Hyundai’s 2006 Sonata has the makings of a can’t miss mid-size

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Hyundai has come a long way since 1986 when it introduced the Excel to American buyers. It was the South Korean automaker’s first effort in the U.S. and it was a low-quality disaster despite its low price.

Over the last decade Hyundai has all but shed its low-quality image pointed up by a phenomenal turnaround that will send it’s U.S. sales to nearly a half million units this year.

Year after year since its initial fall from grace Hyundai has made a concerted effort to improve its vehicles, but what might have permitted Hyundai to turn the corner was its top ranking in last year’s J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Survey, which is based on 90 days of ownership. That kind of ranking is usually reserved for Honda and Toyota or more likely Infiniti and Lexus.

Maybe even more important is the just-released 2005 J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS) which measures problems reported by owners over a three-year period. This year’s study focused on 2002 model cars and Hyundai showed a dramatic 31 percent improvement over the 2004 study. Downright amazing!

“Hyundai experienced similar levels of improvement in the 2002 Initial Quality Study, when these vehicles were new, which shows a successful effort by Hyundai in translating short-term quality improvements into higher long-term quality,” said Chance Parker, executive director of Product & Research Analysis for J.D. Power.

“Even though there is still room for improvement, Hyundai is a great example of an automaker that is making strides toward improving vehicle quality by paying close attention to owner feedback and designing products with both short- and long-term quality in mind,” Parker said.

Hyundai has just completed its biggest commitment to the U.S. market opening a $1.1 billion manufacturing plant in Montgomery, Ala. The South Korean automaker is following in the footsteps of its Japanese rivals Nissan, Toyota and Honda, which have successfully built cars in the U.S. for more than 15 years.

The plant has the capability of producing 300,000 vehicles a year, and the first U.S. product — an all-new 2006 Sonata — began initial production in May.

Not only is Sonata built in the U.S., much of its design work was done at Hyundai’s new global research and development operations in Michigan and California. This is Hyundai’s most important vehicle, and Hyundai is confident enough to call it a “brand-altering product.”

The Sonata, with more than 100,000 units sold in 2004, is the company’s bread and butter car and it is imperative that the new American-made version be a success.

We drove a V-6-powered LX for a week and it gets our stamp of approval as a worthy competitor in one of the most competitive segments in America. This sedan can compete head-to-head with the vaunted Accord, Camry and Altima.

The Sonata has better styling than its predecessor, more powerful engines, lots of standard equipment and a roomy interior that puts it in the large-car class, as measured by the EPA, despite a mid-sized exterior.

The Sonata may still lack the overall sophistication of the Accord and Camry, but it’s amazing how close Hyundai has come to hitting the target this time around. What differences there may be in ride, handling and performance are so subtle that it would take back-to-back test drives to discern them. And in reality the differences are so minimal most drivers wouldn’t realize them.

Exterior styling remains conservative, but attractive. And the car flows nicely from front to back. A bit amusing, perhaps, is Hyundai’s unabashed use of copycat styling. For instance, the rear taillight treatment comes straight from the current-model Accord.

We were impressed with the fit and finish and the quality-looking materials found in the cabin. The leather seats in our test car were of good quality and provided good support. It did take us a couple of trips around the block to find the correct driving position in the power-adjustable driver’s seat.

The Sonata’s large interior volume is evident in the back seat and in the trunk. While the rear accommodations in some mid-size vehicles border on cramped, there is stretch-out room in the Sonata. And the 16-cubic-foot trunk is well designed to swallow up suitcases and golf clubs — at the same time. A pull of a handle will fold the rear seatbacks down for even more cargo space.

The dashboard layout is conservatively handsome and the switchgear is intuitive. No need to pull the owner’s manual out of the glovebox. Everything will be familiar to most people. And small things like buttons to open the fuel filler door and the trunk are located in view below the driver’s armrest.

Storage spaces are plentiful including a large bin in the center arm rest. Drink holders can be covered when not in use.

All these things are noteworthy, certainly, but perhaps Hyundai’s biggest achievement with the new Sonata is the powertrain choices, which have been elevated to Japanese and American standards.

Of the three trim levels, the GL and GLS come with a responsive 162-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine mated to either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic. The top LX trim level comes with a silky smooth 3.3-liter V-6 that generates 235 horsepower and 226 pound-feet of torque mated to a 5-speed automatic.

The V-6 is very responsive, capable of hitting 60 miles per hour from a standstill in 7 seconds. The mid-range performance from 30 to 50 and 40 to 60 is impressive. In one word we rate the Sonata’s performance “satisfying,” and on a par with the V-6 engines in the segment.

The solid performance comes with good handling and balance, and accurate, well-weighted steering. We found the sedan to be a lively performer in our favorite twisty back-road stretch.

Standard comfort and safety equipment abound on the Sonata. Antilock brakes, traction control, stability control, front side-impact airbags, full-length side-curtain airbags and active head restraints are standard equipment on all Sonatas. That’s an amazing array of safety features for a car that starts at $18,495.

The list of standard amenities is almost as impressive including power windows and locks, heated outside mirrors, air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry and six-speaker sound system with radio and CD player.

Our LX edition added leather seating, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, power driver’s seat, heated front seats, 17-inch alloy wheels and chrome-accented door handles for $23,495 including destination charge. The Sonata is truly value laden.

Note that neither a DVD navigation system nor a rear-seat DVD player available. Only two items are optional on the LX — a sunroof and an upgraded stereo system bundled for $1,400.

A Camry, Accord or Altima with comparable equipment will run from $2,000 to $4,000 more. Did we mention value? You bet!

When you factor in Hyundai’s exceptional 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and its 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, the Sonata looks like a very worthy alternative to the more so well known brands.