2011 Hyundai Sonata

Depeche Mode.

Aside from being the name of a 1980’s synthpop band heavy on the male makeup which I’m compelled to admit that I've purchased more than a few records from, it’s also a take on a French term from the clothing industry that means “fast fashion”.

Incarnate at retailers like H&M and Zara, the idea is to bring the most current trends to market as quickly and cheaply as possible. Hyundai has now transferred the concept to the automobile industry.

The 2011 Sonata is, if nothing else, stylish. That’s not to say that you’ll necessarily agree with how it looks, but compared to the perfectly plain outgoing model it’s as far afield from the rest of the $20,000 mid-size sedan class as boot sandals are from Crocs.

Elements from many automobiles can be found in its exterior: the Mercedes-Benz CLS, Volkswagen CC, and even the latest from Volvo, to name a few. In fact, so many automakers have gone down this route of late that rather than marking Hyundai’s design team as hacks, it's more accurate to say that the Sonata adheres to the prevailing four-door coupe convention, but at a much lower price than any of the above, and with even more flourish.

The detail is remarkable, literally. I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten the lookie loos to stop talking about the Sonata’s appearance if I tried. The two creases that start at the bottom of the grille then cut through its three horizontal slats and frame before continuing along the top of the hood are enough to impress on their own, but there are elements just like them all over the car. I’m not entirely sold on the chrome trim on the sides of the hood, but, since the only other modern car I can think of with a similar feature is the Rolls Royce Phantom, someone at Hyundai deserves credit for the audacity.

It’s not the first time Hyundai has mooched off of the venerable British marque, either. Two years ago its Genesis sedan became the first non-Rolls to use an audio system designed by Infinity, and the folks in England were so abashed by the affront that they stripped all traces of the brand’s name from their cars. Now upscale Sonatas offer one as an option. What’s next, Grey Poupon in the glove compartment?

That might make a mess, but the interior itself is neat and tidy. While not exhibiting the same level of embellishment as the exterior, there are enough triangular shapes on the doors and sweeping lines on the dash to make you feel underdressed in the rental car lot. The anatomic pictogram on the manual climate control system is a particularly unnecessary, but eye-catching touch.

While we’re on the subject of touching, the quality of the materials won’t blow you away, but is much better than you’d expect, even on the base GLS model that I tested. There’s a soft dash top, and a unique, dark and texturally grainy metallic trim mixed in with your typical silver plastic. A simple two-dial gauge cluster sits in front of the driver with a small trip computer readout in the middle. You will spend a lot of time looking at it.

Not happy with their volume leader being merely an art exhibit, Hyundai endowed the Sonata with its new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Along with a class-leading 198 horsepower, its much timelier claim to fame is a highway fuel economy rating of 35 mpg, also top of the heap. Both the six-speed manual and optional automatic transmissions achieve that lofty figure…at least on the official test.

Over a week with the car, I never quite managed to see that number displayed on the screen, although breaking 30 mpg is easily achievable on the highway. In town things drop off and, while I don’t go out of my way to emulate the EPA testing procedure, I ultimately averaged in the low 20’s. Good, but not outstanding for this type of car, until you remember that it has 198 hp, significantly more than what you get from the base engines in competitors like the Honda Accord

And it’s legit.

Merging into traffic is never a fright and the Sonata is more than happy to spend quality time in the left lane. The engine achieves its mix of efficiency and output by employing high-tech, typically expensive features like variable valve timing and direct fuel injection.

Payback comes in the form of a gruff noise from the engine compartment when accelerating and a noticeable buzz in the exhaust during low speed, light throttle situations such as tooling around town. They’re far from deal breakers, but clearly a few more development dollars could’ve been spent ironing things out. The same goes for the electric-assist power steering, which has a springy feel as does the suspension which is generally fine, but is a little punchy over sharp bumps – typical Hyundai traits, both. I should mention that my father, a devout Mercury Grand Marquis owner, didn’t have a problem with any of the above.

That may have had something to do with how large and comfortable the Sonata is, packing full-size passenger space into its mid-size footprint. The front seat can handle just about anyone and rear legroom is just as generous. The car easily passes the “can I sit behind myself without having to jam my knees into the seat back?” test this six-foot one-incher subjects all of his test cars to. Entry and exit are aided by doors that swing out nearly perpendicular to the vehicle’s side and are much taller appear. Despite the chop-top look, the Sonata stands at exactly the same height as a Toyota Camry and an inch above the Ford Fusion. The trunk is so big that if it wasn’t carpeted there’d be an echo.

Pricing comes in at $19,915 for a manual transmission equipped Sonata, and a grand more than that for the automatic. That’s about the same as the rest of the bargain bunch. But when you factor in the horsepower advantage, plus standard features like a Bluetooth phone connection, iPod/USB input and an XM satellite radio - not to mention Hyundai’s epic slate of warrantees and five-year roadside assistance plan - it makes it a lot easier to convince yourself that you don't have to check out the used car selection at the back of the lot before you sign the lease agreement. Throw in the fact that a chunk of your money goes to the good people in the Gulf state of Alabama where it’s assembled, and you might not feel too bad about filling it up at a BP station if the need arises.

Hyundai has proven that it has no problem getting butts in seats, even when it sells generic appliances, and the new Sonata is anything but. Its appearance does the public relations and the rest of the car backs it up by delivering a solid performance. The only potential pitfall for owners is that trends change quickly and, when you consider all of the safe bets that it goes up against, there’s a chance that in a couple of years the Sonata could end up looking as silly the cutting edge, googly-eyed 1996 Ford Taurus did about a week after it came out.

Then again, Depeche Mode is still filling arenas and selling tens of thousands of records every year, so there really is no accounting for taste. Their version of "Route 66" may be the perfect song for a road trip in this car.


2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS

Base price: $19,915

As tested: $23,465

Type: 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive sedan

Engine: 2.4L 4-cylinder

Power: 198 hp, 184 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 22 city/35 hwy