#VOTY09 yielded a resounding winner. A winner reflecting on the future of the automotive industry and trumpeting a sea change at a much-maligned brand.
What about this year? The shortlist reflected a hodgepodge of vehicles ranging from a benchmark in subcompacts to a new luxury icon. In-between were three SUV/Crossovers – a reflection of our increasing infiltration of a vehicular juxtaposition.
In the end, it was a two-horse race. One is a sedan that would raise the bar in what continues to be one of the most competitive market segments in North America. The other is an automotive icon reborn.
In years past, this group would not have been so divergent. A couple of years ago, I had to rethink about the winner (2008-2009 Nissan Altima), as two others seemed more worthy of the #VOTY (2009 Mazda6 and 2009 Hyundai Genesis sedan). While a very sporty family sedan won, two more newsworthy challengers had their cases for being a better winner.
The year before yielded a three-car race between the subcompact benchmark (2007-2008 Toyota Yaris), the icon amongst hybrids (2007-2008 Toyota Prius) and the most important Korean car of its time (2007-2008 Hyundai Sonata). By the Hyundai winning, you simply cried "foul."
No one knows how this year's winner will be perceived. Last year brought the award back into American hands. One of the frontrunners comes from a brand based in Detroit, yet both of them are built in North America.
Enough teasing – the #VOTY10 is…
…The 2011 Hyundai Sonata.
The choice was made possible by virtue of the vehicle itself – a game changer in its own right. For winning the VOTY in 2007 as it transitioned from an aloof, over-styled mediocre midsize sedan to a very middle-of-the-road and competent one, Hyundai knew it had to do more to make further inroads in the face of the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and the rest of the family sedan segment. It achieved that – and then some.
Hyundai pushed the boundaries of design for the $20,000-25,000 price range. With design elements reserved for more expensive automobiles, Hyundai presented the future of the family sedan with extreme angles that were also family friendly. These lines were not only seen outside but inside as well. The result was more space than before in Hyundai's mid-size range.
Hyundai also pushed the boundaries of performance by churning 200 horsepower out of a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four-cylinder motor. They key wasn’t direct fuel injection, but the ability to maximize the motor for both performance and fuel economy. If it wasn't enough, the same familiar engine will come in two variations: a turbocharged mill rated at 274 horsepower and a hybrid gas-electric version. Hyundai finally found a way to make the familiar 2.4-liter motor into a more flexible power plant.
The best way to look at the Sonata is to notice each one down the street. For a mid-size sedan, it turns heads. Reactions are a different story, but positive ones would be your most likely result. Hyundai found a way to distinguish its entry into a rather pedestrian market segment by pushing the envelope in various ways.
The Sonata also provided the platform for yet another segment buster – the 2011 Kia Optima. I expect to get behind the wheel of this astounding model next year.
However, don't be fooled by Kia's shadow. The Sonata has a purpose to fill: To be mainstream and boundary-pushing at the same time. Not to mention that the Sonata is made for every kind of driver. The enthusiasts will love the turbo models, the greenies will love the hybrid and everyone else will find the rest of the lineup enjoyable or their needs and pocketbook.
For now, we celebrate the second win for Hyundai Motor America and Hyundai Canada and congratulates them for their stunning achievement of their Montgomery, Alabama-built envelope pusher.
All photos by Randy Stern