Special Coverage

Greater L.A. Auto Show

LOS ANGELES – Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. is taking a bold step in dropping a V-6 option for the all-new ’11 Hyundai Sonata, but the auto maker’s chief designer for North America assures the new 198-hp inline-4 will provide more than adequate power.

Phil Zak, who took the job in April after 20 years at the former General Motors Corp., says Hyundai didn’t make the decision lightly to drop the 249-hp 3.3L V-6 available in the current Sonata.

The move is particularly risky because the new Sonata looks much sportier than the outgoing model, thanks to the new “Fluidic Sculpture” design language Zak is driving throughout the brand’s lineup.

Isn’t it possible Sonata buyers will expect V-6 power when they see the taut new sheet metal and coupe-like profile?

“No, I don’t think so,” Zak tells Ward’s here at the Los Angeles auto show, where the Sonata is being unveiled. He says market research for the new vehicle was exhaustive, and the lack of a V-6 was no deal-breaker in clinics.

“The 4-cyl. will have just about as much power as the V-6,” Zak says in his first interview since arriving at Hyundai. “And in the future, there will be another 4-cyl. that will go beyond the V-6 from a power standpoint. We’re not worried about the power at all.”

Next year, Hyundai will add a 2.0L turbocharged Theta II I-4 with direct injection. Details are expected at the New York auto show in April.

When the vehicle goes on sale early next year, the new Theta II GDI 2.4L I-4, which produces 184 lb.-ft. (249 Nm) of torque, will be the only engine available. About 10% of recent Sonata buyers have opted for the current V-6.

The new all-aluminum Theta II has impressive credentials, with continuously variable valve timing on both camshafts and a variable induction system. It will be the most powerful – and most fuel-efficient – I-4 in the midsize car segment. The engine is rated at 23/35 mpg (10-7 L/100 km) city/highway.

From a design standpoint, Zak says the smaller engine made it easier to integrate some of the dramatic styling cues of the new Sonata.

“It enables you to keep things tight around that smaller package and keep it lighter,” he says.

The new Sonata looks a lot like the Volkswagen CC, but Zak says that was purely coincidental.

“People have the same inspiration,” he says. “It just happened that there’s some similarity between the two.” Zak says the Sonata’s new design was locked in by the time the CC launched. Incidentally, the VW model offers both 4-cyl. and V-6 engines.

The Sonata, as well as the new ’10 Tucson cross/utility vehicle, demonstrate the auto maker’s Fluidic Sculpture philosophy, which is intended to spice up Hyundai’s image and make an emotional connection with customers.

For many Hyundai buyers, styling has been secondary to value. Zak is trying to change that.

“We want to stand out in the marketplace from (the Honda) Accord and (Toyota) Camry by being the most dynamic and sporty of the models,” Zak says of Sonata’s stiff competition in the midsize range. The Accord and Camry lead the sales race, but they are conservatively styled.

“We’re looking to pull people who may like the current vehicle they have, but it’s just not really lighting their fire,” he says. “We’ve got the quality and now the design that really stands out.”

As the name suggests, Fluidic Sculpture is considered a continually evolving styling language that won’t hinge on particular cues, such as Cadillac’s edgy new sheet metal.

“We’re not locking into cues,” Zak says. “It’s about fluidic execution – more form and less standard. Our hexagonal grille, you’ll see that going forward globally.”

Zak spent much of his career with GM, and his final post was director of design for the hot-selling new Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain CUVs.

Culturally, he has come to appreciate the Korean focus on details. But it’s hard for him to compare his new job with the one he left at GM. It was a different company then, literally.

“Everything has changed there so much, it’s really hard for me to draw parallels,” Zak says. “I still talk to friends (at GM), but I can’t really relate to anything one-to-one because they are changing so quickly.”

Zak heads Hyundai’s design studio in Irvine, CA. He follows former GM designer Joel Piaskowski, who joined Hyundai several years ago and recently moved to Mercedes-Benz.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com