Hyundai Sonata (2006)

"..the first Hyundai that really hits the bull's eye, in terms of the needs of American drivers."
Good: value, standard equipment, warranty,
large interior, easy to service
Bad: engine noise on acceleration,
strong new-car smell, uncomfortable seats


The Hyundai Sonata may be the next great American family sedan. Yes, you read that right. Great. American. Family sedan.

This is the first Hyundai to be made in America, at Hyundai's new Montgomery, Alabama plant. It's also the first Hyundai that really hits the bull's eye, in terms of the needs of American drivers. It offers good room (front and rear), a comfortable ride, good handling, excellent standard safety gear, a big trunk, good gas mileage, and something all Americans love - a bargain price tag.

At $19,395, before any rebates or cash back, the Sonata has got to be one of the best values in America. You get a car easily comparable to the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima in terms of size, ride and feel - but for substantially less money. And the standard equipment includes front, front side, and front curtain airbags; electronic stability control (which we highly recommend for everybody); anti-lock brakes; a powerful, yet economical four-cylinder engine; an automatic transmission with manual mode; power windows and locks; heated side view mirrors; stereo and CD player with steering wheel controls; cruise control; and just about everything else you need in a car. You also get Hyundai's five-year, 60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, and their ten-year, 100,000-mile power train warranty - the best in the business.

To get a comparably equipped Camry would cost you $20,845. For that extra $1,500, you also get Toyota's great reputation for reliability. But you get only a three-year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, and 6/60 on the power train. Of course, none of this comparison talk would even matter if the Hyundai weren't in the Camry's league. But in every way except reputation, it is.

While the Sonata is nearly identical in size to the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry, the driving experience is most like the Camry's. The Accord features a firm ride with good handling, the Nissan plays on its stylishness and performance, and the Camry emphasizes ride comfort over sporty handling. The Sonata lines up most closely with the Camry. The Sonata's four-wheel, independent suspension nicely soaks up bumps on uneven city roads. The car stays nice and flat in the corners, and handles better than average in all types of normal driving. It's not a sports car, but it's pretty darned good, and certainly gives the average driver nothing to complain about in all types of driving situations. It's comfortable around town and comfortable and stable on the highway.

We were very impressed with the Sonata's modern, 16-valve, DOHC four-cylinder engine. While delivering an EPA-rated 24 MPG in the city and 33 MPG on the highway, the 2.4-liter engine provides as much power as any reasonable person needs. It's quick off the mark, and gives the car plenty of zoom on the highway. You get faster acceleration with the optional 3.3-liter V6, but in these days of increasingly pricey gasoline, we suspect a lot of people are going to make themselves quite satisfied with the four-cylinder power plant. And just like the four-cylinder engines in the Accord, Camry, and Altima, this one gives you everything you need. In our opinion, you should ignore the V6, save a few grand on the sticker price, and a few bucks every week at the pump. You won't feel you're missing out on anything with this four-cylinder engine.

Inside, the ride is impressively quiet, except for some engine noise on acceleration. But so what? You're in a car, remember?

The Sonata's interior feels clean and spacious. And, in fact, one of the pleasant surprises in the new Sonata is the amount of interior room.

The windshield is set far away from the driver's face, the roof is comfortably high, and there is plenty of shoulder room, the most in its peer group, besting the Accord by a little bit. Even the back seat has plenty of room for adults.

When you actually add up the numbers, the Sonata has 121.3 cubic feet of interior room, a few feet more than its main competitors, the Camry, Accord, and Altima. But since those few feet push it over a random, EPA volume threshold (120 cu ft), the new Sonata is rated as a "full-size" car, while the others remain in the "mid-size" category. Practically speaking, there's not a lot of difference between them in terms of useable interior room, but the Sonata feels clean, airy and spacious inside. Stylistically, they did a very nice job on the interior. The materials give the impression that they're made of good quality, and the Sonata feels more expensive than it is.

The seats are reasonably comfortable, but not fabulous. If they cheaped-out a bit on the interior, it may have been here. Also, some passengers noticed an unpleasantly strong new-car smell. Others didn't notice it at all. But in case the aroma is due to Hyundai's choice of plastics or materials, we suggest you sit in it and take a deep breath before you buy, in case it bothers you.

The sparse, clear, simple layout of the controls is calming and refreshing. The window switches are where you'd expect them to be, with an automatic, express up-and-down feature for the driver's window. The radio has a nice, big, easy to reach volume knob. The heating and cooling controls are elegant and simple. There's a two-level storage bin between the seats, and two, good size cup holders for your humongous, morning coffee. The steering wheel includes controls for radio volume and cruise control, and the wheel itself is height adjustable.

In the group that includes the Camry, Accord, and Altima, the Sonata may be the best looking of the bunch. While some people may prefer the Altima's racier appearance, those looking for a clean, competent looking family sedan will like the looks of the new Sonata. It's less bulbous and boring looking than the Camry. And seen from behind, it avoids the Accord's Buick-Century-style taillights. The look is crisp, and taut, without being the slightest bit garish or overly fashionable. We're guessing that some people might find it boring looking, but in this class of vehicles, looks are secondary to function, price, and reliability. Hyundai gets credit for recognizing that. How many people do you know who bought a Camry because they love the looks of it? We rest our case. We like the looks of the Sonata. Certainly there's nothing there to offend anyone.

The Sonata is nice and easy to service. The four-cylinder engine leaves plenty of room under the hood. The six-cylinder version will be slightly more of a challenge, however. If you opt for the six, be prepared to pay a bit more during servicing. In general, however, the placement of components is well thought out and shouldn't lead to any dire servicing hassles.

Technically speaking, this is a fairly straightforward vehicle. You should have no problem getting it serviced at your local independent shop, if that's your preference.

We would expect this car to be exceptionally reliable. Despite its very affordable price, Hyundai has consistently shown itself to be quite reliable - and it gets better as the years go on, now rivaling Honda and Toyota.

Our impression is that Hyundai has been getting better every year. While not quite in Toyota's or Honda's class yet, it's catching up. And the fact that Hyundai is willing to give you a five-year/60,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, and a 10/100,000 power train warranty means they're pretty confident that their warranty costs are well under control. That should give you some confidence, too.

The big news here is that the Accord, Camry and Altima have a real, lower priced competitor from Hyundai. The Sonata is shooting directly for the Camry, which happens to be the best selling car in the United States. And the fact that they come so close is big news.

The comparably equipped Camry is $1,500 more. And while some people may decide that paying an extra $1,500 is well worth it to get Toyota's reputation for quality and reliability, it's now an interesting dilemma. For one thing, Hyundai gives you a much better warranty. For another, there's probably more room to bargain on the Hyundai than there is on the Toyota. So the real difference in street price may be even more than $1,500.

It's your choice. But if you're looking for a reliable, mid- to full-size family sedan with the important safety features, good ride and handling, and good gas mileage, you've now got another car to put on your shopping list. The new Sonata is a serious competitor for the Camry. And if Hyundai's reliability pans out in the long run, the competition may get more serious as the years go by.

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