Korea's car makers have never been a part of this class. They've danced around the edges, with the Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata. But neither car has broken through and established a solid foothold in the mainstream U.S. market.
Enter the all-new 2006 Hyundai Sonata.
While the previous-generation Sonata made a dramatic jump to the top spot in the J.D. Power and Associates 2004 Initial Quality Study ranking of entry midsize cars, the 2006 Sonata has been completely redesigned. It's bigger, better equipped, more technologically advanced and sharper looking than the 2005 model it replaces.
The class in which the new Sonata competes, however, is blurred. Exterior-wise, it goes against mid-size sedans, primarily the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima and secondarily against the Chevrolet Malibu, the Kia Optima and the upcoming Ford Fusion. Inside, though, the '06 Sonata moves up a class, to large car, which gives it a potential edge in creature comfort.
With minor and essentially immaterial exceptions, it lives up to that potential. It's roomier in almost every dimension than its midsize competitors, which is no surprise. Fit and finish is on a par with most others in the class, which also is no surprise. In terms of performance, it equals or bests comparably featured cars, which is a surprise. It's cleaner, too, than earlier Sonatas. Just as important, if not more so, the new Sonata is aggressively priced, positioned smack in the middle of the range of prices of the mid-size sedans.
All this combined makes the 2006 Hyundai Sonata good enough to put the mid-priced, midsize market on notice. There's a new player.
Hyundai Sonata GL ($17,895); GLS ($19,395); GLS V6 ($20,895); LX ($22,895)
The new Sonata's fascia is refreshingly clean and spare, with sharply angled headlight housings and a quiet, clean-cut grille topped with a sliver of chrome. Wide and deep openings beneath the front bumper provide a home for tightly focused foglamps and visually pull the front end closer to the ground while directing cooling air into the radiator. The striking, concave hood reduces the car's perceived mass without cramping the engine compartment.
The side treatment avoids the all-too-common wedge look with an almost horizontal beltline riding above softly shouldered fenders and door panels. Mirrored Z seams where the end corners of the bumpers meet the quarter panels add interest, while blacked-out window surrounds play down the tallish side glass. Extended C-pillars shorten the deck lid, which itself presents a rounded, gently sculpted profile vaguely reminiscent of the much maligned posterior posture of today's BMW sedans. The flat-flanged rims on the up-level 17-inch wheels suggest a high-end European import more than an affordable Asian nameplate.
The taillight outlines repeat the headlight shapes and bookend a broad, trapezoidal license plate inset. Again, there's a hint of other cars' architecture, most notably contemporary Camrys and Accords. Sporty, California hotrod-idiom dual exhausts mark the V6-equipped models.
A polished, hard-surfaced applique capped with a thin slice of chrome divides the upper and lower halves of the dash. The upper is a glare-absorbing dark color, the lower a space-enhancing light tone. The passenger airbag enclosure is seamless, mimicking the trend in higher-end midsize sedans.
As with many modern cars, the stereo head is fully integrated into the dash, making difficult any aftermarket customizing of the sound system but adding an upscale touch. Air conditioner controls are mounted beneath the stereo, within the accent trim centered in the lower portion of the center stack. Stereo and air conditioner controls are substantial, finger-friendly, intuitive knobs and buttons, with status and selections clearly displayed in their respective LCD screens.
Three round dials in the hooded instrument cluster communicate the bare necessities of operational data to the driver, with the largest the speedometer nestled inside a polished circle. To its left is the tachometer, to its right conjoined water temperature and fuel gauges. In the lower dash to the left of the steering column are a bank of five switch plugs, only two of which are employed in the U.S. version, one as an on/off for the ESC, the other the dash-light rheostat, and a flip-down storage bin. The ignition key slides into a slot placed where it should be, in the dash to the right of the steering column instead of on the steering column itself.
All models get a leather-wrapped steering wheel. On the GLS and LX, the steering wheel serves multiple duties. Besides the obvious, redundant controls for the audio (arrayed somewhat oddly, with the mode selector on top and the volume controlled by the lower two, versus the more common approach of sandwiching the mode button between the volume controls) are appended to the lower left-side of the hub. On the other side of the hub are the cruise controls, with a helpful Cancel function.
Outward visibility is good, although the wide C-pillars constrict quick, over-the-shoulder traffic checks for lane changing. Rear side windows roll all the way down, thanks to small, fixed, rear quarter windows that move the windows' rear tracks forward in the door. All four doors have roof-mounted, hinged assist handles.
Seats are comfortable, with adequate bolstering for the style of driving to which the Sonata aspires. The cloth upholstery on the GL looks and feels durable; on the GLS, it's a bit fancier in texture and stitching. The leather surfaces in the LX add a touch of class without pretending to be luxurious. The height adjustment on the driver's seat, both manual and power, pivots on the seat's front mounts, which effectively moves the seat forward as it rises. This compels taller drivers to choose between rearward seat travel and forward sightline, not always a happy compromise. On the upside, this adds inches to rear-seat legroom behind the driver, one of the multitude of measures in which the '06 Sonata bests the competition. Among the primary competitors, the new Sonata only comes in second to the Honda Accord in front and rear headroom and to the Toyota Camry in rear-seat headroom, but by a mere one- to three-tenths of an inch. And of the second-tier competitors, the Kia Optima alone betters the new Sonata and then only by three-tenths of an inch in front seat hip room.
Rear seats are accommodating, with the bottom cushion in the center position only minimally higher than and nearly as well padded as the outboard positions. Both rear outboard seating positions have adjustable head restraints, as do the front seats. The rear seatback is split 60/40 and folds to allow the transport of lo
Both of the 2006 Sonata's engines incorporate some of the latest developments in variable timing of intake valves, which achieves the dual benefits of lower emissions and higher fuel efficiency. Both engines are rated ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) by the Environmental Protection Agency, a first for Hyundai. The new V6 uses a variable intake system that boosts torque and makes more power available over a broader range of engine speed. Fuel economy in the four-cylinder GL with manual transmission, as estimated by the EPA, is 24 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the highway (up from last year's 22/30); the V6-powered GLS and LX are rated 20/30 (up from the '05's 19/27). And this is in a heavier car, by almost 200 pounds, and with a larger engine compared with the 2005 model. Those added pounds may seem problematic vis-a-vis Hyundai's weight-reduction hopes, but remember, the '06 Sonata is both a larger car by physical size and it's fitted with a number of added features, including vital safety upgrades.
The weight is hardly noticed from behind the wheel. What is noticeable is the state-of-the-art engine technology. Acceleration is brisk in the four-cylinder and brings a grin to the face in the V6. Hyundai officials say the V6 will turn 0-60 miles per hour times of about 7.5 seconds, with a top speed of 130 mph. Shifts are executed easily with the five-speed manual, and chirping the front tires is even easier. The Shiftronic automatic transmission moves between gears smoothly, kicking down for passing with minimal hesitation. The automatic offered responsive performance while tackling the hills of San Francisco. In manual mode, the Shiftronic will upshift automatically when the engine bumps up against redline, and it declines to downshift at all, leaving that to the driver's preferences.
Steering is light and direct, with good on-center feel and directional stability. Brakes are mostly linear, displaying little of the interference of some of the more complex EBD-equipped systems and then only in the final stages of a stop. Nevertheless, the Sonata is equipped with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, which improves stability and reduces stopping distances by balancing brake force between the front and rear tires, and anti-lock brakes, which allow the driver to maintain steering control under hard braking. The 17-inch wheel/tire combination makes its presence known on rough pavement, where the shorter sidewalls transmit more of the road's imperfections into the cabin. Wind and road noise is decently muted.
The suspension suffers more from what's best described as teething than from lack of proper geometry and components. The latter are there: double wishbones in front, multi-links in back, twin-tube gas-pressure shocks and stabilizer bars all 'round, with a larger front bar in the V6 to handle the larger engine's extra weight. But how it all works together still needs, well, work. Against the competition, which has been refining its suspension technology for much longer than Hyundai, the Sonata feels less polished, less of a whole. Not that there's anything wrong or necessarily lacking in the ride and handling, just that some of the transitions, in direction and between types and qualities of pavements, aren't as smooth as the look and feel of the Sonata promises. The front end tucks in nicely as steering is cranked in, but the car doesn't track as surely as expected. There's also the impression of poorly managed unsprung mass when the rear
The all-new 2006 Hyundai Sonata is a giant step up for Hyundai, moving the brand closer to Honda, Toyota and Nissan, and contesting for buyers considering Ford and Chevrolet. There's nothing unique or especially exciting about driving the new Sonata, save for the fact it's a Hyundai. By that yardstick, and what that portends for shoppers in the class, it's a blast.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Francisco.