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New Hyundai release has competitors in its sights

For the first time ever, the launch of the new Hyundai Sonata is a really, really big deal. Packed with new technologies, hardware and design cues, the 2011 Sonata has the Accord and Camry dangerously dead in its sights.

Sonata’s cabin is upscale and nicely trimmed.  Justin Pritchard/PaceNewsDirect-injected 2.4 litre engine spins up 198 horsepower, turns in good mileage, and sounds a bit too mild. This year, those sights take form as a pair of projector lamps which flank a giant grille decked out in more fake chrome than the front row of a 50 Cent concert. This high-class face caps off a new body that's become an impressively chiselled and sophisticated.

It's a highly upscale look indeed -- but not a truly unique one. Some will see hints of the Mercedes CLS, Audi A5 and VW Passat CC in the Sonata's curvy panels and tightly creased lines. European car fanatics will disapprove of the similarities, but Hyundai shoppers will appreciate the higher visual price tag imparted. Bling for the buck factor here is undeniable.

Sonata's new interior isn't on the bland bandwagon, either. First-time visitors to the cabin quickly noted the large selection of textures and colours, as well as a higher-than-average level of attention to detail. Even the door panels are covered with no less than four different textures and five different colours that intersect one another for a rich and classy look.

Not by mistake, the new Sonata's energetic and modern cabin makes competitors like the Accord and Camry look somewhat more dull and utilitarian. It's even got an Acura-like instrument cluster and a Volvo-esque climate control mode selector. The GLS-trimmed tester also included a partially leather-wrapped steering wheel, a sunroof, and the same Bluetooth system that's standard across the entire model range.

There's plenty of room in either row of seating for 2 adults, and your five-foot-ten, 220-lb. correspondent could sit comfortably behind someone of identical proportions in relative comfort.

On-board storage capacity is enormous, too. Two cupholders, one bottle holder, six storage cubbies and a two-tier covered console are all within the driver's reach. Larger items fit into a monstrous trunk that includes a grab handle and opens fully -- right from the remote.

At the time of writing, Sonata was available solely with a new 2.4 litre 'Theta II' direct-injected four-cylinder engine. No V6 is available -- but the standard 198 horsepower output beats virtually all direct competitors by a few dozen ponies. Not only is the Theta II unit more powerful than its predecessor and current direct competition, buy Hyundai says it's also better on fuel.

This new high-efficiency mill delivers output evenly across most of the rev range with a touch of added thrust at higher RPMs. It's eager and pleasant when zipping the Sonata up to speed, though sound effects are very modest overall. With such bold styling and presence, many drivers will wish for a more authoritative aural response when their foot drops.

2011 sees Sonata kitted with a six-speed transmission in the driver's choice of manual or automatic, depending on the trim level. The tester got the automatic -- which offered adequate or better performance where shift quality and overall power handling was concerned. A manual mode was included, though enthusiast drivers won't likely find it quick or responsive enough to warrant its frequent use.

Sonata's low wind and road-noise levels proved appreciable during highway cruising. After over 1,000 kilometres on the highways of central and southern Ontario, your writer found that velocities of over 120 km/h were required to coax unwelcomed levels of either into the cabin.

Even at these speeds, the low-mileage tester rode softly and peacefully while turning in mileage of about 8.5L / 100km. Long-term drivers can expect even better figures than these after engine break in is complete -- and if they observe speed limits more closely.

The only noteworthy complaint during a weekend of cruising dealt with the light power steering feel at speed.

The electronic system takes a minimal-effort approach in low-speed or parking situations, though some will find it doesn't tighten up quite enough over about 100 km/h. A bit more heaviness from the steering could work wonders to make the Sonata feel more planted and stable.

Sonata's soft suspension, light steering and modest-sounding engine won't connect readily with enthusiast drivers -- but there is an upcoming turbocharged Sonata 2.0T model coming with over 270 horsepower that should do the trick.

Those considering the 2011 Sonata now should find it to excel in virtually all aspects relating to functionality, style, equipment and efficiency. It's a must-drive by anyone considering a new family sedan in its price range.