Good pricing, great warranty

by Bob Plunkett

PETIT-SAGUENAY, Quebec - A quick run eastward from Quebec City to St. Simeon along the St. Lawrence River shows off the high-speed stability and interior isolation achieved in the latest remake of the Sonata, the mid-size flagship sedan from Korean automaker Hyundai.

We turn north on a twisty two-lane route following the Saguenay River across fir-covered mountains to La Baie. The Sonata prototype, equipped with a new V-6 engine and a sophisticated new suspension, plays with nuances of the road, hugging tightly over bumps and dips and dancing through curves with confidence.

At a roadside rest stop near Boilleau, a product planning manager out of Hyundai's California Design Center pointed out some bold styling devices incorporated into the shapely profile of Sonata. "Note the new belt line in body-color molding and those strong horizontal character lines etched into front and rear fenders," Jim Park said. "We sought a bold look with unusually smooth overall forms, contrasted against definitive creases and crisp edges."

This newest Sonata is two inches wider than the last version, and the broad but thin egg-crate grille accents the new stance. With a high wrap of dark windows and a low ring of curves carved into doors, the car seems to hunker down against the ground. It looks elegant and dressy but active - and clearly different from the typical sedan coming from other Asian automakers.

Hyundai also put more headroom in the Sonata's spacious cabin and dressed it with a high level of content. Its safety systems are at the cutting edge: they include front and side airbags, plus a device that automatically turns off passenger-side airbags when a child or infant's seat is placed in the right front bucket.

Why is Hyundai pushing the envelope with the Sonata? Family sedans are the heart of the market, by its reckoning. By creating a sedan that measures well against Japanese competitors in terms of performance and functionality but has a much lower price (we'll get to that soon), Hyundai can improve its brand's image.

To do so, Hyundai invested more than a billion dollars to develop a new high- tech manufacturing facility in Korea to build the Sonata. Then it designed a new V-6 engine to power it, planned in those innovative safety systems, and finally penned a very rigid platform.

The base Sonata contains a 149-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder Hyundai engine equipped with twin-cam aluminum heads and dual balance shafts. The gem is the Sonata GLS' new 2.5-liter aluminum V-6, though. With pent-roof combustion chambers and dual overhead cams, it pumps out 170 hp in a smooth and efficient package that's also surprisingly quiet. A five-speed stick is standard, with an electronic four-speed automatic optional.

Power-assisted brakes use big ventilated discs in front, with rear drums on base Sonata and solid back discs added to the GLS upgrade. Four-channel anti- lock brakes are optional on the GLS, as is traction control.

A big improvement in body stiffness helps the Sonata feel nearly as rigid as its Japanese counterparts. Its steel framework, designed through supercomputer analysis and modeling, surrounds the passenger compartment with high-tension reinforcements layered at critical junctures. This rigid core incorporates built-in crumple zones to cushion and deflect potential impacts, but it also better anchors suspension and steering mechanisms for improved agility.

The suspension itself includes front double wishbones with coil springs, gas- charged shocks and stabilizer bar, and a multilink rear system with a stabilizer bar. What's unusual about Sonata's suspension design is its subframe mounting, a feature not usually found in value-conscious cars. The subframe limits suspension noise when traveling over bumps and rough road irregularities and evens the ride quality by absorbing energy.

The speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering system also contributes to Sonata's improved handling. Mounting the steering gear box directly on the front suspension's subframe dampens tendencies to shimmy and shake, and ultimately produces a better feel of the road for driver.

Inside the cabin, the Sonata's passenger compartment seats five. Twin buckets are comfortable for front passengers, and a three-person bench in back splits and folds for access to the trunk. The back seat provides ample leg, head and shoulder room even for full-framed American figures. Standard gear on all Sonatas includes air conditioning, analog instruments with tachometer, stereo sound with cassette, and power controls for windows, door locks and mirrors.

This new interpretation of the Sonata feels far more substantial than the previous car. Hyundai's so certain of its goodness, it warrants it for 60,000 miles bumper to bumper (100,000 miles for the powertrain) and offers five years of roadside assistance with emergency towing service to boot.

The bottom line? The base Sonata with the four-cylinder engine lists between $15,000 and $16,000, depending on equipment added. The deluxe GLS, with the strong V-6, runs from $17,000 to $19,000.

The V-6 Sonata undercuts its competitors by a substantial margins on price alone. But it also has taken a step toward reaching the quality levels of Japanese sedans. With its unusual styling, a high level of standard features, extensive safety equipment, the strongest warranty in the business and prices pegged below other mid-sizers, the Sonata makes a persuasive argument for putting Hyundai on the same shopping list as Mazda, Nissan and Mitsubishi.

© The Car Connection

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