Driving enthusiasts love to hate the Toyota Camry. Yet, despite the company’s current troubles, it remains the best-selling car in the United States. Hyundai would love to steal the crown, or at least tens of thousands of customers. So it recently launched a totally redesigned 2011 Sonata and will be advertising it heavily. Should Toyota be concerned?
Both the young (my kids) and the old (my parents) were captivated by the beauty of the Camry. Not the sheetmetal, mind you. They probably didn’t notice the shape of the car. The bulbous exterior was a great leap forward for a Camry four years ago—engineers might have designed the previous generation sedan—but at this point it is a generation behind current automotive fashion. The good angles it does possess (not the front view even with this year’s redesigned grille) have been overexposed through its omnipresence. And the XLE’s small, multispoked alloys don’t flatter the car—the SE looks considerably better. Rather, my family was captivated by the paint, a highly metallic dark green.
The Sonata’s paint options are relatively ordinary. But its swoopy exterior design marks a sharp departure from that of the handsome but utterly forgettable 2006-2010 Sonata. What the Mercedes-Benz CLS did for luxury sedans—bring coupe-like style to the segment—Hyundai hopes to do for midsize family sedans. Some resemblance can be seen to various luxury sedans (CLS, A6, ES), but Hyundai has also taken far more risks here than with the Genesis. An arching roofline, a couple of strong, curving character lines, and a ribbon of chrome trim that connects the beltline to the headlights could have combined in the side view to form a complicated mess. And yet these design elements manage to form a whole that is both cohesive and distinctive, and at once upscale and sporty. Even the fashionably oversized grille works. Most important of all: unlike the Genesis sedan, the new Sonata stands out on a crowded road—even without fancy paint. In comparison, the Toyota looks stodgy.
Upholstered in light gray leather, the Camry XLS interior includes nothing analogous to the exterior’s paint. Its design is thoroughly conventional circa 2006. One exception: the audio controls to the right of the nav screen are a bit of a reach, a common sin these days.
As with the exterior, the new Sonata’s interior is much more up-to-date and stylish than the Camry’s. The instrument panel includes some artful curves, but is cleanly designed. All of the buttons are easy to reach, and they helpfully vary in shape and size. As with the exterior, Hyundai appears to have benchmarked luxury sedans rather than other family sedans. Controls beneath the nav screen mimic an Infiniti’s, while the climate controls mimic a Volvo’s. The anthropomorphic control for directing airflow is just a single button rather than the three found in a Volvo, though, so it captures the Swede’s style more than its functionality. After sampling all three trim levels—cloth GLS, cloth/leather SE (sport), and leather Limited, the last is easily the most attractive. For those who want an escape from black, gray, and beige, wine-colored hides are offered.
Interior materials are of similar quality in both cars: not bad, but you’re clearly not in a luxury car. The Toyota has higher-quality switchgear, but its glossy “wood” is too obviously plastic and the silver-painted trim covering the center stack doesn’t even pretend to be aluminum. Perhaps because it was tailored for the European market, the interior in Hyundai’s new Tucson feels more solid and tightly constructed than that in either of these sedans.
The steering wheels deserve special consideration. Prior to the Genesis, Hyundai upholstered its cars’ steering wheels with the world’s slickest leather. With the Genesis they seemed to have finally realized that the point of having leather on the steering wheel is to make it easier to grip, not to help it slip through one’s fingers. But with the new Sonata they’ve backslid. The artfully designed steering wheel has a rim composed of three different materials: urethane on the outer sides, slippery leather from 10 to 2 o’clock and from 5 to 7, and, inside the lower perimeter, the sort of rubberized plastic that tended to wear poorly in MkIV Jettas. The last was already badly worn on one of the tested cars. None of the materials is well-suited to the task, and three is two too many. A good steering wheel has one material, a grippy leather, all the way around the rim–like the one in the Camry.
The Camry doesn’t have great front seats, but they’re both more supportive and more comfortable than those in the Sonata. With the Sonata, the feel of the seat varies quite a bit depending on whether the center panel upholstery is cloth, as in the GLS and SE, or leather, as in the Limited. The leather seats feel firmer, and you sit noticeably higher in them, or rather on them. With either upholstery the side bolsters quickly surrender when called upon to provide lateral support. The Camry’s side bolsters failed me less, but then I asked less of them.
Some other car reviews will tell you that the Sonata’s new coupe-like roofline cost the sedan 2.8 inches of rear legroom compared to the previous generation car. What they fail to notice: maximum front legroom increased by 1.8 inches—which is sure to delight long-legged drivers (with a 30-inch inseam, I’m not one). So rear legroom is only down by an inch, and still fairly plentiful. Rear headroom, not quite so much. Tall passengers will have the scrunch down or sit up front. Other than this, the rear seat is perhaps more comfortable than the front seat. It’s a decent height off the floor, the backrest provides a healthy amount of lumbar support, and in the Limited it’s even heated.
The Camry’s back seat is even better, with a little more room, a little more height off the floor, and, in the XLE, manual recliners. The price of the manual recliners: unlike in the base Camry and the Sonata, the rear seat doesn’t fold to expand the trunk. Both cars have usefully commodious trunks that are moderately compromised by conventional gooseneck hinges and constricted openings. In both the Camry XLE and Sonata Limited, but not in lesser trims, rear seat passengers get their own air vents, a welcome feature on hot sunny days.
The tested Camry was fitted with a 268-horsepower DOHC 3.5-liter V6. Hyundai will offer no V6 in the new Sonata, we’re told to shave 100 pounds off the curb weight (a commendably light 3,199 pounds with the automatic). And a 274-horsepower turbo four won’t arrive until fall. So the cars I drove were fitted with a 198-horsepower direct-injected DOHC 2.4-liter four (200 with the SE’s dual exhaust). Not an even match, so just a few words on each.
The Camry’s V6 engine is easily the most entertaining aspect of the car. It’s smooth, powerful, and makes lusty noises when prodded. But there’s really little point to it in this car. The Camry simply doesn’t ask to be pushed hard enough to render the four-cylinder insufficient. Then again, Detroit’s specialty used to be overpowered cars with soft suspensions and over-boosted steering, and perhaps there’s still a market for this combination.
The Sonata’s new engine is, like the related port-injected unit in the new Tucson, very smooth and quiet for a four. Even held at 4,500 RPM using the automatic’s manual shift feature it’s not loud, and it never sounds rough. The previous generation four sounds and feels uncivilized in comparison, and it’s not a bad engine. The loud clacking typical of high-pressure injectors can be heard when outside the Sonata, but not when inside it. Thrust is a bit soft up to about 25 miles-per-hour, beyond which point the engine feels fairly energetic, if not a substitute for a V6. Few buyers will need more power or refinement than this four offers. The others can wait a few months for the turbo.
The Camry’s engine provides good fuel economy for a powerful V6, about 22 around town. But the Hyundai’s new four is outstanding in this regard, earning a class-leading 22/35 MPG from the EPA. Driven along rural roads, I observed 35 MPG for one segment, and low 30s overall. So the EPA numbers don’t seem to have been cheated. A hybrid arrives in the fall, but it seems pointless unless most driving involves frequent stops.
Both the Camry and Sonata are fitted with six-speed automatics that usually shift smoothly and behave well. One minor demerit for the Hyundai’s box: it slightly lugs the engine at times, no doubt to maximize fuel economy. Those whose ears aren’t sensitive to low frequency sounds will never notice.
The Camry and Sonata drive about as differently as they look. The first thing you’ll notice when setting off in the Camry: it feels extremely smooth and quiet, clearly the result of lessons learned when developing Lexus. Bumps effect some head toss at moderate speeds, but overall the Toyota’s ride could hardly be more comfortable. Unfortunately, the focus on isolation extends to the steering. It’s far too light, lacks a strong sense of direction, and (aside from some kickback) is devoid of feel. A shame, because even in XLE trim the chassis is more composed than in previous non-sport Camrys. A firm, even overly firm, suspension is standard in the Camry SE.
The three trims of the Sonata all drive differently. The GLS’s higher-profile 16-inch tires are noisier than the Limited’s 17s and harm the car’s ride and handling. Paired with steelies, they’re begging for a mod. The SE’s 18s are also noisier than the Limited’s 17s, and together with a firmer suspension yield a busy, occasionally unsettled ride. If the SE handled much better than the Limited the ride penalty might be worth it, but it doesn’t. The Limited handles nearly as well as the SE, and rides more quietly and much more smoothly. Add in its more attractive interior and additional features, and the Limited is easily the best of the three trims. If you want a Sonata, you want a Sonata Limited.
Still, compared to the Camry XLE, the Sonata Limited isn’t as quiet or as smooth. It’s the difference between good, even very good, and great. The Camry feels like a premium car through the seat of one’s pants and the drums of one’s ears. The Sonata does not quite manage the same. On the other hand, the Sonata’s steering, while nearly as devoid of feel as the Camry’s, isn’t overly light, is nicely weighted, and has a clear sense of direction. As a result, even down two cylinders the Hyundai is more engaging and fun to drive (such things being relative).
In the end, the Camry cannot escape its advancing age. It does a few things extremely well, and most other things very well, but its steering is far too light and its styling is bland and dated. With the new Sonata, Hyundai has avoided competing with the Camry head on. The Sonata isn’t as smooth, as quiet, or as comfortable, but it has better steering and is more fun to drive. But will many midsize sedan buyers notice or care about the difference in how the cars steer? Maybe, maybe not. But they’ll certainly notice how the new Sonata looks. A Hyundai that sells because of how it looks—who saw this coming? Now if only Hyundai offered some eye-catching green paint…
Toyota and Hyundai provided the vehicles, insurance and one tank of gas each for this review
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of auto reliability and pricing data