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The 2011 Sonata.

michael vaughan The Globe and Mail

It may look like a Lexus built by the Germans, but it's actually a South Korean car priced in the mid-twenties.

Hyundai set out to build a mid-size car that looks more expensive than it is and the 2011 Sonata is what they came up with.

If you check the best-sellers' list in Canada you'll find the Hyundai Elantra and Hyundai Accent parked way up near the top. Sounds great, but the problem is that those are a compact and a subcompact and you don't make much money selling those. Hyundai has to up-sell and finally its has the product and the reputation to do just that.

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The sensitive souls of York Mills and South Kingsway don't mind the kid who delivers pizza showing up in a Hyundai, but they couldn't possibly. But now along comes the Sonata - a swoopy-looking sedan with lots of deep curves and chrome - which from the side has a resemblance to the Mercedes CLS or Volkswagen Passat CC and from the front is Lexus-like. The old Sonata was presentable but dorky; the new one looks, well, expensive. Yet Hyundai is pricing it from $21,649 to $30,999.

Steve Kelleher, president of Hyundai Canada, says that the Sonata shows Hyundai is moving from being a rational purchase to becoming an aspirational purchase. In other words, the junior executive crowd in the leafy suburbs might like to recalibrate their status meters while they cut down their car payments.

There is no shortage of interesting stories in the automotive industry. Bankruptcies, recalls, glitz, glamour, technology, motorsports, design all wrapped up in a sector that employs millions of people. A noteworthy development in the past decade has been the transformation of South Korea's Hyundai from being a maligned assembler of rust-buckets to become an equal to the best of the mass market manufacturers.

It's hard to find any truly bad cars any more, but model by model, segment by segment, Hyundai now matches or even beats Japanese, German and American manufacturers in quality, safety, fuel economy and - gasp - even resale value. The missing link has been sexy design.

Hyundai plowed millions into a California design studio and into an Alabama factory in order to go where they had never gone before - directly after buyers of Camrys, Accords, Altimas and Fusions.

To show off its upward mobility, Hyundai chose to launch the Sonata at the posh hotel beside the Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, Calif., the scene of some of Tiger Woods' more famous, er, exploits.

I noticed plenty of Bimmers and Mercs in the guest parking lot, but no Hyundais - so far. These things take time.

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However, back in the hills, there were ample roads to give the Sonata a good workout. Performance and handling was more than satisfactory although when hitting the corners with gusto you do slide around a bit in the seats.

And to all those who still complain about fuel-saving electric steering - forget about it. This system is precise and steady with good driver feedback.

Hyundai has jacked up the prices on the new Sonata just a little but has loaded it up with interesting and useful technology. It has banished V-6s from the lineup and instead put in a 196-horsepower, four-cylinder direct gas injection engine along with a six-speed transmission. So say goodbye to V-6s, unless you're driving a V-8, because the new, powerful fours do just fine in a car this size.

And speaking of a car this size, there's lots of room. In fact there's so much interior volume that the U.S. government classifies it as "large," not "mid-size." Nevertheless it still delivers excellent "mid-size" fuel economy.

On the safety side, it has a high-strength steel-reinforced body structure along with an impressive package of technology as standard equipment that includes electronic stability control, electronic brake force distribution, active front seat head restraints and six airbags.

For more dough (see "up-sell" above), you can load it up with a sun roof, navi system and a stereo that can dent your ear drums. And as much as the exterior of the new Sonata is a vast improvement over the old one, the interior is even better.

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The Sonata definitely pushes Hyundai's mid-size car up-market, but among consumers perception generally lags behind reality. It's that old question of cachet - is Hyundai for pizza delivery or the country club?

That's why it has put such a push on design and made this Hyundai look very little like any previous Hyundai. A wild gamble or just the continuation of a decade of amazing progress? I'd say the latter.


Type: Mid-size sedan

Price: $21,649-$30,999

Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder, DOHC

Horsepower/torque: 198 hp/184 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Not available; regular gas

Alternatives: Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry

Like: Direct gasoline injection: the best thing to come along since the carburetor was ditched; Power to weight ratio: Sonata delivers performance and fuel economy; Price: A little lower than the competition and that's without the inevitable Hyundai incentives

Don't like: Seats: why don't they just buy a Volkswagen and reverse engineer the seats?; Cabin noise: Hyundai brags about the Sonata's quietness, I say the Malibu is quieter; Stupid name: A sonata is a composition for one or more solo instruments, not a car

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