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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.

No one really knows if this latest wave of family sedans - the new intermediate cars - will bring back the families who have been steadily turning away from mid-size sedans, seeking something else for household chores. It could be that the intermediate car segment is suffering a slow and steady death. It could be that these buyers are permanently making the move to smaller cars and compact SUVs.

But most auto makers plan to make a fight of it with the only thing that matters to consumers - new and better products.

2010 NISSAN ALTIMA

Price range: $23,798-$31,898

The deal: $4,000 73-month term extended-term trading dollars, factory-to-dealer rebate

The story: Nissan updated the 2010 Altima with a different hood, grille and wheels, and then tweaked the interior. That's what the industry calls a facelift.

Nissan sells the Altima with a choice of four-cylinder and V-6 engines. Regardless of engine, the Altima delivers the kind of cornering confidence and ride comfort that gets the typical road test reviewer all worked up, hot and bothered.

Consumer Reports is very excited about the four-cylinder Altima, but Nissan's V-6 is an excellent, satisfying piece of engineering. Moreover, the CVT is tuned differently in the V-6. This makes it more pleasant to drive than the four-banger.

While the nuts and bolts story is good, the cloth trim and upholstery in the Altima could be better. As it is, they look pretty inexpensive. The Altima's seats could use smoother padding, too.

On the other hand, the cabin is big - particularly in back where rear legroom is excellent. However, there is no middle head restraint in the rear. Nissan has wisely designed in plenty of little storage spaces and all the knobs and controls work with a satisfying precision.

The Altima should not be overlooked if you're looking at family sedans - especially so given Nissan has slapped on a rare incentive to sweeten the deal.

2010 FORD FUSION

Price range: $22,799-$35,299

The deal: $1,500 factory-to-dealer rebate and $1,000 Recycle Your Ride factory-to-customer rebate. In addition, Ford of Canada has launched its Employee Pricing promotion, further reducing sticker prices well below the MSRP (manufacturer's suggested retail price) quoted above.

The story: Ford's promise is that its cars will sip fuel with the best of them and they will not break down. You'll like driving Fords more than Toyotas and Hondas and Chevys, too, says Ford. And you'll be safe, based on crash test scores.

If you believe the research from the likes of Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates and others, Ford has clearly turned the corner on quality. The vast majority of its vehicles are "recommended" picks by CR. J.D. Power's long-term dependability study ranks Ford above average, and Power's recent Initial Quality Study has Ford tops among mainstream brands.

For the record, Ford offers three different engines with the 2010 Fusion and all-wheel drive is also available, unlike all the competition save the Subaru Legacy.

The performance Fusion is the Sport with its 263-hp, 3.5-litre V-6. There is also a 3.0-litre V-6 (240 hp), but it's the least desirable among this power plant trio. Seven out of 10 Canadians, perhaps more, are most likely to get the four-banger and it's a solid choice.

In all the Fusions, Ford has managed to minimize wind and road noise. In driving, this is one of the more responsive four-doors. The four-cylinder (175 hp) and 3.0-litre V-6 versions have electronic power-assisted steering. This shrinks the turning radius and helps fuel economy. Steering feel isn't bad, either, especially for electric steering. It's not heavy nor is it numb. The six-speed manual transmission has a precise and easy motion, while the automatic was smooth and quick. .

The car looks pretty good, too, though this is not a dramatic design. The cabin is handsome and functional and trunk space is more than adequate. All in all, the Fusion is a very good four-door, one from which buyers can expect reliable service and very good fuel economy.

2011 SUZUKI KIZASHI

Price: $29,995

The deal: 0.0 per cent financing for three years.

The story: The Kizashi (pronounced: Key-zash-ee) has only been on sale for a few months and has yet to catch fire with a large number of buyers. Suzuki has limited marketing resources, so much of the future success of the Kizashi will depend on word-of-mouth, rather than paid advertising.

There is quite a bit to talk about here, too. Sure, the Kizashi is a tad smallish for a mid-size, but the car is loaded with features and has an aggressive exterior design that includes a sharp front end, a well-proportioned profile with a sweeping roofline, and a slightly higher back end. At the very rear you'll find an arching deck lid and two big exhaust tips.

Under the clamshell-type hood is a 2.4-litre, inline-four-cylinder engine that makes 180 horsepower. Suzuki sells a front-drive version in the United States, but in Canada only the all-wheel-drive version is available. The continuously variable transmission helps fuel economy (9.3 litres/100 km city, 6.8 highway).

The cabin, meanwhile, is nicely designed, though not particularly out of the ordinary. Simple silver trim divides the open black cockpit, and all of the touch points feel soft and well-planned. Overall, this Suzuki is comfortable and the AWD system helps it stand out from the crowd. True, Suzuki is better known for motorcycles and mini-cars than AWD sedans, but there is good value here. In short, this is a new entry worth a test drive.

2011 HYUNDAI SONATA

Price range: $22,649-$28,999

The deal: $500 in Clean Air Cash factory-to-customer rebate plus 0.9 per cent financing for five years.

The story: Hyundai now has a sedan capable of taking on the top sellers in the segment, including the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. The Sonata is well-priced and feels solid and well-built. The last version of the Sonata had very good quality and there's no reason to think this one won't follow in those tracks. For buyers who want something a little jazzier, a little out of the ordinary, hybrid and turbo-powered versions are coming, too.

On the other hand, Hyundai no longer offers a six-cylinder Sonata and that may be an issue with some buyers. Hyundai types feel the Sonata's standard 2.4-litre four-banger with direct fuel injection is plenty of engine for the vast majority of family buyers.

Indeed, direct injection is a premium technology. It boosts power and fuel economy by precisely metering gasoline into the cylinder at exactly the proper time. The Sonata's engine is rated at 198 hp in a field of rival fours typically sporting 170 to 190 hp. And fuel economy comes in at 9.4 litres/100 km in the city, 5.7 on the highway with its six-speed automatic transmission.

Not to be overlooked is the Sonata's cabin. It's as well done as anything in this class and better than many. The controls operate with a firm feel, white and silver markings on the gauges look sporty (though in certain lighting they are washed out) and the seats are well-padded, though the cloth upholstery is not particularly rich.

Overall, this Sonata is refined, pleasant to drive, stylish and comfortable. The six-generation remake looks like a success. Hyundai is trying hard here to make the case that a family sedan need not be boring.

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