Test Drive: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Y20 [Korean-Spec]

Walter Foreman
by Walter Foreman

Hyundai’s on a roll. It wasn’t too long ago that the only things its cars generated were pollution and repair bills. Today, however, Hyundai cars are generating awards, increased sales, and most importantly, opinions. Read the comments section of any post on anything Hyundai, and people will have something to say. Many have good things to say, some do not. In either case, Hyundai has changed something: people care enough about its cars to have an opinion.

Take the new [2011 model year in the US market] Sonata. Much has been said about it already. Most of it has been positive. Some of it has been negative. But all of it has been good for Hyundai. As Madonna has proven time and time again, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

I spent a couple of hours with a production model of the 2010 Y20 Sonata in Korea recently and I too came away with a strong opinion. Namely, that Hyundai should be proud.

The next-generation Sonata is better than the outgoing model in every objective measure. It’s bigger, lighter, quieter, safer, roomier, more powerful, more fuel efficient, and emits less CO2, if you’re into that kind of thing. On these points, the numbers don’t lie.

When it comes to subjective measures however, the picture becomes less clear. We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Having said that however, some things are universally good-looking; Liz Hurley, Keira Knightley, and the 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL fall into this category. The Sonata is no Liz Hurley. But then, it’s not a Pontiac Aztek, either.

The grill is an especialy polarizing point. There are those who like it, those who don’t, and those who have reserved judgment until seeing it in the flesh, so to speak. Having seen the new Sonata in the flesh, the subjective eye of this beholder was surprised by its beauty.

Face-to-face, the Sonata’s snout manages to be bold without crossing into garishness. Above all else, it lends the Sonata something it’s always lacked: a personality. In comparison, the grill on the Genesis Coupe looks stifled and the Genesis Sedan’s grill feels stodgy. In short, Hyundai got it just about right.

Another thing a lot of people have been talking about is the Sonata’s derivative styling. For those people, I offer the following:

One of these burgers is a Quarter Pounder, the other is a Whopper. Although they both have a top bun with sesame seeds, a plain bottom bun, and a meat patty in between, they have enough individual character, both in appearance and flavor, to set them apart from one another. The new Sonata is the same way. Yes, it looks similar to other cars on the road today, but it finally has a character and a flavor all its own that sets it apart.

The car I drove was a Y20 Top Super Deluxe model which retails for 27.85 million Korean won (about $23,000 US). As you might imagine, this model comes with a long list of features. That list is so long in fact that instead of putting it here, I have translated the entire price guide and options list [doc format] from Korean into English.

The dealership I visited for a test drive is near a highway onramp, so it was a right turn off the lot and another one onto the highway. The car I drove was equipped with Hyundai’s 2.0 liter four cylinder Theta engine. In fact, it’s the only power plant currently available in the Korean market Sonata. It’s rated at 165 horsepower (up from 163 last year) and 30 miles per gallon combined (up from 27 mpg last year).

Throttle tip-in seemed overly sensitive, but that was probably more my fault than the car’s. The car I drove had Hyundai’s newest six-speed automatic and apart from a 1979 Lincoln Continental I used to have when I was in college, I’ve never owned an automatic. My preference would be for the six-speed manual, but sadly it’s only available in the base model in Korea. With the automatic, the engine was turning just 1,500 rpm at 50 mph in sixth gear and the cabin was as quiet as Marcel Marceau in a bank vault. At higher speeds however, around 70 or 80 mph, I did notice some wind noise, particularly from around the A pillars.

Independent research done for Hyundai during the Sonata’s development found its wind noise levels to be 63.1 decibels. Unfortunately, that research didn’t say at what speed that level was recorded. For reference, that same independent research measured the wind levels of the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord at 63.5 and 64.5 decibels, respectively. On paper at least, the new Sonata is quieter than both the Camry and the Accord. In the real world, I can attest to the cabin being nearly silent at speeds up to 60 or 65 mph, but over that, I was surprised at the amount of wind noise. This is something that other reviewers in Korea have noticed as well. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Honda dealership where I live and the Camry won’t be available in Korea until the end of October, so I couldn’t make a back-to-back real-world comparison. The table below shows how the new Sonata stacks up against its competition and against the outgoing model, at least on paper.

Previous Sonata Current Sonata Accord Camry

Wind Noise (dBA) 63.5 63.1 64.5 63.5

Road Noise (dBA) 70.0 69.5 73.5 68.0

In terms of performance, putting the pedal, which is the same ‘organ-style’ pedal as in the Genesis sedan, to the metal provided a smooth and prompt kick-down. The acceleration was good, but nothing to write home about and the engine sounded slightly overworked. The 201 horsepower 2.4 GDI engine will be available starting in January and I suspect it will remedy both these shortcomings. On top of being more powerful than the two-liter engine I drove, at 31 mpg combined, it gets better gas mileage, too.

A six-cylinder model is not available in Korea, but I’m sure the 3.3 liter 249 hp engine currently available in U.S. models will carry over and be tweaked for more power and better fuel economy when the car debuts in the States next year. That same engine in the Korean domestic Genesis sedan already makes 262 hp, so it should be an easy enough matter to pop it into the new Sonata. Having said that however, as I write this, there have been Internet mumblings and rumblings saying that because only 15% of previous generation Sonatas sold in the U.S. were equipped with the V6, Hyundai is considering dropping it as an engine option. I hope this is NOT the case. I don’t know if Hyundai can afford to turn its back on the 15% of people who did opt for the V6 in the old, rather humdrum Sonata. With the flash and dash exterior of the new car, people might be expecting a little more get-up-and-go and be disappointed, like I was, by the performance, and sound, of the four cylinder. Does anyone remember the Pontiac Fiero? It was all flash and no dash when it first came out. Besides, even if I buy a four cylinder, I like knowing that the company that makes my car has enough engineering prowess (spelt b-a-l-l-s) to build and offer a V6, even if it is superfluous in a car this size. Maybe Hyundai has something else up its sleeve. Wait and see, I guess.

During my test drive, I had the good fortune to pull alongside another new Sonata. It was a lower trim level that had the standard 16-inch alloy wheels (my test-drive car had optional 17-inch alloys with 215/55 R17 rubber). I must say that with the 16-inch wheels, the wheel wells look as empty as the L.A. Clipper’s clubhouse at playoff time. The wheels themselves look nice enough; it’s just that since the Sports model comes with 18-inch wheels, the designers had to make the wheel wells big enough to accommodate 18 inches and that leaves way too much room when equipped with the 16-inch wheels.

The interior of the new Sonata is not as revolutionary as the exterior. Instead, it is a nice evolution of the previous interior which now looks a little pudgy in comparison. The new model comes with a foot-operated electronic parking brake which has allowed Hyundai to position the shift lever closer to the driver. This move frees up a bit more room on the center console and makes it easier to access the storage bin, power outlet, and USB jack below the HVAC controls.

Perhaps the biggest change in the new interior is the gauges. The new gauges are, for lack of a better word, more engaging than those in the previous generation car. The car I drove was equipped with the Supervision Cluster which offers a higher contrast display and upgraded driver information center over the standard cluster. Both clusters come with ‘floating’ digital temperature and fuel gauges positioned in the center of the tachometer and speedometer. This not only looks good, but it’s also a good use of space.

The driver information center in both of these sets of guages displays instant and

average fuel economy, distance to empty, average speed, and so on, but the Supervision Cluster offers the information in a larger, clearer, and more interactive format. This is due to the Supervision Cluster’s 3.5-inch TFT screen located between the tachometer and the speedometer. It does a wonderful job of displaying useful information, clearly, quickly, and dare I say it, in a intruiging way. The display graphics are so well done that I often found myself paying more attention to them than to the road. Just don’t tell Ray LaHood.

The interior plastics range from good to high quality. Some are a little hard and ‘plasticy’ for my liking, but fortunately nothing looks like it has come from the Tic Tac factory. This interior is far and away the best available in Korea in its class, and leaps and bounds better than the outgoing Sonata. If the last model seemed like a good start, the new Sonata seals the deal.

Hyundai has said that it hopes to do with this generation Sonata what Ford did with the first-generation Taurus, namely turn the entire automobile industry on its ear. The first-generation Taurus was unlike anything else on the road, a game changer for the entire car industry. Though the Y20 Sonata probably won’t change the entire industry the way the Taurus did, it also doesn’t need to. The road from Hyundai’s modest roots to this car was one of steady, incremental progress. This Sonata is merely an improvement on the last one, but it’s also the culmination of years of experience and development. In short, the perfect symbol of Hyundai’s transformation.

Walter Foreman
Walter Foreman

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  • Heavenly creature Heavenly creature on Mar 02, 2010

    I'm not a car expert, currently drive a 98 Avalon with 225k miles on the ODO. Time for a new car. I test drove the 2011 Sonata GLS this past weekend, then went to Subaru and test drove a 2010 Legacy, then went back to Hyundai and drove the same Sonata again. Sonata wins hands down. No contest. The Subaru felt leaden, the steering wheel felt very heavy and overall impression was the car was solid but that the engine was working hard to haul it around. It felt like driving a brick. The Sonata was lighter feeling, peppy, looser. Definitely more fun to drive. Just my 2 cents.

  • Jimyuko Jimyuko on Mar 31, 2010

    I just leased the 2011 Sonata GLS here in Denver and some amazing deals right now. Drove the Accord and Camry each one more time before I decided and the new Sonata is amazing. I found the other cars exteriors and interiors to not be anywhere as attractive. I saw some posts about service, support and reliability issues in general about Hyundai and I could not disagree more. The sales folks were fantastic and I enjoyed working with them. I had a 01 Elantra until today that I bought for $10K cash back then and it was the best car ever. When I did have small issues, the Service department in Denver at Arapahoe Hyundai has always been great and never ever tried to sell me something I did not need. Back in 2001 when I got this first Hyundai, everyone thought I was crazy but, I estimate that including purchase, maint, repairs, tires, I spent about $17K to drive this car for 10 years. Does not get much better and I expect the same with the 2011 Sonata

  • Sobro Needs moar Roots.
  • RHD Questions? None, no, not really. Interested in some random Hyundai? No, not at all. Yawn.
  • Formula m Alfa-Romeo had the great idea to unveil my all time favourite car at the world expo in Montreal. Never built or Sold in North America. The called it the Alfa Romeo Montreal. Never even sold in North America.
  • RHD Nice little car. Give it comfortable seats, price it very competitively and leave the Alfa Romeo script on the grille. We need a smaller, cheaper electric car, and this could be just the thing to bring AR back. Heck, rebrand a variant as a Chrysler, so that potential buyers actually have something to look at in the showroom. Give it a nice long warranty. The wheels are great, hopefully the rest of it will follow through.