I have to confess: I hadn't been totally sold on Hyundai. Yes, it offered superb value -- more equipment than you expected for the price. But the designs were at first too quirky, and then too bland -- frankly imitative of its competitors. Hyundai seemed more a clever follower than a market leader.
The 2009 Genesis sedan was the first Hyundai that showed real originality as well as a sophisticated aesthetic. But I wanted to see more, to make sure it wasn't just a one-off, or a flash in the pan.
Now that I've seen the 2011 Sonata, I'm ready to move Hyundai into the top tier of the world's automakers. The Sonata builds on Hyundai's traditional values of solid quality and great value, and adds elegant design inside and out, advanced engine technology, and superb fuel economy.
I am ready to declare the Sonata the leader in the industry's largest and most competitive segment: mid-size cars. To me, it is clearly superior to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu, the Nissan Altima and Mazda 6.
I could go on about the way the Sonata looks and feels: the profile adapted from the Mercedes CLS, the high-quality interior materials, the blue-tinted indicator lights, the suave gear shift assembly.
More important to my mind is the smart thinking behind the four-cylinder Sonata. Since Hyundai decided it wouldn't offer a V-6, the car was engineered specifically to support the smaller engine. That enabled Hyundai to make the car 100 pounds lighter.
A new six-speed automatic transmission is 26.4 lbs lighter than the five-speed it replaces. As a result, the Sonata is lighter than most of its competitors.
At the same time, the 2.4 liter direct injection four puts out 198 horsepower – more than all its major competitors.
The combination of light weight and high horsepower allows Sonata to scoot to 60 miles per hour in 8.1 seconds with an unusually fast tip-in that makes it feel faster.
There are risks here. The Sonata's adventurous exterior may not age well, leading to accelerated design decay.
But the public clearly approves. Hyundai sold more than 18,000 Sonatas in April, versus less than 12,000 of the old model a year ago.
Writes Automotive Lease Guide, the industry's arbiter of residual values: "Hyundai's brand momentum is about the highest in the industry, which means that the new Sonata will likely become one of the best selling cars in the segment."
And as the final evidence of the Sonata's inherent appeal, I've saved for the last a fact that used to be the lead in any Hyundai review.
$25,295 -- very nicely equipped, including leather-wrapped steering wheel and seat surfaces, power sunroof, and proximity key entry.
As tested: $28,418.
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