Before Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong pixilated themselves into our lives 25 years ago, people played board games. In our house, Chutes and Ladders reigned supreme. Essentially you navigated the board of squares. Landing on a square with a good deed sent you up a ladder. A square with a bad deed sent you spiraling down a chute in a fit of shame.
To drive the 2011 Hyundai Sonata is to experience a real-world application of Chutes and Ladders. It has many, many good attributes that sends it up ladder after ladder. Yet, for some drivers, its shortcomings pull it down more chutes than it's worth.
The main ladder is the value this Hyundai represents. The Sonata I had for a week was the sporty SE version and it was $26,015 as tested.
For so few clams, buyers get a 2.4-liter, 200-horsepower (198-horsepower with all other trims), direct-injection, four-cylinder engine putting out 186 pound-feet of torque; a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters; navigation system with touch-screen display; 18-inch alloy wheels; moon roof; Bluetooth; premium audio system with iPod integration; keyless entry; traction control; and front seat and side curtain airbags.
And let us not forget the 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty that Oscar winner Jeff Bridges is so fond of telling you about in all the Hyundai commercials.
The value of the Sonata is enhanced by its class-leading gas mileage. Its 22/35 city/highway mpg rating beats that of rivals including the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion, all while putting out more horsepower and torque.
The Sonata has definitely moved up the ladder when it comes to design. In the past, Hyundai's exterior styling has been forgettable, ugly or both.
The company is hoping to change that with what it calls Fluidic Sculpture, which appeared first on the 2010 Tucson SUV and now on the 2011 Sonata. Notwithstanding the silly name that brings to mind a flushing toilet, the streamlined, expressive look works well on the Sonata and lends an upscale air to a car that starts at less than $20,000.
The interior continues the Sonata's ascent. The car's navigation, iPod integration and heating and cooling are presented in a simple layout, and there are just enough redundant buttons on the steering wheel to keep your eyes on the road. The seats are comfortable for trips of any duration. And there's plenty of leg and headroom for a quartet of Brobdingnagians.
That's a lot of ladders. One would be forgiven for thinking this puts the Sonata at the top of the midsize car category (even though the Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a full-size car).
And for many consumers, the Sonata should be at the top of their lists. People who want a stylish, economical, American-made (the vehicle is manufactured in Montgomery, Ala.) car with an outstanding warranty will be well served by the Sonata. Hyundai says the 49,045 vehicles it sold in May set a company record and represented their 17th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.
But if you care about the driver's experience, prepare for the other chute to drop.
First off, the engine, though rated at 200 horsepower in the sporty SE, feels like it has half that. The Sonata's 0-60 acceleration is normal for its class at about 8 seconds — and it's going to spend that entire time arguing with you. The engine is loud and unrefined and sounds more like a drunk blender than an internal combustion motor. Be thankful you went with the upgraded stereo system because you're going to want to crank the volume.
Straight lines aren't the only problem for the Sonata. Auto critics are abuzz with how Buicks no longer handle like the land yachts of yore. Unfortunately Hyundai's Sonata seems eager to take that discarded crown. The car's suspension is comfortable enough with bumps and potholes. But turn the steering wheel more than a few degrees and you're punished with unsettling lean and body roll.
To compound matters, the steering itself feels vague and distant. Nothing about this car encourages a whiff of spirited driving.
And this from the sporty SE iteration, mind you. Hyundai is charging extra for this "sport-tuned suspension and steering."
The juxtaposition between what you see and touch in this Sonata, and what you hear and feel, makes for one long chute. As it stands now, I'd rather have an American or Japanese product without some of the frills like the navigation system, stereo and sun roof if it meant better driving dynamics.
If you have your heart set on the Sonata but you care about handling, wait a few months. By the end of 2010, Hyundai says it will release the Sonata 2.0T, which will feature a promising 2.0-liter, 274-horsepower, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine good for 269 pound-feet of torque, all while giving you 34 mpg on the highway.
One can only hope Hyundai gives the steering and suspension teams a cold stare before letting them get back to work.
If they don't, well chute.