Somewhere between Bromont, Que., and Montgomery, Ala., the Hyundai Sonata stepped beyond the generic and picked up a dance beat.
The results are spectacular. The 2011 Sonata, manufactured in Alabama, designed in California, may be the finest sedan in the mid/full-sized category.
My test car, a Sonata T Limited, is a powerful, premium model with a $33,499 price tag. Such adjectives and such a figure would have been unimaginable in the four previous generations of Sonatas since the car's made-in-Canada debut.
The first Sonata was old at birth - based as it was on outdated Mitsubishi technology. The decision to manufacture it at Bromont, Que., seemingly sincere South Korean executives running Hyundai's Canadian operation said at its introduction in 1988, was based on Canada having proved itself a special friend - due of course to our near-insatiable appetite for the company's cut-rate Pony.
They failed to understand most consumers would dismiss the Sonata after a single test drive. The plant closed after four years.
More recently, the ex-Sonata factory assembled wind turbines - until AAER Inc. went bankrupt last year. Obviously Bromont is nobody's field of dreams, although it seemed so when Hyundai opened the place with grand expectations.
But Hyundai management was wise enough to continue improving succeeding generations of Sonatas to get to this point of rivalling as best-of-class.
And the class, surprisingly enough, is full-size. What full-size means today, as determined by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency interior volume standards, is not what it once implied - room for three adults to sit beside each other as in an about-to-be-extinct Lincoln Town Car - but it does mean Sonata is unusually roomy for four and their luggage.
You can (almost) stretch out in the back seat. The driver's seat is powered, the steering wheel tilts and telescopes. Even in the back, the upholstery impresses as thicker, more supportive than the norm.
A single test drive in this car, in contrast with the original, is likely to be captivating.
In blizzard conditions in particular, the Sonata inspired confidence. There was a total absence of any pulling right or left as is characteristic of most front-drive cars, and stability control inhibited any skids on the snow-covered surfaces before they were felt. The Pirelli Sotto Zero winter tires played a part, to be sure, but Hyundai engineers certainly deserve applause for having erased any trace of annoying torque steer.
This is especially noteworthy with 274 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque powering the front wheels in the case of the Sonata T. Hyundai has dropped V-6 engines from the Sonata line, even as competitors continue offering the smoother sixes, arguing that superior fuel efficiency is on offer from the lighter fours. An added attraction is this engine runs on regular, not premium fuel.
Our fuel consumption averaged 12.7 litres/100 km in our city area driving. Unimpressive as that is, snow-covered roads and cold temperatures provide partial explanation. In summer conditions, with snow tires in storage, this Sonata T Limited would come closer to its city rating of 9.3/100.
We're left regretting that we didn't drive a non-turbocharged Sonata. The regular 198-hp engine undoubtedly delivers sufficient performance for all those drivers who aren't particularly fascinated by the T's acceleration of 4.0 seconds to 60 km/h and 7.3 to 100 km/h in our stopwatch testing. A Sonata Limited sells for $30,999, compared to $33,449 for the car we're driving, comparatively equipped including the top-of-the-line navigation system.
In addition to being priced $2,450 lower than the muscular T, the normal Sonata Limited has a softer suspension and lighter steering. Many drivers will rate the comfort levels afforded by the lower-pried model to be more significant than the Sonata T's superior corner-carving ability.
Either Limited - turbo or normally-aspirated engine - comes with a ton of standard equipment. The T rides on 18-inch alloy wheels, an inch beyond the less powerful car, but both utilize Hyundai's latest six-speed automatic transmission, and boast such details as a wiper de-icer, dual zone climate control, heated seats front and back, and iPod and USB input. A back-up camera is included with the navigation package.
The least-expensive Sonata, the GL - $22,649 or $24,249 with the six-speed automatic - includes keyless entry, air-conditioning, cruise control, and if you don't care too much about the wheels being steel instead of alloy, may make more sense - although you do need to turn your head when reversing.
The first Sonata I tested in October, 1988, sold for $15,490. It blew in the wind, wind and engine noise were alarming above 110 km/h, and the wipers lifted at higher speeds. Hyundai Canada expected production to reach 100,000 annually by 1991 when the Kornuck car would be exported to the U.S. and possibly Europe. Ancient history, all of it, forgotten in the glow of the excellence of the current car.
2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Limited
Type: Four-door sedan
Base Price: $31,749; as tested, $35,064 (including $1,565 freight)
Engine: 2.0-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder with direct fuel injection and variable valve timing
Horsepower/torque: 274 hp/269 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.3 city/6.0 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Nissan Maxima, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry V-6, Honda Accord V-6, Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion
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