Hyundai this year debuted their all-new high-volume midsize Hyundai Sonata sedan, at what CEO Bob Cosmai called “the most important launch in our history.” We first experienced the car in the San Francisco Bay area, at a generous junket that couldn’t help but leave a favorable taste in our mouths. Since then, we’ve had a week’s worth of seat time in the mainstream four-door that Hyundai hopes will help it crack the 1-million annual sales mark. Our overall impression was good; Hyundai continues to catch the competition unawares by offering competent cars like the Hyundai Sonata for not a lot of cash.
First off, the new 2006 Hyundai Sonata is a looker; almost Audi-esque in design, but not ostentatious. In this segment, you have to appeal to a broad cross-section of consumers, many of whom embrace stylistic anonymity–thus the bland design of the segment’s major players; Honda’s Accord and Toyota’s Camry. Still, the Koreans did add a little aggressiveness in the overall elegant design, especially evident in the sporty wheels on GLS and LX models and the headlight cluster that almost seems to sneer at you. Subtle chrome accents and slanted taillights that resemble the back end of Lexus’ new IS series are also attractive, and upscale. Not one character line here is out of place; the Sonata looks rich, sporty and successful.
Step inside, and the upscale theme continues in the interior. The layout, features, materials and execution are all well ahead of the previous model, and entirely in line with the competition. Soft-touch plastics, leather and solid-feeling controls seem expensive, reinforcing Hyundai’s ‘more-for-less’ corporate mantra. There’s nothing amazing here, or even distinctive, unless you count the slightly odd shape of the climate control knobs. But you get heated seats, a surprisingly adequate stereo system, power everything, and keyless entry. XM radio, which is now standard in all Hyundai products, adds another entertainment option. No nav system is yet available–we’re sure that should Hyundai get around to offering one, it’d be efficient yet significantly cheaper than anyone else’s. The only complaint we’ll offer regards the seats–we found the bottom cushions in front too small for some drivers, so pay attention and be sure you’re comfortable before you make a purchase.
Our test Sonatas have all been V6-powered models (GLS and LX); due to the value pricing Hyundai expects to sell a majority of these, even though four-bangers make up the bulk of the market elsewhere. Power is more than adequate for this category; the V6 makes 235 horsepower. That’s on the happy side of average and behind only a couple competitors (Altima and Accord). It’s also enough for a 7.5-second run to 60 mph. For the tree-huggers in the crowd, the V6 Sonata is an Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle, returning 20/30 mpg city/highway. The V6 gets a five-speed automatic; a stick-shift comes only with the coarser 162-hp inline four.
Although we’ve only driven that four briefly, we found it to be similar to the base-engine offerings from Honda and Toyota. It actually makes two more horsepower than theirs; but is a bit noisier and not as smooth. Still, for the money–the four-cylinder Japanese entries cost as much as a Hyundai V6–it’s entirely competitive. In fact, the Sonata mirrors the other entries in just about every dimension as well; it’s wheelbase (107.4″), length (188.9″), height (58″) and width (72.1″) are all within an inch of the other two.
Time behind the wheel showcases the Sonata’s newfound prowess. A dynamic leap forward from the previous model, we think it’s every bit as competent as a contemporary Accord or Camry. The tires don’t squeal unless you’re really pushing it; the body leans but no more than you’d expect. The suspension layout is expectedly pedestrian, but works well; the front double-wishbones and multilink rear provide a nice blend of comfortable ride and grip. The 17″ rims on the uplevel models add even more stickiness, but compromise ride a bit. At between $1,800 and $4,500 less than its Japanese brethren (a base GL costs $17,895, while a loaded LX is $22,895), we can’t help but be impressed.
Hyundai stresses safety in this car, saying occupant protection was a primary concern during the design process. Cosmai said, “We don’t want customers to have to decide between safety and savings.” The new Hyundai thus comes standard with anti-lock brakes (ABS), traction control, six airbags, and electronic stability control (ESC)–rare in this class.
Hyundai–and subsidiary Kia–is on the move, with profits up 14% in the last quarter alone, and market share over 5.4%. Consumers are beginning to feel better about the brand, after a dismal initial launch in the early ’90s. Now they have that 10-year warranty backing up the claims of improved quality, and Hyundai places high in just about every J.D. Power report. Still skeptical? Consider this: sales are up 364% since 1998, placing Hyundai at the #4 import slot. That million-unit goal may still seem optimistic with current sales still under half that–but by 2010, if Hyundai can keep putting out vehicles this good, at these prices, the achievement will be no surprise at all.