By on October 11, 2010

Chatting with frequent flyers provides a unique context to mainstream vehicles, especially with recent changes at the rental car counter. That’s because the 2011 Hyundai Sonata arrived and she’s all that with a bucket of awesome. Renting one is like an extra $50 Per Diem, or a “suite” upgrade at the Hilton. After spotting a Sonata SE on the showroom floor, I’m wondering if the same applies for retail buyers with a need for road holding and toddler hauling. Because the Sonata is certainly a nice car.

Something’s afoot when Hyundai brochure photography mimics the minimal, high contrast punch of a luxury brand. The Sonata isn’t the second coming of the Chrysler LH cars, as the cab forward A-pillar needs a hunk of black plastic to give an essence of sleekness, without actually doing so. But a gen-u-wine window, not a plastic plug, accents the Sonata’s C-pillar slant. Add the chrome-accented beltline running from the fenders to the C-pillar for more proof of Hyundai’s lack of beancounting. Like the outgoing Mercedes CLS, the Sonata is downright gorgeous from some angles, plump and tall from others.

But aside from the pulled back headlights (that look like my dog’s eyes when pushing her forehead rearward) and the grille’s XXL orthodontics, there isn’t an offensive or derivative line on this body. I could elaborate, but will close with the Sonata SE’s smoke-toned, 18-inch rims and punchy dual exhausts (worth an extra 2hp, dontchaknow) for maximum visual punch.

For the $23,800 as-tested price, there’s much to appreciate inside: richly grained wheel with multiple elements working in striking harmony, a Lexus-worthy center stack and clean (but functional) multi-screened gauges. Combine the dash with door panels that look too good for its class, and I wonder if Hyundai is engaging in price dumping: the Sonata is just that frickin’ classy.

More proof: upscale chrome accents surround the driver like a Cadillac CTS. Options like sat-nav, moonroof and high-wattage audio are worthy upgrades, since the stock audio system has all the gadgets (Bluetooth, USB, XM, 6-speakers) but needs more defined imaging and a subwoofer for maximum bump. Aside from the need for piano black trim (a la Sonata Limited) the SE’s guts are damn near impossible to fault.

It’s all in a package that provides reasonable trunk space (with easy to close, bean counter approved, dog-leg hinges) comfortable seating for five and unique leather and cloth seating for the Sonata SE. The latter is a wonderful throwback to 1980’s euro pocket rockets, though lateral support isn’t up to yesteryear’s specifications. Yet the grippy yet supple coverings symbolize the SE’s need to provide luxury where you need it, performance where it matters. While the turbo model has yet to hit the showroom, there’s one convenient truth to the 200hp, direct-injected, twin-cammed, four-cylinder motor: it has entry-level sedan economy with most of the performance desired from a top-drawer V6 upgrade.

Mash the throttle on the Sonata SE and there’s no torque steer, but plenty of torque for sane drivers. Midrange thrust is distinctly V6-like, without the price or economy (35MPG) penalty associated with a larger motor. The SE’s flappy paddle shifters are like grade school relationships: she won’t let you kiss (the rev limiter) but she’ll make you squirm (in top gear with no revs) until you downshift on your own.

And holding gears to one’s satisfaction is very much appreciated, considering the SE’s steering and suspension upgrades. Much like the SE-fettled Camry, the Sonata has reasonable feel with nicely weighted boost, flat cornering to mild understeer at the limit. It’s a fun sedan that “feels” better after finishing said hoonery, looking at the nearasdammit luxury car surroundings and pondering the asking price on the sticker.

Then again, the Sonata isn’t the second coming of the Model T: it has competition. And the SE’s NVH controls are distinctly lacking on highway trips, as tire howl from the 18” wheels merited extra stereo gain to silence the rumble. And I still “felt” the howl. Add the slightly choppy ride of this sporting sedan and perhaps either of the other Sonata models is a wiser choice for most Americans. Plus, the Sonata Limited’s upscale options (rear heated seats, side mirrors with turn signal duplicators) make for a convincing case in upselling.

Plus, Hyundai’s loony 10-year warranty: which kept me thinking that, aside from these tires, the Sonata SE is a cheap and cheerful high-performance import sedan from yesteryear, with more modern luxuries than any (non-Phaeton) VW. Somehow, the Hyundai Sonata raised the bar for this class. And to every new family sedan waiting in the wings: match this car’s interior content, direct injected performance and upscale options, or go home.

Readers who follow TTAC on Facebook had the opportunity to ask questions about the Sonata SE. If you would like to ask questions of reviews in progress, check out our Facebook page. Fans, here are your answers.

T. Redfern, S. Chandrashekar: after sampling the Camry/Sonata SE, the only thing going for Toyota is the quieter tires, I suspect the non-sport Sonatas will clean house. R. Lauder: stacking up to the Accord, Camry, Fusion and Malibu is tough to say without a comparo test, but it smells like a home run. D. Thuma: it’s a stylish car with *stunning* attention to detail and respectable performance. R. Aucoin: No clue if a steering shaft recall was performed, but the steering gear didn’t pole-vault me down the highway. M. Singer: Yes, but I think the “eco” light goes away when you have the fuel economy gauge activated.

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49 Comments on “Review: 2011 Hyundai Sonata SE...”

  • avatar

    ” a Lexus-worthy center stack…”

    Most Lexus center stacks tend to be dominated by an ungainly, big square blob.

    Anyway, based on the latest early reviews of the Optima (non-SX), it seems that Kia engineers may have done a better job w/ steering feel, as well as the suspension setting; it’ll be interesting to see if TTAC comes to the same conclusion.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making the majority of the center stack touchscreen. If you don’t have any more ideas, you just don’t have any more ideas. 

      My neighbor bought a Sonata home. He got it in blue but cheaped out and didn’t get the Navigation system. Its a nice car but the Altima is roomier and less expensive. I always liked the Sonata. I couldn’t wait to get to Hyundai to test drive them when they came out and I must say, if I was ever in the market for a small, gas sipper (which I will never be), I’d buy this car fully loaded.

      I really like how this car’s design isn’t very polarizing. What I would like to see is LED tail lights for the turbo version and painted brembo brakes.

  • avatar

    Seems to be the one to beat in the midsize segment right now for style/value.

  • avatar

    Took my vacation in one of these back in July. Very impressed. I thought that I was driving a V6 until I just couldn’t wait any longer and popped the hood at a rest stop on I-75 in South Georgia. I was shocked that the car had so much gitty up for a 4 pot. Turbo tip in is still too slow for my taste ,but when it catches its wind, wow. Its like Prometheus unbound. This engine loves to rev. I found it very quiet and smooth,almost eerily so.
    The gas mileage is terrific. I averaged way over 31 MPG in mostly highway driving.Thats pretty good for a car that can haul a fair sized family at 75 + MPH.The interior is fitted out really well (especially for this price range) and the instruments are clear and intuitive.The drivers ergonomics reminded me of my old Chrysler T&C minivan (and my high school sweetheart) – Smooth and firm in all the right places. Visibility is notso-hotso (more in a moment) but its adequate. Lots of Slurpee sized cupholders  and plenty of in -cab storage.
    Now the uh-oh’s: The trunk is er, truncated. Not nearly ’nuff room for a family on a long trip. I was surprised at just how small it felt ,relative to the car’s size. A couple more inches of rear overhang woudn’t hurt this car at all. One other area that needs some work (IMHO) is the A pillar/roofline . The “A” sweeps back so severly that getting in and out without a boo boo on your ‘ol punkin’ head looks near impossible.There is also the higher than I would like door sill that causes you to have to swing your left leg pretty high to get in. (I imagine that the first “Step Down” Hudson’s were a similar adjustment).Anyway, this just exagerrates the whole crouch/duck/swing routine needed for egress. Buyer take note.Finally ,the swept back upper body means a high beltline and flat sight planes out the back and in the rear quarters.This means that you need to be very careful when changing lanes or backing. No problem for me,but pay attention to this if you take a test drive.
    All in all, this car is easy to mistake for a Mercedes , but for the price of a Benz, just buy two of these.

    • 0 avatar

      Turbo? The standard 4 pot is a direct injection naturally aspirated 2.4l engine. The 2l turbo is not on sale quite yet.

    • 0 avatar

      @carguy…and that proves how impressive this mill is: feeling way better than it looks on paper. That said, it looks pretty darn good on paper too.

    • 0 avatar

      Typo. I think he meant “throttle tip in,” since “turbo tip in” doesn’t make sense.

    • 0 avatar

      I drove a GLS for a week and approximately 1K miles this past June.  I own a C300 and can say that driving the Sonata left me with no regrets for spending the extra $16K.  While the fuel economy was great (average of 34 MPG including some city driving), the imprecision of the steering drove me nuts, requiring constant correction while driving on straight, smooth Texas highways.  I second your comments about the high beltline, it made me feel like I was sitting in a cave.  Other than those complanits, I found it to be comfortable but I can’t help but imagine there are better choices in the segment, such as the Mazda 6, that I’d have no problem paying a few thousand more for.     

  • avatar


    Is the Sonata getting a pass?
    No torque steer?
    Where would that come from with a large car and a 4 cylinder?
    Other sights praise the car ofr its engine and style…but softly note its drive is spongy, road noise is poor enough that you hear every stone and steering poor, or lacking.

    You like it.
    Or rather you don’t complain about these shortcomings.

    But here’s the question.
    How is your car possible?
    Quality and low price.
    What would the secret to this be and why would Hyundai have it and nobody else?
    What is missing?

    I presume you have driven the Mazda6  as well.
    Which one would you want to pay 24K for and keep as your main driver?

    I personally have my problems with the 6 having now driven it for 18 thousand miles.
    Its seats are German hard leather.
    The material of the dash easily picks up and holds onto markings and scatches.

    BUT it drives like a DREAM. A slot car in the Ozark hills.

    What is really wrong with the Sonata….?

    • 0 avatar

      Is the Sonata getting a pass?
      If you really feel that way, I’m probably not gonna change your mind. But I’ll try anyway.
      No torque steer?
      I mashed the throttle in 1st gear, in the powerband, before the apex of a corner…and…no torque steer.  That’s what happened.
      Other sights praise the car ofr its engine and style…but softly note its drive is spongy, road noise is poor enough that you hear every stone and steering poor, or lacking. You like it. Or rather you don’t complain about these shortcomings.
      The drive is NOT spongy in the SE model. The tires are noisy and I did complain about that, if you read the review.
      What would the secret to this be and why would Hyundai have it and nobody else?
      Price dumping.  Either that or every other car maker has been beancounting too much and got caught with their pants down. Either way, this car is the one to beat.
      I presume you have driven the Mazda6  as well.Which one would you want to pay 24K for and keep as your main driver?
      I haven’t driven them back to back, and the 6 I drove was a V6.  It was more fun, for sure, but it was also over $30,000. But the Mazda’s interior is cheap and plasticky, has a mediocre warranty, lousy MPGs and looks bigger and fatter than the Hyundai. The Sonata has a lot going for it, believe that.

    • 0 avatar

      Ever get the feeling that some people on this board just aren’t happy if a review doesn’t tear a car to shreds?  God forbid the reviewer should find a car a nice drive and worthwhile.

    • 0 avatar

      @Syke: I didn’t before, but I do now!

    • 0 avatar

      Sajeev and Syke.

      Until Syke’s reply I only felt your response cold.
      Afterwards, and with Sykes response…I was sure.
      Lighten up.
      You placed an auto review onto the internet as a pro and as such people make decisions from your words.

      Let me set somethings straight…
      I was asking important questions meant ONLY for real reviewer points…NOT as if I wanted to bash the review or the car. Yours is not the only review I was addressing.
      I even mentioned the qualities of the Mazda I wasn’t happy with after 18K miles!
      You would understand if you read my words.

      But my remark about torque steer on a 4 banger in a large car was simply to pointing out that IF you felt some, THAT would be the news.

      Remarks like “if you read the review” need not be made.  Your the pro, so answer the question as one.
      Fiestajunky had some nice, important information I would have liked to have seen in a review…especially from a pro.
      After all, you are indirectly suggesting people buy this car so if your going to review, do a detailed job.
      If you want swooning, it looks like Sykes your man.

    • 0 avatar

      You said I “don’t complain about these shortcomings” when I certainly did, and reiterated it to you…so your words do sound like “review bashing” to me.
      But you’re right, I outta lighten up.  But if you want more detail, look elsewhere. This website has a (loosely enforced) word count on reviews for (at least) one reason, because we are not the traditional automotive media.

    • 0 avatar


      I guess I will look elsewhere for indepth reviews.
      Where I won’t here the lack of torque steer on a large car with a 4 cylinder engine as a remarkable finding.

    • 0 avatar

      As someone who has both 1. driven a Sonata and 2. read the review, I didn’t find Sajeev to be unreasonably praiseworthy.

      Hyundai had several years of being sub-par and being the (rightful) butt of jokes and sneers of “why didn’t you buy (insert Japanese car) instead, too poor?” Rather than cry like babies, Hyundai took their medicine and learned. The previous generation of Sonata (2006, was it?) was a clear enough warning shot and by many rights was a serious contender; the 2011 is definitely a serious contender and by some rights is the benchmark for the midsize market.

      Still, I expect to see points off the Turbo for not coming with a proper (ie, manual) gearbox.

  • avatar

    From the side and rear I think the Sonata looks excellent, but I’m not a big fan of the nose; that big chrome grille is too stereotypically “meant for the American market” and a bit droopy-looking besides. With a front end more like the new KDM Avante/Elantra, this would probably be the best-looking car in the class for me. Until the new Optima arrives anyway, which has a slightly awkward C-pillar and somewhat less appealing rear end but makes up for it with that gorgeous face and Jaguar XF-alike side surfacing.

    I also prefer the Optima’s interior by far, at least looks-wise; I’ve sat in the new Sonata though and I agree the materials are quite good, much better than what Honda and Toyota (or anyone else short of VW) are offering.

    The Sonata is probably just about the best car in the class right now, although, personally, I’d prefer something a tad sportier.

  • avatar

    Hyundai provided an opportunity to drive all three trim levels last spring. The SE didn’t handle much better than the Limited, and the ride and NVH were, as noted by Sajeev, quite a bit worse. I’d personally pass on the SE until they have another go at the suspension tuning.

    I am looking forward to sampling the turbo.

    TrueDelta had an initial reliability stat a few months ago, and will have a much more precise full result next month. Between you and me, the first model year is looking good so far.

    About the Car Reliability Survey:

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks, Michael.

      Then, and I will know for sure once I test it, the Hyundai is NOT the car to take over the Mazda IF driving athletically is what we love to do.

      If interior quality is the thing, then Hyundai.
      If it’s trunk room, it’s the Mazda.
      If it’s noise, it’s the Mazda…in my opinion, the Mazda is pretty quiet.

      I am also one that feels size is not a detriment, but a positive. Isn’t that why people are buying these new mid-sized cars?
      They can get people into the back seats and all their stuff in the trunk

    • 0 avatar

      I think Hyundai genesis should have taken a page from Lincoln and made a twin Turbo V6. The V8 in that car is strong but it doesn’t make much sense when people are trying to get by at gas stations and gas is $3.05.

      The Turbo Sonata makes plenty of sense though.

  • avatar

    “the Sonata is downright gorgeous from some angles”
    Apparently photos from those angles didn’t get posted.  Not a bad looking car, but I don’t see any gorgeous.  And I guess you have to be there to appreciate the interior(looks plasticky to me), but I’ll take your word for it.  The drivetrain sounds like a winner, and considering the competition, that’s really all Sonata needs to rule the roost, especially with a 10-year warranty.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t see it either.  In fact, to me the Sonata’s style is very generic.  It looks like a 4-door Toyota Solara with a bigger grille and all of the current “trendy” design features thrown in.
      Sonata, Solara, Potato…….

    • 0 avatar

      I concur regarding the interior. Perhaps it is the lighting or the angle, but the Sonata interior as presented does not look any better than the nearly new rental Impala I had two weeks ago.

    • 0 avatar

      The hybrid Sonata’s grille looks to be the best fit.  A little less fussy, and with a touch of Peugeot 407.  It’s the one I’d be waiting for, if I was waiting for a midsize sedan.
      I agree that it’s a good-looking car otherwise, just not from the front.

    • 0 avatar

      Photos don’t do it justice, the interior fit and finish is far superior to anything in its class.  Don’t take my word for it, fondle one for yourself.

  • avatar

    I really, really want one – preferably the turbo.  But my 05 xB is just too reliable to dump.

  • avatar

    I’m seeing these everywhere and it hasn’t even been out that long. I’m not a fan of the front-end styling but if my home market is any indication Hyundai has a genuine, home-run hit here.

  • avatar

    Ever get the feeling that some people on this board just aren’t happy if a review doesn’t tear a car to shreds?  God forbid the reviewer should find a car a nice drive and worthwhile.”
    Let Sajeev review an Impala SS! You’ll NEVER see a car more torn to shreds!

  • avatar

    Agree with the others, I see alot of these on the road of S FL and they looked good… except the front end which is too pointy and chrome-y (is that a word?). Current Toyota’s are bland and Honda’s are ugly… and this Hyundai is neither. So can it really win over those other import owners with an excellent warranty and great MPG? Heck I give them props for just offering a turbo especially since sadly Mazda doesn’t make the Speed6 any more.

  • avatar

    The 2011 Sonata SE I drove was good, and its fuel economy is impressive.
    However, I still liked the Regal, Mazda6i, Jetta TDI, and Kizashi considerably more.

  • avatar

    As a 2011 Sonata SE owner (lease), I’ll throw my 2 cents in. Overall the car has been great. Comfortable, easy to drive, great mileage. The suspension does need some additional tuning, it just doesn’t have the right balance of stiffness/isolation. A ride in my friend’s G37 coupe showed me what I am missing. The tires need to be tossed, at least on the SE. If I bought the car instead of leasing, I would have ditched the tires right away. They are louder than they need to be and are squirrelly in panic stops. I will also fault Hyundai for minor creaking of the cheap plastic inside. It’s annoying. This is my first automatic, and I can’t fault it. I am getting pretty good at selecting a gear with my right foot, I never use the paddle shifters.

    As for the upcoming Turbo, I see no point to it. The people who want a V6 won’t touch a turbo, and everyone else will think that 198hp is plenty.

    • 0 avatar

      Get new tires and throw the OE garbage back on before you return the lease.  No point in suffering since you’ll have to replace them eventually anyway!  They’ll be absolutely useless in snow too, if that’s a concern. Lots of nice tires available in that size.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh, I am definitely getting snow tires. But I am not buying TWO sets of real tires for a lease. I’ll suffer through.

  • avatar

    I’d be interested to know how this car stacks up against the Altima.  I haven’t been in the Nissan in a long time, but I recall many of the attributes applied to this car applying to it as well.  I suspect the Altima will be a little less “nice”, but equipped with a nicer powertrain.

    • 0 avatar

      The Nissan 2.4 has never been a paradigm of smoothness, and even the VQ has lost some of its silkiness since growing from 3.0 to 3.5.   Beyond that it probably comes down to how one feels about CVT vs. “real” gears.

    • 0 avatar

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but arent Nissan’s 4-cyl engines in the 2.5 category? I know it’s a small detail.

  • avatar

    I saw one of these a few days ago and at first I thought ‘is that a new Mercedes’? I mean it really looks better than a Hyundai or anything at that price. Not bad Hyundai, you might convert me yet (I still can’t forgive you for the Elantra I had to drive for 2 years).

  • avatar

    Did anyone else think the styling made the car look bizarre in pictures, but it looks just fine in person? After seeing a few of them on the road and in various parking lots I *still* get that weird feeling of disconnect seeing these pictures which make it look ugly to me and knowing it doesn’t look that way in real life. I think maybe photos exaggerate the cars lines and make them look out of place, but it looks better seeing them integrated as a “whole” standing a couple of feet back. I still like the Mazda6 better overall, though.

  • avatar

    Okay I admit it: I took the photos from funny angles (not quite a dog’s eye perspective) the 2pm sunight was way too harsh, and I’m still using the same junk camera people hated when I posted from the 2008 Detroit Auto Show.
    If the grille was more normal, this car would be pretty.  Then again, the 2011 Kia Optima makes this car look terrible. It’s kind of like the lovechild of a 2011 Sonata and an E39 5-series. I can’t wait to see that one on the street.

    • 0 avatar

      Well it’s not just your pictures. I’ve had this feeling since I saw the first introduction of the car. I kept thinking, “why does this thing get so much press about good looks when it is obviously so darn ugly?”. Then I saw my first one parked in the lot at my work. I circled around it for a good 5 minutes kind of dumbfounded. I went back home and thought I should look at those pictures again… nope… still ugly as sin. I think dwford is right about the complex curves and other interesting lines and details in the styling… they just don’t translate well in pictures as they do in your head when you actually see one in three dimensions. Just like some people look worse in pictures than they do in real life and vise-versa. I think we may see more of this as technological advances make complex styling features like these more commonplace.

    • 0 avatar

      There’s nothing wrong with the grill. Take a step back and look at te DESIGN of the car. I know, you’re not used to having to do that with other midsize auto appliances. The curves of the sheetmetal start with the grill, sweep up over the front fenders, through the character line along the doors around to the trunk. This car looks like it was sculpted. My only complaint with the grill is that it is easy to catch a rag on all the points when you are drying it, and I am sure at some point I will break a piece off, since it’s just cheap plastic.

  • avatar

    I wonder what the reviews of this car would be like if it were a GM product.  Hyundai is the media darling right now, and it shows.

  • avatar

    The Sonata I drove was awesome until I got over 50 miles per hour on the expressway with it. The interior noise was awful. I had to turn up the radio because I had to hear every damn tar strip I drove over.

    This car is awesome. Can someone please quiet it down when it is on the road?

  • avatar

    We purchased a 2011 Sonata SE 2 weeks ago and love it. Agree with those that said there is excessive noise from the 18 inch Hankook tires but not sure if there are quieter ones in this size? I have checked around and there isn’t much info on road noise when looking at tire ratings. I have always been a fan of Michelin tires based on their great ride and long tread life, but not sure about them in this type of tire?

  • avatar

    The new 2011 4 cylinder engine has a timing chain, instead of a timing belt. This will increase the reliability and cut the maintenance cost significantly. Instead of replacing the belt at 60K miles at a cost of $600+ at your dealer, the chain gets inspected at 100K miles and replaced at 200K. Now that is a major plus over most of Hyundai’s competitors.

  • avatar

    I just saw this car for the first time today. It was in a flat blue color. My opinion was “man that is ugly” from the pics….but after seeing it in metal and paint…it is far uglier than first thought, I’m talking Pacer ugly.

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