Hyundai Sonata’s power, price are music to the ears

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

AFFORDABLE SOUL  |  Sonata turns Hyundai’s upscale Genesis into a well-priced powerhouse with style.
AFFORDABLE SOUL | Sonata turns Hyundai’s upscale Genesis into a well-priced powerhouse with style.

If some of the major players in the mid-size sedan market don’t get it into gear quickly, they’re going to be looking at the tailpipes of a Korean juggernaut leaving them in a cloud of unhappiness. Hyundai is finished playing nice.

The 2010 Sonata takes all of Hyundai’s upscale Genesis sedan goodness and moves it down a rung for the rest of us. The car is beautiful, powerful and loaded with tech. Most important, it has soul. Get an earful of this symphony.

Mercedes pioneered fast-raked four-door sedans with coupe rooflines when it introduced the CLS, but the Sonata makes the fetching shape affordable. High doorsills, narrow window slits, and tapered trunk give the illusion of a tight coupe, but there’s plenty of space for four and a pinch inside.

A prominent chrome strip up the beltline is a little old-world Buick, but it looks as sharp here as it did on the Park Avenue in its day. A large chrome grille has a hint of Toyota Avalon; it and the hood look like they were shaped by water over centuries. Large 17-inch alloy wheels complete the car’s sporting character.

A surprise to some might be the Sonata is not available with a V6 engine. Truth is, it doesn’t need one. Twenty years ago, V8 engines barely made 200 horsepower. My 1989 Corvette, one of the fastest and most powerful cars of its day, generates 245-HP from a 5.7-liter V8. Ten years ago, V6 engines produced around 200 horses without turbos.

Now, the Hyundai Sonata’s direct-injected four-cylinder engine produces that much power. With a turbo, output jumps to 274-HP! You will not miss the extra cylinders, and will salivate over fuel economy ratings of 22/35-MPG city/hwy.

I’m not sure why everybody crinkles their noses up in high-snoot when I tell them there is no V6 option. Their unwillingness to look at four-cylinder cars completely cracks me up. It is a ridiculous position to take. Look at horsepower, torque, and performance by all means. But who cares how many cylinders are under the hood? It’s just stupid! There, I’ve said it; write letters.

Getting over cylinder envy is helped along by smooth power and a crisp six-speed manumatic transmission.

Back in the dark ages, it was hard to get power out of a four-cylinder engine because it was always over-revving or bogging down without enough transmission cogs. Today’s six-speed and higher transmissions shift seamlessly between gears to always find the right power band. As a result, cars like the Sonata rarely feel under-powered and cruise happily at Interstate speeds. Sonata comes with a six-speed automatic with manual shift mode so you can let the computer go about its business without interference or you can snap through the gears as you please.

Given the chassis’ willingness to play, you may want to. Sonatas are not Mustangs, so there are limits, but the four-wheel independent suspension soaks up bumps and backroads with aplomb. Steering feel is firm and communicative, with a very positive feel when it moves even a little off-center. Over rough pavement, nothing upsets the body structure or suspension.

There is a feeling of precision, with a healthy dose of soul that is lacking in many competitors. Building a solid car is one thing, but making one that is actually enjoyable to drive, is exhibited in Hyundai’s new level of maturity.

Designers gave the Sonata an interior worthy of its smooth exterior and spirited powertrain. Equal parts Star Trek and Corvette, the dash wraps around the driver and front passenger, enveloping them in luxury cocoons.

Combined with the high windowsills, you feel as if you are tucked down inside a high-performance sports car.

Large analog gauges, stylized four-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel and comfy leather seats complete the illusion.

The test car came loaded with push-button starting, automatic climate control, heated seats, Bluetooth cell phone connectivity, USB port for MP3 players (allows them to be controlled through the car’s knobs and buttons), rear backing camera, navigation and XM Satellite Radio. Our car also had the deep burgundy interior package that colored the seats and steering wheel spokes to match. Black piano finish on the doors and center console flashed elegance.

Hyundai may be a Korean company, but the car is very American. It was designed in California, engineered in Ann Arbor, Mich., engines are produced in the U.S., and the car is assembled in Montgomery, Ala. The transition over the last decade from being purely Korean to significantly American coincides with the car’s popularity here, and its overall excellence. Hyundai means business and has invested billions on research, development, design and manufacturing to make the point. One drive in the Sonata and you will come to believe the investment was worth it. This should all be music to your ears.

Base Sonatas start at $19,195, and Limiteds begin at $25,295, but our loaded test model came to a very reasonable $28,215. Competitors include the Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Chrysler 300.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 8, 2010.