is hot. With more than 1,400 sales last month, only Ford's Fusion is hotter.

The Fusion is the No. 1 selling mid-size car in the country, with 8,106 sold through the end of May (the last full month for which sales figures for individual models are available). The Sonata, of course, has been completely re-done for the 2011 model year, while the Fusion got a major makeover last year - "new" sells in the car business.

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Now, no one at Ford or Hyundai is declaring victory, and no one is boldly predicting a permanent changing of the world order in family sedans. That would be premature boasting by the latest-family car hotties. But the Sonata and Fusion are certainly offering serious competition to the traditional segment leaders, Honda's Accord and Toyota's Camry. The Hyundai, in particular, is getting seriously noticed.

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"The (2011 Hyundai) Sonata," says David Champion, head of auto testing at Consumer Reports, "has been transformed from a humdrum car into a really nice, stylish car with impressive fuel economy, all at a competitive price."

All true. Hyundai has more of the same coming, too. There's still a turbo model and a hybrid Sonata due later this year to further boost sales. Hyundai's technology story will then add to the design buzz being created by the Sonata's racy looks. Steve Kelleher, president and CEO of Hyundai Canada, naturally argues that his car's "styling presence" is shaking up the mid-size car market.

If so, it's about time. This segment has been declining for years, even as the latest entries have become increasingly bloated and bland. Over the last decade, mid-size family cars have gone from 40.2 per cent of the car market, to about 23 per cent. Last year, a year in which car sales were battered by the recession, mid-size sedan sales were down about 20 per cent. So in the big picture, mid-size sales are fading. It's been a decade-long trend.

There is only one sure way to reverse such a trend in the car business - improve the products, make them more interesting, more fuel-efficient, more powerful, more loaded with useful features and do all that while holding the line on pricing. Perhaps even reducing prices.

That seems to be happening. Beyond the Sonata and Fusion, consider the recently face-lifted Nissan Altima. CR's testers say they the like the four-cylinder Altima even more than the redesigned Sonata. Both are rated "Excellent," in CR parlance, but CR's scoring system says the Altima is just a little more "Excellent."

Then there is the Suzuki Kizashi, a totally new vehicle this year. CR rates it Excellent, as well. All three, the Sonata, Altima and Kizashi, are family rides with "agile handling, a steady ride, good accommodations, easy-to-use controls, and impressive performance and fuel economy," suggests CR. I completely agree.

The Sonata has enjoyed plenty of buzz this year, and Hyundai has spent a small fortune promoting it everywhere, including in Super Bowl ads. On the other hand, the Altima often gets overlooked in family-car comparos. It shouldn't. This one is worth a look-see and has been for years.

As for the Sonata, until recently it was strictly a "settle-for" car. That is, buyers would often want something else, but they'd "settle for" the Sonata because it was a cheapo. But I agree with CR in that the redesigned Sonata "is a major leap ahead of its predecessor."

The Kizashi? It's capable, but it's stretching things to suggest this is the full-blown bargain sports sedan that Suzuki suggests it is. On top of that, the Kizashi also is a little small for its class. But dynamically, Suzuki has something about which to boast.

All this family-car action from the new upstarts - Hyundai in particular - is putting pressure on the other big auto makers. Toyota recently gave the Camry a freshening, but a major update is not due until 2012. Honda has just announced a raft of updates for the 2011 Accord. Volkswagen is coming with a brand-new mid-size car, one bigger than the current Passat. The un-named mid-size VW will go on sale in the summer of 2011, built at a new factory in Nashville. Kia plans to introduce a new Optima for the 2011 model year to replace the current Magentis.

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