Sonata challenges electric duo for Car of the Year

Sonata challenges electric duo for Car of the Year

Hyundai Sonata 2011

The Hyundai Sonata has taken on the automotive world this year, and by some measurements, it has won. Now, however, it is a decisive underdog as one of the three finalists for North American International Car of the Year. The other two finalists are the super-hyped, plug-in electric media darlings — the Chevrolet Volt, and the Nissan Leaf .

Our Car of the Year jury has 49 members, and I am proud to be among them. We are independent, and hopefully independent thinkers, and we are not beholden to any advertisers. In fact, we pay exorbitant dues to cover our very nice trophies and own expenses — unheard of among automotive journalists, who are used to being flown and fed in exotic places while sampling the newest vehicles. A disproportionate number of our jurors come from the Detroit area, where there is vehement support for the struggling domestic nameplates, regardless of where they might make their new cars. We’re all pulling for General Motors to get back to its formal power, and Chrysler too, and we’re impressed at Ford’s advancements without government loans, bailouts, or bankruptcy.

It will be interesting to see if our jury falls into line with assorted magazines in picking the Chevrolet Volt, and we won’t know until after our final revote of the three finalists. The winner will be announced January 10 to kick off the Detroit International Auto Show.

Motor Trend and Automobile magazines came out on the same day declaring the Volt as their 2011 Car of the Year, and I am quick to support all the reasons why. Being able to plug in a car overnight and drive to work in back every day without using any gasoline is a feat worth high praise. Both the Volt and the Leaf, however, have their shortcomings. When electric cars first were planned, I challenged those who claimed they would run “free,” because that implied those making such claims weren’t paying my electric bill. And to those who say they could be charged overnight when the grids are free of use, I responded that if electric cars became as popular as proclaimed, those overnight grids would be full. Now I read that such events could reach the point where you plug in your electric car and the whole block goes dark.

Still, the technology is awe-inspiring. The Leaf doesn’t have a back-up gas engine, so it’s battery only, and you can go up to 100 miles on a full charge, then you’d better be near a charging station at home or at work or along the way. It performs very well, however, and is a zero-emission vehicle while running, despite those critics who think you must also be responsible for a power company that may not be up to clean-air standards in its creation of electricity.  The Leaf’s zero-emission stance is commendable.

The Volt, meanwhile, doesn’t use its 4-cylinder gasoline engine to recharge its battery pack, so it takes you 40-50 miles on electric only, and once drained, you go onward with the gas engine. That is a very neat safety valve, but the gas engine — the same one Chevrolet uses in the Cruze — gets only an estimated 37 miles per gallon powering the Volt– a figure that is good, but less than normal hybrids that DO recharge as they run, and less than some other gas-engine cars get on their own in real-world driving.  An inhibiting fact amid all the genuinely impressive media blitzing is that the Volt costs over $43,000, much more than the Leaf. Chevrolet had to be disappointed that the Volt did not meet California’s strict standards on emission-free vehicles, leaving the Leaf by itself as a zero-emission mainstream car, while the Leaf is classified the same as the Hyundai Sonata.

Which brings us to the Sonata, the prize midsize sedan from Hyundai that has thrust the South Korean automaker to amazing heights after only 19 years of building its own engines. The Sonata is very well-styled, and it offers a three-pronged approach to automotive excellence with a “normal” sedan that out-powers other midsize sedans in base, sport and luxury versions, and adds a turbocharged version that is extra sporty and outperforms the V6es of competitors, plus a hybrid version that performs like a normal sedan rather than a science project. In its normal form, you could buy two Sonatas for the price of one electric vehicle.

Since first evaluating the Sonata, which measures as EPA large car inside even though it is all contemporary midsize on the outside, I have been even more impressed during a couple of week-long tests. A listener to my WCCO radio segment on cars in Minneapolis emailed me about his search for a midsize car, and I suggested he should at least look at a 2011 Sonata. He emailed me back a couple months later saying he looked and he bought a Limited model, and had to let me know that while the 2.4-liter 4 had plenty of direct-injected power, he took a 500-mile trip and got an incredible 42 miles per gallon with it. I was surprised, but I had just gotten a Limited model for a week’s test, and I was just as amazed that we attained 38.5 mpg on our normal 150-mile  freewayjaunt from Minneapolis to Duluth, then got 41.5 on the return trip.

[![Sonata normal and hybrid](http://newcarpicks.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Sonata-normal-and-hybrid-300x141.jpg "Sonata normal and hybrid")](http://newcarpicks.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Sonata-normal-and-hybrid.jpg)The Sonata Hybrid, right, has a more aggressive front end to enhance cooling.
The EPA estimate shows 36 or 37, and nobody can promise 40-plus, but the fact it is attainable blew my mind. A fellow journalist was recently criticizing the Sonata hybrid because he didn’t get as good mileage in it as the 37 mpg he got with at the same time with the non-hybrid Sonata Limited. It occured to me that 37 mpg might be reason to praise the normal car, rather than criticize the hybrid. And while any mpg can’t beat the Leaf’s “infinite” miles per gallon without a gas engine, the Sonata clearly beats the heavy Volt if it must be driven farther than the 50-mile maximum of its electric power.

Taking apart the Sonata, Hyundai decided that its technical advance in its 2.4-liter 4, its breakthrough direct injection, and its new proprietary 6-speed automatic transmission would give the all-new Sonata 200 horsepower, so it would design the Sonata to house only a 4-cylinder, which would be the most potent 4 in the midsize class. Competitors such as Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima, Mazda6 and others could all say their V6 models would have more power, so Hyundai offers the turbocharged 2.0 version, which gets 274 horsepower and outruns all the V6es in that class, while still getting 30-35 miles per gallon.

There is more to the Sonata picture. A 6-speed stick is offered, which most competitors don’t, and the automatic is Hyundai’s own 6-speed, which makes it only the third automaker that builds its own proprietary 6-speed automatic. I would, frankly, like to see some alteration in the ratios, but it’s impressive nonetheless, and it’s smaller and 26-pounds lighter than the 5-speed unit it used to buy from a supplier.

The Sonata has attained world-class safety standards, and while Hyundai can put the Sonata’s 5-star status in all crash tests out there for all to see, we have NOT seen any safety certification for the Volt or the Leaf, curiously enough. We know they’re heavy, because of the large battery packs, and we think they’re safe, but we can’t be sure. We can wonder why there is no certification yet, now that the cars are being sold.

While designing the Sonata to house only a 4-cylinder, the structure could be strengthened significantly, and Hyundai used a lot of high-strength steel in the framework. High-strength steel is very expensive, which made me curious about how Hyundai could use so much and yet be priced at or under $25,000. Volvo, for example, is my favorite example of one of the safest cars in the industry, because of its demanding use of high-strength steel, and that’s why Volvos are comparatively expensive. So how does Hyundai do it? Simple. Hyundai owns its own steel mill. Amazing. Other companies have to spend large amounts to get high-strength steel, while Hyundai just calls up its steel plant division and says send us some more.

An aside tells of Hyundai’s attention to detail. I first drove the sporty SE model of the Sonata last May, and while I am a big advocate of firm-handling cars, I felt Hyundai went too far and made the SE so stiff it was borderline harsh driving across road irregularities. So I’ve advised some emailers to check either the base or the Limited if they want to avoid harshness. I had been told that when the 2.0 Turbo model would later come out, it would have the SE’s suspension. When it was introduced, with the 2.0 Turbo, it handled much better — still firm but much more compliant. I challenged an engineer, who insisted that it was the same suspension as the SE, and he finally explained it: When the 2.0 Turbo was being developed, the engineers revised the SE’s suspension settings, including all the bushings, and came up with a less-harsh version, then they applied a running change to the SE, to adapt to the revised sports suspension. That means they do have the same suspension, but Hyundai improved the 2011 SE suspension before 2011 even arrived.

[![Sonata rear corner](http://newcarpicks.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Sonata-rear-corner-300x192.jpg "Sonata rear corner")](http://newcarpicks.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Sonata-rear-corner.jpg)Distinct side contours sweep to Sonata's stylish rear.
The sporty appearance of the Sonata has drawn universal acclaim. Designed at Hyundai’s California studio, the sweeping contours of the silhouette make it arguably the most attractive midsize sedan on the market. In fact, its main rival for that honor might be the just-released Kia Optima. Kia, also from South Korea, is now owned by Hyundai, and they are partners in South Korea, even while competing in the U.S. The biggest thing is that Kia, which has taken on its own classy styling and has surged in popularity since being taken over, now uses Hyundai engines, transmissions, and platforms.

When it comes to build-quality, the Sonata can boast of the best features of made-in-America status. Hyundai built the world’s two most high-tech auto facilities in the world, with the first in Montgomery, Ala., where all Sonatas are built. The Korean car with the Korean name is built by American workers in an American plant, while a few miles up the freeway, in West Point, Ga., another almost-identical plant now builds the redesigned Kia Sorento SUV, and will build the upcoming revision of the Hyundai Santa Fe. Maybe someday the Korean-built Kia Optima will share the Montgomery plant, but right now it is running at full capacity making only the Sonata.

The Sonata was apparently the runner-up to the Volt in Motor Trend’s annual award, even though, curiously enough, the Sonata reviewed in the Car of the Year issue was only the Turbo 2.0, instead of the full line. The magazine made no mention whatsoever of the Leaf.

Our vote will be intriguing, because if our majority goes for the Volt or the Leaf, it will be the first time we’ve ever named a vehicle that wasn’t really out in civilization use. The Volt and Leaf are being sold in selected cities on the West Coast, and we assume if the infrastructure of charging stations and charge-ability is satisfactory, we hope that electric-powered cars will establish themselves as our automotive future.

Without the Volt and Leaf, and without their publicity, curiosity, and hope for the future, it appears the Sonata would be the overwhelming choice as 2011 Car of the Year. It would be an upset, but not unreasonable, to see it emerge from its underdog status to win anyhow. As a strong choice for all those reluctant to be early-adopters of electric cars, the Sonata is a car for all seasons, a car for all reasons, and a car for all regions, as well.


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