Sonata channels European style

Hyundai calls the design of the sixth-generation Sonata "fluidic sculpture," but it might as well be called "a touch of Mercedes-Benz CLS."

Each of these disparate vehicles features similar side-sheetmetal contours and a sweeping roofline that somewhat creates the illusion of a two-door coupe. Of course, no one is really going to be taken in by this stylistic slight of hand, but the high-waisted design is certainly an attention getter.

Generating appreciative stares is what Hyundai is all about these days. The Korean company and its offshoot Kia brand are earning reputations for launching a variety of image-changing shapes intended to lead the class instead of follow ... or at least be different.

There are certainly no signs of Hyundai attempting to play it safe with the 2011 Sonata, which launches in January 2010. The normal evolutionary approach has been kicked to the curb, which means a new sedan that's in no way similar to its predecessor or to its main competitors: the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Chevrolet Malibu.

The new Sonata does, however, stay on course by remaining dimensionally similar to its predecessor, although the distance between the front and rear wheels has been stretched by 2.6 inches, which converts into a bit more leg room.

The sedan's 3,160-pound base weight represents a pruning of 130 pounds and to help cut the fat, there's significant use of aluminum suspension components that are attached to a much stiffer platform.

The other piece of breaking news is that for the first time since the early 1990s the Sonata will not offer a V-6. For the time being, the only powerplant on the menu is a 198-horse 2.4-liter four-cylinder (200-horses with the optional dual exhaust). That's up by about 25 horsepower over the 2010 Sonata's base 2.4.

The engine in the 2011 model will be connected to a six-speed manual transmission, or optional six-speed automatic with a separate manual-shift gate. Hyundai says the automatic actually weighs 26 pounds less than outgoing five-speed unit and has 62 fewer moving parts.

Later in the model year, a higher-output 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder -- likely similar to what's offered in the base Hyundai Genesis Coupe -- will be dropped into the lineup along with a Sonata Hybrid Blue Drive model that will employ a lithium battery-powered electric motor in combination with a four-cylinder gasoline engine.

Hyundai expects that the 2011 Sonata's fuel economy, when matched to the automatic transmission, will be 22 mpg city and 35 mpg highway, which is slightly better than 2010 model's official 22/32 rating. That's likely due to the extra overdrive transmission gear that favors highway driving.

The base GLS Sonata will be the only designation available with the six-speed manual gearbox (the automatic is optional), but, in addition to air conditioning and the usual power-operated controls, will come with a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth short-range wireless networking and keyless pushbutton start.

The sportier SE will get its own suspension settings, 18-inch wheels (16s are standard) and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Also included are fog lights, eight-way power driver's seat and fancier interior trim.

The top-end Limited comes with climate control, power sunroof, heated front and rear leather seats, woodgrain interior trim and a premium audio system.

A touch-screen navigation system is optional on all models, while much of the Limited's content can be added to the SE and/or the base GLS trims.

Pricing will be announced closer to the launch date, but you can expect a low-$20,000 acquisition fee (including destination charges) that will keep it within shouting distance of the family-sedan crowd. At that rate, the Sonata undercuts the Mercedes-Benz CLS by around $55,000, which means there's one very key area where the Sonata isn't exactly the copycat that its purported to be.