Overview
The mid-size, mid-price car market is approaching saturation. Depending on how they're counted, more than seven nameplates compete for shoppers looking for a car that's thrifty, yet performs; that's comfortable, but not expensive; that's fresh and new, but promises to be reliable.

Korea's car makers have never been a part of this class. They've danced around the edges, with the Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata. But neither car has broken through and established a solid foothold in the mainstream U.S. market.

Enter the all-new 2006 Hyundai Sonata.

While the previous-generation Sonata made a dramatic jump to the top spot in the J.D. Power and Associates 2004 Initial Quality Study ranking of entry midsize cars, the 2006 Sonata has been completely redesigned. It's bigger, better equipped, more technologically advanced and sharper looking than the 2005 model it replaces.

The class in which the new Sonata competes, however, is blurred. Exterior-wise, it goes against mid-size sedans, primarily the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima and secondarily against the Chevrolet Malibu, the Kia Optima and the upcoming Ford Fusion. Inside, though, the '06 Sonata moves up a class, to large car, which gives it a potential edge in creature comfort.

With minor and essentially immaterial exceptions, it lives up to that potential. It's roomier in almost every dimension than its midsize competitors, which is no surprise. Fit and finish is on a par with most others in the class, which also is no surprise. In terms of performance, it equals or bests comparably featured cars, which is a surprise. It's cleaner, too, than earlier Sonatas. Just as important, if not more so, the new Sonata is aggressively priced, positioned smack in the middle of the range of prices of the mid-size sedans.

All this combined makes the 2006 Hyundai Sonata good enough to put the mid-priced, midsize market on notice. There's a new player.


Model Lineup
The 2006 Hyundai Sonata comes in one body style, a four-door, five-passenger sedan. Two engines and three transmissions are available. The base engine is a 162-horsepower four-cylinder. The uplevel engine is a 235-horsepower V6. The four-cylinder can have either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed Shiftronic automatic. The V6 comes only with a new-for-2006 five-speed Shiftronic automatic.

The model line begins with the Sonata GL ($17,895), which comes standard with the four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. Standard equipment includes air conditioning; cruise control; power outside mirrors, windows and central locking with keyless remote; AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo; and leather-wrapped, tilt steering wheel. There are but two options, the four-speed automatic ($900) and carpeted floor mats ($85).

One step up the ladder is the GLS ($19,395), which comes standard with the four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission. The list of standard items starts with those on the GL and expands to include fog lamps; premium-grade cloth upholstery and cut-pile carpeting; choice of wood-grain or metal-grain interior trim accents; steering wheel-mounted, redundant audio controls; adjustable lumbar in driver's seat; five-function trip computer; carpeted floor mats; and 16-inch alloy wheels in place of the GL's hub-capped steel wheels. The GLS order sheet has two option boxes. One is for a power, tilt-and-slide glass sunroof ($850). The other is for a Premium Package ($1350) containing the aforementioned sunroof plus auto-dimming inside rearview mirror with compass (both with a much-appreciated on/off switch), HomeLink programmable garage and security remote and eight-way power driver's seat.

Next up the GLS V6 ($20,895), which comes standard with a five-speed automatic. This brings with it solar control window glass, chrome exterior window trim and chrome-tipped dual exhausts. The sunroof is an option ($850). The optional Premium Sport Package ($1500) includes the sunroof, 17-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot tires, the electrochromic rearview mirror with compass, HomeLink and power driver's seat.

On the top rung is the LX ($22,895), which comes with everything on the GLS plus leather-trimmed seats and simulated leather interior door panel inserts. Distinguished by chrome exterior door handles, the LX also gets automatic air conditioning with Hyundai's Air Quality System, which shifts to recirculating when it detects offensive or polluted outside air; a sliding cover on the front center console; the auto-dimming inside rearview mirror with compass; the HomeLink system; the eight-way power driver's seat; and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel. The sunroof can be obtained separately ($850) or as part of an LX-exclusive Premium Package ($1400) that also has a AM/FM/CD6 changer/MP3 stereo with subwoofer.

Safety features in addition to the mandatory dual-stage front-seat airbags include front-seat side-impact airbags for torso protection and full-coverage side curtain airbags, designed to provide head protection, all standard on all models. Active-safety features include antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and electronic stability control with traction control, all standard. These crash-avoidance features are optional or not available on many of the other vehicles in this class.

       

Walkaround
Design tastes are extremely volatile in the automotive world. A styling cue like an arched-eyebrow headlight treatment can go from eye-catching to invisible in a couple years. Or it can survive for decades and come to be accepted as a brand trademark, such as BMW's twin-kidney grille. The Hyundai Sonata hasn't yet found its signature trademark cues, but the 2006's designers are looking in the right places.

The new Sonata's fascia is refreshingly clean and spare, with sharply angled headlight housings and a quiet, clean-cut grille topped with a sliver of chrome. Wide and deep openings beneath the front bumper provide a home for tightly focused foglamps and visually pull the front end closer to the ground while directing cooling air into the radiator. The striking, concave hood reduces the car's perceived mass without cramping the engine compartment.

The side treatment avoids the all-too-common wedge look with an almost horizontal beltline riding above softly shouldered fenders and door panels. Mirrored "Z" seams where the end corners of the bumpers meet the quarter panels add interest, while blacked-out window surrounds play down the tallish side glass. Extended C-pillars shorten the deck lid, which itself presents a rounded, gently sculpted profile vaguely reminiscent of the much maligned posterior posture of today's BMW sedans. The flat-flanged rims on the up-level 17-inch wheels suggest a high-end European import more than an affordable Asian nameplate.

The taillight outlines repeat the headlight shapes and bookend a broad, trapezoidal license plate inset. Again, there's a hint of other cars' architecture, most notably contemporary Camrys and Accords. Sporty, California hotrod-idiom dual exhausts mark the V6-equipped models.

 

Interior Features
The 2006 Hyundai Sonata's interior marks a major step up the quality ladder. Some rough edges on a few plastic molds and a less-than-lustrous finish on some dash panels are the only shortcomings we noticed. The overall look, though, is clearly competitive with most in the class and better than some.

A polished, hard-surfaced applique capped with a thin slice of chrome divides the upper and lower halves of the dash. The upper is a glare-absorbing dark color, the lower a space-enhancing light tone. The passenger airbag enclosure is seamless, mimicking the trend in higher-end midsize sedans.

As with many modern cars, the stereo head is fully integrated into the dash, making difficult any aftermarket customizing of the sound system but adding an upscale touch. Air conditioner controls are mounted beneath the stereo, within the accent trim centered in the lower portion of the center stack. Stereo and air conditioner controls are substantial, finger-friendly, intuitive knobs and buttons, with status and selections clearly displayed in their respective LCD screens.

Three round dials in the hooded instrument cluster communicate the bare necessities of operational data to the driver, with the largest the speedometer nestled inside a polished circle. To its left is the tachometer, to its right conjoined water temperature and fuel gauges. In the lower dash to the left of the steering column are a bank of five switch plugs, only two of which are employed in the U.S. version, one as an on/off for the ESC, the other the dash-light rheostat, and a flip-down storage bin. The ignition key slides into a slot placed where it should be, in the dash to the right of the steering column instead of on the steering column itself.

All models get a leather-wrapped steering wheel. On the GLS and LX, the steering wheel serves multiple duties. Besides the obvious, redundant controls for the audio (arrayed somewhat oddly, with the mode selector on top and the volume controlled by the lower two, versus the more common approach of sandwiching the mode button between the volume controls) are appended to the lower left-side of the hub. On the other side of the hub are the cruise controls, with a helpful Cancel function.

Outward visibility is good, although the wide C-pillars constrict quick, over-the-shoulder traffic checks for lane changing. Rear side windows roll all the way down, thanks to small, fixed, rear quarter windows that move the windows' rear tracks forward in the door. All four doors have roof-mounted, hinged assist handles.

Seats are comfortable, with adequate bolstering for the style of driving to which the Sonata aspires. The cloth upholstery on the GL looks and feels durable; on the GLS, it's a bit fancier in texture and stitching. The leather surfaces in the LX add a touch of class without pretending to be luxurious. The height adjustment on the driver's seat, both manual and power, pivots on the seat's front mounts, which effectively moves the seat forward as it rises. This compels taller drivers to choose between rearward seat travel and forward sightline, not always a happy compromise. On the upside, this adds inches to rear-seat legroom behind the driver, one of the multitude of measures in which the '06 Sonata bests the competition. Among the primary competitors, the new Sonata only comes in second to the Honda Accord in front and rear headroom and to the Toyota Camry in rear-seat headroom, but by a mere one- to three-tenths of an inch. And of the second-tier competitors, the Kia Optima alone betters the new Sonata and then only by three-tenths of an inch in front seat hip room.

Rear seats are accommodating, with the bottom cushion in the center position only minimally higher than and nearly as well padded as the outboard positions. Both rear outboard seating positions have adjustable head restraints, as do the front seats. The rear seatback is split 60/40 and folds to allow the transport of long objects, such as skis and snowboards or gardening tools, depending on the weekend and season.

Storage bins and cubbies are about average for the class. Only front doors have map pockets, and there's no compartment in the rear of the center console, which is, however, bi-level and on the LX fitted with a sliding top cover. The center console and the rear-seat center armrest provide two cupholders each. A small bin in the forward part of the center console is convenient for coins and keys, while a fuzzy-finished cubby with a flip-down cover occupies the space in the center stack below the climate control panel. A thoughtful addition is a flip-out hook in the footwell on the passenger side of the center stack to restrain handbags and the like.

The trunk is the second most capacious in the class, losing out to the Toyota Camry by less than half a cubic foot. Despite the use of gas-pressure struts (which the hood has, too, an upscale touch not all of the competition offer) and articulated linkage on the trunk lid, the Sonata's stubby back end constrains the opening; in other words, it holds a lot, just not big lots.

 

Driving Impressions
Korea's car makers have been unabashedly frank about their lack of sophistication in engine technology and metallurgy. They've acknowledged they have some distance to make up to compete in both regards with the best of Japan and, of late, the U.S. and Europe. The all-new 2006 Hyundai Sonata marks a major step forward in the engine department and more than a couple steps forward in weight reduction.

Both of the 2006 Sonata's engines incorporate some of the latest developments in variable timing of intake valves, which achieves the dual benefits of lower emissions and higher fuel efficiency. Both engines are rated ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) by the Environmental Protection Agency, a first for Hyundai. The new V6 uses a variable intake system that boosts torque and makes more power available over a broader range of engine speed. Fuel economy in the four-cylinder GL with manual transmission, as estimated by the EPA, is 24 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the highway (up from last year's 22/30); the V6-powered GLS and LX are rated 20/30 (up from the '05's 19/27). And this is in a heavier car, by almost 200 pounds, and with a larger engine compared with the 2005 model. Those added pounds may seem problematic vis-a-vis Hyundai's weight-reduction hopes, but remember, the '06 Sonata is both a larger car by physical size and it's fitted with a number of added features, including vital safety upgrades.

The weight is hardly noticed from behind the wheel. What is noticeable is the state-of-the-art engine technology. Acceleration is brisk in the four-cylinder and brings a grin to the face in the V6. Hyundai officials say the V6 will turn 0-60 miles per hour times of about 7.5 seconds, with a top speed of 130 mph. Shifts are executed easily with the five-speed manual, and chirping the front tires is even easier. The Shiftronic automatic transmission moves between gears smoothly, kicking down for passing with minimal hesitation. The automatic offered responsive performance while tackling the hills of San Francisco. In manual mode, the Shiftronic will upshift automatically when the engine bumps up against redline, and it declines to downshift at all, leaving that to the driver's preferences.

Steering is light and direct, with good on-center feel and directional stability. Brakes are mostly linear, displaying little of the interference of some of the more complex EBD-equipped systems and then only in the final stages of a stop. Nevertheless, the Sonata is equipped with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, which improves stability and reduces stopping distances by balancing brake force between the front and rear tires, and anti-lock brakes, which allow the driver to maintain steering control under hard braking. The 17-inch wheel/tire combination makes its presence known on rough pavement, where the shorter sidewalls transmit more of the road's imperfections into the cabin. Wind and road noise is decently muted.

The suspension suffers more from what's best described as teething than from lack of proper geometry and components. The latter are there: double wishbones in front, multi-links in back, twin-tube gas-pressure shocks and stabilizer bars all 'round, with a larger front bar in the V6 to handle the larger engine's extra weight. But how it all works together still needs, well, work. Against the competition, which has been refining its suspension technology for much longer than Hyundai, the Sonata feels less polished, less of a whole. Not that there's anything wrong or necessarily lacking in the ride and handling, just that some of the transitions, in direction and between types and qualities of pavements, aren't as smooth as the look and feel of the Sonata promises. The front end tucks in nicely as steering is cranked in, but the car doesn't track as surely as expected. There's also the impression of poorly managed unsprung mass when the rear suspension crosses rough or broken pavement, which suggests the hard parts are a generation or two behind in the alloys used and how they're formed. Still, interstate-intensive travel, even at socially irresponsible speeds, is smooth and unruffled, which is no small achievement.

 

Summary
The all-new 2006 Hyundai Sonata is a giant step up for Hyundai, moving the brand closer to Honda, Toyota and Nissan, and contesting for buyers considering Ford and Chevrolet. There's nothing unique or especially exciting about driving the new Sonata, save for the fact it's a Hyundai. By that yardstick, and what that portends for shoppers in the class, it's a blast.

New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Francisco.

 

Model Line Overview

Model lineup: Hyundai Sonata GL ($17,895); GLS ($19,395); GLS V6 ($20,895); LX ($22,895)
Engines: 2.4-liter double overhead cam 16-valve inline-4; 3.3-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 4-speed Shiftronic automatic; 5-speed Shiftronic automatic
Safety equipment (standard): driver and front-seat passenger dual-stage frontal airbags; front-seat side-impact airbags; front- and rear-seat side curtain airbags; electronic stability control with traction control; antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution; front-seat active head restraints; 3-point seatbelts at all five seating positions; child safety seat anchors (LATCH)
Safety equipment (optional): none
Basic warranty: 5 years/60,000 miles
Assembled in: Montgomery, Alabama

Specifications As Tested

Model tested (MSRP): Hyundai Sonata GLS V6 ($20,895)
Standard equipment: air conditioning; power locks, outside mirrors and windows; cruise control; AM/FM/CD/MP3 six-speaker stereo; tilt steering wheel; remote keyless entry; trip computer
Options as tested (MSRP): Premium Sport Package ($1500) includes 17-inch alloy wheels, power tilt/slide glass sunroof, auto-dimming inside rearview mirror, HomeLink programmable garage door/security system remote, compass, 8-way power driver's seat
Destination charge: 600
Gas guzzler tax:  
Price as tested (MSRP): 22995
Layout: front-wheel drive
Engine: 3.3-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Horsepower (hp @ rpm): 235 @ 6000
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): 226 @ 3500
Transmission: 5-speed Shiftronic automatic
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 20/30
Wheelbase: 107.4
Length/width/height: 188.9/72.1/58.0
Track, f/r: 62.0/61.4
Turning circle: 35.8
Seating capacity: 5
Head/hip/leg room, f: 40.1/55.5/43.7
Head/hip/leg room, m:  
Head/hip/leg room, r: 38.2/55.3/37.4
Trunk volume: 16.3
Payload:  
Towing capacity: 2000
Suspension, f: independent, double wishbone, coil springs, twin-tube gas-pressurized shocks, stabilizer bar
Suspension, r: independent, multi-link, coil springs, twin-tube gas-pressurized shocks, stabilizer bar
Ground clearance: 6.3
Curb weight: 3458
Tires: P225/50R17
Brakes, f/r: disc/disc with ABS and EBD
Fuel capacity: 17.7

Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of 2005-04-19 00:00:00.0 .
Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges. N/A: Information not available or not applicable.
Manufacturer Info Sources: 1-800-826-2277 - www.hyundaiusa.com


Copyright © 1994-2003 New Car Test Drive, Inc.
New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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