Why pay more?

by Ron Moorhead

Base Price (MSRP) $14,999
As Tested (MSRP) $20,519

Can a Hyundai turn heads? Well, the current-generation Sonata certainly turned ours. Neatly handsome, with crisply tailored proportions, Sonata looks solid and expensive. It sounds that way too when you close the doors, or when you fire up the top model's smooth V6 engine.

Sonata offers the safety, comfort, and performance of other mid-size cars costing $5,000 more. That's value that's hard to beat.

And, oh yes, here's one more head-turner. Check out Hyundai's warranty: Called Hyundai Advantage, it extends basic protection to five years or 60,000 miles and includes 24-hour roadside assistance. Sonata's 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty is among the longest available.

Model Lineup

Sonata prices start at $14,999 for the base-level version, which is powered by a 2.4-liter inline-4 producing 149 horsepower and 156 pounds-feet of torque. Even at this level Sonata's list of standard equipment is impressively comprehensive, and includes air conditioning, dual front and side-impact air bags, speed-sensitive power steering, cruise control and AM/FM/Cassette stereo.

Next up is the GLS, at $16,999, which is powered by an all-aluminum 2.5-liter V6, with 170 horsepower and 166 pounds-feet of torque. GLS also upgrades the rear drum brakes to disc brakes. Of course, GLS also includes some additional trim and amenities.

New for 2001 is the GLS Leather, which Hyundai bills as a separate model, priced at $18,324. In addition to leather upholstery and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, this model also adds a power driver's seat and an upgraded stereo with both cassette and CD capability.

All three Sonata models offer a choice of standard five-speed manual transmission or electronically controlled four-speed automatic ($500). Add a tilt-and-slide moonroof, traction control, and ABS to the GLS Leather, and your new Sonata barely cracks the $20,000 barrier.

Walkaround

With its sloping hood, pronounced grille and large greenhouse, the Sonata doesn't fit the typical mid-size sedan mold, and in our view that's a bonus. The Sonata's styling may not make you weak in the knees, but it certainly sets the car apart from the crowd.

Interior Features

Given its attractive price, the Sonata's cabin is surprisingly well finished. The leather upholstery gets high marks, and the dash, instrument panel and door panels are nicely trimmed and precisely fit. Each interior scheme has a different simulated wood trim. Our GLS had a gray wood tone that grew on us with time.

It's easy to get comfortable behind the Sonata's wheel. The front bucket seats are supportive but not overly constrictive, making them quite comfortable even during long trips. There is plenty of legroom in the rear seat. The tallest of our testers had no problem sitting behind the driver's seat.

Safety equipment includes side-impact airbags for the front passengers, and Hyundai's Passenger Presence Detection system, which automatically disables the front passenger airbags if a child is poorly positioned or too small in stature (under 66 pounds) for safe deployment. That's a feature usually reserved for expensive luxury sedans. Seatbelt pretensioners are also standard.

We have only a few things to gripe about inside. The instruments and control labels are easy to read during daylight, but as the sun fades away and the lights come on, they get more difficult to see. And the cupholders in the center console are too shallow to hold anything larger then a small cup of coffee.

Driving Impressions

Seat time in the Sonata proves what the walkaround suggests: This Hyundai is far better equipped than its predecessors to compete with more established brands from Japan, the United States and Europe.

Increased structural rigidity has given Hyundai engineers a solid platform for developing the suspension. The suspension itself is reasonably sophisticated, with double wishbones in front and a multilink arrangement in the rear; shock absorbers are gas-filled all around and there are stabilizer bars at both ends. The result is a chassis that is both compliant and responsive.

Our test ranged from wet conditions to dry, from 70-plus-mph Interstates to two-lane country roads. The Sonata soaked up the expansion joints and undulations as well as some larger, more expensive luxury sedans. Its ride is supple yet controlled, and it turns into corners well. We wouldn't compare its road-holding capabilities to a sport coupe, but the Sonata is up to whatever a family sedan owner is likely to dish out. And it's never boring to drive.

The drivetrain is as pleasantly surprising as the suspension. Considering the engine's small displacement and the car's price, the 2.5-liter V6 is both smooth and powerful. The manual transmission delivers the best acceleration, but the automatic doesn't give up much. It shifts up smoothly and shifts down reasonably quickly when the driver jabs the gas pedal. Steep grades and passes on two-lane roads are no sweat.

The Sonata's brakes are adequate, not remarkable. We'd prefer to see optional ABS on the standard feature list, but given Sonata's value pricing, it's not too egregious an oversight. Hyundai expects that most of the Sonatas that roll from its dealerships will have most of the options.

Final Word

If a manufacturer is committed to building consumer confidence in its products, its starts by improving quality and backing it up with a good warranty. That's what Hyundai has done with the Sonata.

Yet quality and confidence don't mean much if the product falls short in other respects. The Sonata brings stand-apart styling, a comfortable cabin and decent performance. It's enjoyable to drive and even easier to live with, at a price that sets it apart from other mid-size sedans.

If value is a priority, the Hyundai Sonata is absolutely worth a look.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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

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