Special Coverage

Greater L.A. Auto Show

Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. is taking its midsize Sonata sedan in a new direction, jazzing up the sheet metal, reducing weight and introducing a new high-tech 4-cyl. engine that, on paper, trumps the competition in horsepower, torque and fuel efficiency.

These new additions to Hyundai’s sixth-generation Sonata position it to square off against other moderately priced front-wheel-drive sport sedans, such as the Nissan Altima, Mazda6 and Volkswagen CC.

Shown at this week’s Los Angeles Auto Show, the new Sonata – which the auto maker calls a 4-door coupe – is preparing for launch at Hyundai’s Montgomery, AL, plant. It goes on sale in January or February, as an ’11 model.

Ward’s previewed the new Sonata at a recent media event at the company’s North American technical center in Superior Township, MI. Hyundai also designed the vehicle in the U.S.

The exterior carries over some of the upscale cues of the flagship Genesis sedan. Hyundai calls the new styling language “Fluidic Sculpture,” which also appears on the all-new ’10 Tucson cross/utility vehicle.

Designers were tasked with making the new Sonata “long, light and low,” with a high beltline enabling a sleek roofline. Crisp, taut sheet metal and long, narrow headlamps, as well as chrome accents and a bold grille, give the new car a sophisticated presence, aided by the availability of 18-in. multi-spoke wheels.

Inside, high-quality materials contribute to an attractive, comfortable interior whose purposeful styling matches that of the exterior. The sleek roofline does not compromise backseat head room for an adult of average height.

Hyundai says the new Sonata, with its 120.2 cu.-ft. (3,403 L) of interior volume, will be classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a large car, as was the previous vehicle. The EPA also considers the Altima a large car but classifies the Toyota Camry, Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu as midsizers.

Ward’s classifies the previous Sonata in its Lower Middle car segment, which includes the Malibu, Fusion and Pontiac G6.

Perhaps the most compelling addition to the new Sonata is its powertrain. The only engine available is the new Theta II gasoline direct-injection 2.4L inline-4 capable of 198 hp and 184 lb.-ft. (249 Nm) of torque.

Gone is the optional 3.3L 249-hp V-6 from the previous car. About 10% of current Sonata buyers choose the V-6.

The 16-valve, all-aluminum Theta features continuously variable valve timing on both camshafts and a variable induction system for better breathing.

Based on the specs, the new Theta handily beats the other 4-cyl. engines in the segment. For instance, the ’10 Camry offers a larger all-new port-injected 2.5L I-4 that produces 179 hp, 19 ponies shy of the Hyundai engine. The Camry and others in the segment also offer more powerful V-6s.

With direct injection, the Theta gets better fuel economy than competitor engines, rated at 23/35 mpg (10-7 L/100 km) city/highway. The Camry’s new 2.5L is rated at 22/32 mpg (11-7 L/100 km).

Further signaling its sporty intentions, the new base Sonata will come standard with a manual 6-speed transmission. Optional is a 6-speed automatic with Shiftronic manual-shift capability. Mileage goes down by 1 mpg (0.4 km/L) on the highway with the manual.

Hyundai designed the new 6-speed automatic for transverse engine applications in cars and SUVs and says the new transaxle is smaller, more compact and lighter than any other 6-speed transmission on the market.

The take rate for the manual transmission on the current Sonata is about 2%. The auto maker says a continuously variable transmission is possible for the future but is not in near-term plans.

Next year, Hyundai will add a 2.0L Theta II turbocharged GDI I-4 and a 2.4L full hybrid version featuring a lithium-polymer battery pack. The hybrid is expected to go on sale with three trim levels. Details are expected at the 2010 New York Auto Show.

Curb weight for the new Sonata with manual transmission is 3,161 lbs. (1,433 kg), which is 131 lbs. (59 kg) lighter than the current car.

Changing directions for the new Sonata is both smart and risky. The current car is slightly more sporty than its predecessor, but it matched up more closely with the less dramatically styled volume leaders, the Camry and Honda Accord.

Against those vehicles, the Sonata has been treading water, selling 117,357 in 2008, down 19.4% from 2007, according to Ward’s data. Through October, Hyundai has sold 101,365 Sonatas, down 3.8% from like-2008.

But against sportier sedans, the Sonata looks well positioned. The sporty Altima has reached the No.3 position behind the Camry and Accord, with sales of 169,435 units through October, according to Ward’s data.

It’s likely Hyundai is hoping the Sonata can challenge the Altima for the No.3 slot.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com