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2012 Hyundai Sonata GLS Road Test

Did Hyundai finally build a better Camry?

Who It's For
Bargain hunters in need of a solid family car.
Best Thing
The interior has a premium look with top-notch storage space and ergonomics throughout.
Worst Thing
Steering feel is uninspiring and had us wondering what's going on at the front wheels.
Snap Judgment
This one's a keeper.

If ever there were a prized car segment for automakers to own, it'd be midsize sedans. After the sport utility craze of the 1990s came and went, midsize sedan sales were still among the top in the auto industry. And despite a swelling of crossovers now on sale for family hauling duties, family sedans still dominate sales charts. It's a sure thing for automakers like Honda and Toyota, having secured dominance atop the segment for almost two decades now. Once an automaker can get a foothold into the profitable midsize segment, it helps their lineup bridge the gap between being selling Podunk economy cars and luxurious full-size cruisers on the same lots. And it gives shoppers credible shuttle alternatives for their 2.2 children and dog.

The 2012 Hyundai Sonata stands as one of the best challengers to that midsize sedan establishment. Last year, Hyundai sold 225,961 Sonatas, grabbing fifth place behind the perennial frontrunners, as well as the Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion. That was in its first full model year. The car gained a huge amount of ground after its redesign when it adopted Hyundai's daring "fluidic sculpture" design philosophy. The previous model wasn't exactly a bad car; it just needed a better wrapper. But as we'll explain, Hyundai didn't stop at improving its looks.

With the base-level 2012 Hyundai Sonata GLS we tested, we evaluated the most basic--and also one of the best-selling--iterations of the popular sedan. With a starting price of $21,570, including $775 for destination and handling and $1,000 for the automatic transmission most people order anyway, the Sonata undercuts most of its competition and provides more features. That doesn't even include its 10-year powertrain warranty, helping it add up to be a package that's really hard not to like.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

What We Drove

The 2012 Hyundai Sonata comes in plenty of variations that can equip it with leather, a 274-horsepower turbocharged engine, and amenities that were considered upscale luxuries not too long ago. Checking all the boxes can get customers into the low $30,000 range.

For average Joes, however, there's the base Sonata GLS. As optioned, ours came with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine capable of producing 198 horsepower; disc brakes all around; keyless entry; power windows; a tilt/telescoping steering wheel; a stereo with standard XM satellite radio; auxiliary inputs for MP3 players; Bluetooth capability; and Blue Link, a customer service program similar to General Motors' OnStar. The only options equipped in our Sonata were a six-speed automatic transmission to replace the car's standard six-speed manual ($1,000); the GLS Popular Equipment Package, which includes 16-inch alloy wheels, a power driver's seat with power lumbar support, automatic headlights, and chrome and leatherette trim on the doors ($750); and carpeted floor mats ($100).

Keeping passengers safe are stability control, front and side airbags, and Blue Link that, when equipped with the Emergency Services package, contacts an advisor when it senses you've gotten into an accident. It's all put into a package that the government rated five stars in front-driver impact testing, front- and rear-seat side impact, and rollover protection. In front-passenger crash testing, it earned four stars. That was good enough for it to earn honors as an Insurance Institute of Highway Safety "2012 Top Safety Pick."

The Commute

First thing you need to know: This is not a sports car. Heck, this isn't even a particularly sporty car.

If you're buying a car like the Sonata, you don't want to feel every little bump in the road. You don't want to hear the tires wail beneath you as they travel across imperfect concrete. You want a car that'll get you where you want to go with little fuss, cocooning you in serenity.

The Sonata nails this mission spot-on.

That's not to say it's lifeless, though, as some of its Japanese competitors have been described. The Sonata has a decently firm suspension that doesn't make you feel as if you're riding on a boat. In fact, several of our editors praised it for ride control bordering on Germanic.

What made the ride that much more pleasant was the car's controls. Everything's right where you want it. Stereo controls are up tall on the center console if you want to change channels with a twist of a knob. And if you don't, steering wheel-mounted buttons work just as well. It's all very easy to pick up and get going with, even if you've never before driven a Sonata. Take, for instance, the car's Bluetooth phone pairing process, which took several of our editors just a few minutes to get going.

Perhaps its only flaw, besides some cheaper plastics here or there, was the Sonata's climate control system. Modeled after what Volvo uses, it shows a small, person-like illustration for where the fan is supposed to blow air. When you want the fan to circulate air at your ankles, you press the legs on the little character; it's fairly straightforward. But then when you shut off the car and start it back up, it defaults to blasting air in your face if you didn't turn off the fan. Make that hot air if you've let the car sit in the sun all day. Your only options become turning off the fan as quickly as possible or punching the little guy, hoping you get the air to change directions. We preferred the latter.

Otherwise, the Sonata proved a capable commuter, easy to use and refined in operation. Its acceleration isn't world-beating. Upon startup, you hear the engine clank at a low resonance as its direct-injection fuel delivery system warms up. But you don't notice too much that's terribly offensive about the car, at least after driving a 2012 Toyota Camry, which still feels a bit too wafty on the road for this writer's tastes.

The Grocery Run

Any way you stack it, the Hyundai Sonata has a huge trunk: 16.4 cubic feet of volume to be exact. If you're migrating from a previous-generation model made between 2006 and 2010, you may be upset to see the current car has changed its trunk supports from gas struts to prop up the trunk lid back to gooseneck hinges. The benefit of the goosenecks is that Hyundai was able to make the opening wider for cumbersome objects. But the drawback comes by way that the hinges can impede on cargo space. If it's any consolation, most of the Sonata's competition has the cheaper-style goosenecks. It's a minor gripe, we know, but it's still worth noting.

Moving from the trunk to the rear seat, the first thing you notice is just how spacious the Sonata is. Leg room is accommodating for all but the tallest rear passengers. Getting back there may take some work, however, as the Sonata's stylish swooping roofline cuts into its door opening, forcing passengers to duck on their way in or out. Though Hyundai's styling put it on the map, the automaker could better make use of its ease of use for getting into the back or folding the 60/40 split rear bench. The low roofline also makes it tougher to strap children into their booster seats, although at least the LATCH points on the Sonata are gratefully easy to reach.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun

We wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't put the Sonata through its paces. We've already established that the Hyundai Sonata's suspension does its job just fine, but it's no sports car.

Partaking of electric power steering versus an old-school hydraulic setup, Hyundai has experienced some teething problems with tuning its steering feel just right. In most cases, you'll never notice a problem, as in-town driving calls for little driving involvement. But when you're on a windy switchback, the problem becomes more apparent, as you can't drive the car with a sense of confidence. The Sonata, like several other Hyundais, has a numb patch when turning the wheel about two or three inches either way. Then, all of a sudden, you feel some response. Its weighting is all-or-nothing, which can throw a driver off in emergency maneuvering.

Slipping the Sonata into its manumatic sport mode, it's also apparent that Hyundai never designed its six-speed automatic for going fast. It's a leisurely piece of engineering designed for maximizing fuel economy. But when you drop the car to a lower gear to pick up some power, it hesitates, as if to ask the driver: "You're really asking me to go fast? Well, all right, just give me a moment."

The Sonata can't be bothered when asked for alacrity. However, it does return pretty good gas mileage. When we started our week with the sedan, we were averaging right around its 24-mpg city rating. As the week went on, it only got better. We finished with a readout of 27.8 mpg--far from its 35-mpg highway rating but well within reason for such a large sedan, and essentially on the nose for its EPA combined rating of 28 mpg.

The 2012 Hyundai Sonata makes no pretenses that it's meant for a race track. In fact, it doesn't make many pretenses of much of anything. It is what family sedans used to be before all of them had to be sporty: a destroyer of long distances in comfort and quietness.

Summary

Usually when we drive a car, we'd like a memorable experience, some character to make you love the car as you would a favorite well-worn t-shirt. With the Sonata, we didn't have any real memorable experiences. We didn't connect with it and say it was full of gusto or passion. It is what it is--a solid, reliable, well-sorted appliance--just like its Japanese rivals. Where it unquestionably trumps them, however, is in the looks department, because any design risk in this segment will get noticed. And it also provides a massive value for the money. Hyundai never makes you feel bad for getting a basic Sonata GLS instead of splurging on unnecessary options. For example, in a base-level Camry, you'll get hard plastics on the rear doors (but not on the front).

Its pricing undercuts the competition, too. An equivalent 2012 Toyota Camry L comes in at $500 more. A similarly equipped 2012 Honda Accord LX Premium will run about $1,800 more. Then, when you factor in the Hyundai's 10-year warranty, it the Korean car becomes an even more difficult option to pass up.

We wish the Sonata had better steering feel, and we wish it felt as well put-together as its Japanese competition. The Sonata doesn't really do any one thing better than its competition. But it does everything pretty well, and it does so at a relatively small price. We challenge any other automaker to top its value.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $22,420
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 24 mpg
EPA Highway: 35 mpg
EPA Combined: 28 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 518 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Above Average

Notebook Quotes

"The engine in the Sonata is also very good. With about 200 horsepower, it has plenty of power to get the car moving. It's also quiet and smooth, better than the Camry in my opinion." --Keith Buglewicz, News Director

"If this car had been around in the 1990s, my parents would have owned three of them. In this segment, that's the highest compliment it can get." --Blake Rong, Associate Editor

"The interior continues to be one of my favorite among midsized sedans; I find it very functional but premium in both materials and design; features found in higher segment cars." --Joel Arellano, Assistant Editor

"This is a really, really good car that does everything really well and nothing great or terrible. The interior is quite bland, but that may be ideal for families looking for a solid and reliable family hauler." --Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor

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