Great value in a mid-size sedan.

by Ron Moorhead

Base Price (MSRP) $14,999
As Tested (MSRP) $20,009

Quality is improving at Hyundai. The evidence comes as soon as you slam the door on the Sonata, which was completely redesigned last year. Gone is the tinny echo we'd grown accustomed to with some vehicles built in Korea, replaced by a solid CACHUNK reminiscent of more expensive European sedans. This Hyundai has a more rigid body structure, a more powerful, smoother engine and suspension that deftly combines decent handling with a smooth ride. Well-equipped with a suggested retail price under $18,000, the Sonata GLS makes a good case for itself.

If there remains a question about the reliability and dependability of its vehicles, Hyundai is trying its best to eliminate it. The company has introduced an ownership program called the Hyundai Advantage that extends the basic warranty to five years or 60,000 miles and includes 24-hour roadside assistance. Sonata's 10-year 100,000 powertrain warranty is among the best available.

Model Lineup

The Sonata is available in two trim levels: the standard Sonata ($14,999, or $15,499 with an automatic transmission) and the high-trim GLS ($16,999, or $17,499 with the automatic). The two Sonatas are distinguished by some basic mechanical differences, as well as features and equipment.

The standard car is powered by a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine and comes equipped with rear drum brakes. While the 2.4-liter engine makes just 137 horsepower, the GLS comes with a 2.5-liter V6 that produces 170 horsepower without a significant drop in EPA mileage estimates. The GLS also gets four-wheel disc brakes.

Walkaround

With its sloping hood, pronounced grille and large greenhouse, the Sonata doesn't fit the typical mid-size sedan mold, and to 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. Consider the Sonata's prices, and its real appeal comes into focus.

This is a mid-size sedan with a base price that beats the subcompacts from some other manufacturers, and the least expensive Sonata is no bare-bones machine. The standard price includes air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control and alloy wheels. The GLS adds front side-impact airbags and a CD player. The complete option list adds only $2,575 to the Sonata GLS price. With sunroof, leather, ABS and premium stereo, the Sonata just barely breaks the $20,000 barrier.

Interior Features

Given the 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 when it was positioned for a person of equal physical stature.

Hyundai has even joined the race to add more safety equipment. Side-impact airbags for the front passengers are standard on the GLS, and Hyundai adds a feature largely reserved for expensive luxury sedans. Its Passenger Presence Detection system automatically disables the front passenger airbags if a child is poorly positioned or too small in stature (under 66 pounds) for safe deployment. Seatbelt pretensioners are also standard equipment for 2000.

There are 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. The cup holders 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, gas-filled shock absorbers and stabilizer bars. The result is a chassis that is both compliant and responsive.

Our test ranged from wet conditions to dry, on 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 with confidence. 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 displacement and the car's price, the 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 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 ABS as 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. And for 2000, ABS is available on a Sonata that retails for $700 less than it did in 1999.

Final Word

If a manufacturer is committed to building 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.

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