"Surprise and delight" and "fun to drive" are automotive marketing themes even the most rabid advertising copywriter would have been wary of employing to describe Hyundai's Sonata in its early days as a mid-size plodder with aspirations.
But with the arrival of the sixth-generation 2011 models, they can go right ahead and crank up the hyperbole and not feel any doubt about brochure headings such as "Where style and luxury converge" and "The power to be the best" and "The Grace of Nature, in Motion." Okay, the last one might be a little over the top.
We should have seen this one coming. Wait, we did see it coming.
Since its launch here in 1987 as a 1988 model - built briefly in Bromont, Que., some might recall - the Sonata has been slowly evolving into a car that would one day be able to take on the best in the business. If it had arguably just about arrived at that point with the previous generation it most decidedly has with this one.
The styling, although some have sniffed that it's Euro-derived, is simply super, whatever inspired it, a flow of curves and angles that suggest both fluidity and strength dressed up with sparkly headlamp clusters and a touch or two of chrome. Pretty flashy stuff for a family sedan.
The interior "surprises and delights" with its overall look, feel and ambience plus detail touches that suggest a higher price point than the $26,249 that my tester, one up from base GLS model, goes for.
It's not over-adorned, just tastefully done in materials that have a people-friendly feel and a look that says there wasn't too much penny-pinching involved. And small things, such as finding the trunk and fuel-filler-flap buttons on the lower dash rather than the floor, a gear lever gate with backlit blue letters to indicate which position you've selected, neat blue-trimmed instruments and simple-to-use but techy-looking controls on the centre stack all add up to create a sense that you're in something pricier.
The Sonata's cabin is quiet, has plenty of room - although tall folk might find headroom a little lacking in the back - and front seats that offer better-than-average support. The trunk's 464 litres of room should handle the needs of most families.
Typical of Hyundais, the base six-speed manual gearbox GL model ($22,649) is well-equipped with air conditioning, heated front seats, heated outside mirrors, stability and traction control, Bluetooth, illuminated vanity mirrors, decent audio system with steering wheel controls and iPod, USB port and auxiliary plugs, trip computer, power windows and remote keyless entry. Plus ABS brakes and front/side/side curtain airbag systems.
Step up to the GLS and you add a six-speed automatic, neat-looking split-spoke alloy wheels, power driver's seat, fog lights, leather-wrapped wheel, sunroof and windshield de-icer.
Describing this new Sonata as "fun to drive" depends on your interpretation of the phrase. It's no sports sedan, but is competent and more than quick enough. And if you think it's "fun" to pass gas stations rather than other cars it can easily get you giggling. With this generation of Sonata, Hyundai made a bold decision to drop its V-6 option in favour of a pair of fours with some real poke - and in the 2.4's case a low thirst for fuel.
The 2.4-litre currently standard across the range makes 198 hp and 194 lb-ft. Big, in fact class-leading, four-cylinder numbers, thanks to the direct fuel injection technology applied to its Theta II engine. A more powerful version of the turbocharged 2.0-litre four from the Genesis coupe will be available soon.
A six-speed automatic (with shift yourself mode) transmits the 2.4 unit's power to the front wheels - effectively, giving a strong initial acceleration and a suitably rapid accretion of speed for passing or merging. And it is commendably frugal, with ratings of 9.4 litres/100 km city/5.7 highway. It was recording an impressive 6.0 litres/100 km while keeping up with Highway 401 traffic, which would give it a theoretical range of 700 km on a tank of fuel.
Handling was something it took Hyundai a while to get a handle on, but in family sedan terms they've got it about right with the tuning of the Sonata's McPherson strut front/multi-link rear system. Steering has enough feel to make it feel connected, the suspension enough firmness that it responds to change of direction commands positively and damping that allows it to deal with road surface irregularities without becoming flustered.
With this new Sonata, Hyundai has the mid-size sedan concept figured out as well as any of its rivals.
2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS
Type: Mid-size, four-door sedan
Base Price: $26,249; as tested, $27,814
Engine: 2.4-litre, DOHC, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 198 hp/194 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.4 city/ 5.7 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, Subaru Legacy, Mazda6
Buy the oil your manufacturer recommends - your engine will thank you
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