2011 Hyundai Sonata impresses

If the all-new 2011 Hyundai Sonata were a person, it would be a winning contestant on NBC's "The Biggest Loser."

That's because the new model weighs in 130 pounds lighter than the old, helping the 3,199-pound Sonata achieve 35 mpg on the highway, according to EPA estimates. Looks like Hyundai is trying to throw down the gauntlet on fuel economy with this model, the way it challenged other automakers on safety with the 2006 model, which marked the first midsize car to make electronic stability control standard equipment.

Gone from the lineup is the 240-horsepower V-6 engine. What is more, there will be no 6-cylinder engines in the Sonata's future. Hyundai is getting up to 200 horsepower from its new 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder direct-injection gasoline engine on its sporty SE. The two other models, the base level GLS and the top-of-the-line Limited, get 198 horsepower.

Other major changes include new 6-speed manual and automatic transmissions to replace the old 5-speeds. The new engine works really well with the 6-speed automatic. The upshifts are smooth even under fairly hard acceleration. And, with six gears, the engine speed can drop way down when simply cruising the highway, hence the great fuel economy.

The GLS with the manual starts at $19,915 (all prices include the $720 destination charge) and the automatic at $20,915. The SE starts at $23,315 and the Limited at $26,015.

Our Limited model came standard with push-button start, heated front and rear leather seats, front active head restraints , 17-inch wheels, and power tilt and slide sunroof. The Navigation Package, which included a rear backup camera, added $2,100, for a total of $28,115.

The interior of the new Sonata is an elegant place to be with the flowing lines of the exterior mirrored on the inside. The size of the new Sonata has remained pretty much the same. But Hyundai is touting its interior volume as qualifying it for large-car status and as an advantage over most of its rivals.

Those in the front seat get a bit more leg room this year, yet there is plenty of rear leg room, even for a 6-foot-4 passenger. The Sonata has the biggest trunk in the segment, with 16.4 cubic feet, and its tight turning radius makes it nice for around-town maneuvers.

If the Sonata weren't nose-heavy heading into a turn, resulting in a minor steering tussle to change direction, I wouldn't have one complaint. Overall, Hyundai has struck a nice balance between ride and handling. The suspension is stiff enough to control body lean, yet not so stiff that drivers will find themselves beaten up on potholed city pavements. But expect a different experience in the sport-tuned SE.

With studies showing Hyundai's overall quality is improving, the Sonata is likely to be a compelling package and a source of dismay for the competition.

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