The Hyundai Sonata was showered with media awards last year, when it was redesigned and launched as an all-new model for 2006. MotorWeek called the Sonata the Best Family Sedan, Kiplinger's Personal Finance named it Best in Class, Consumers Digest called it a Best Buy, and Popular Mechanics gave it a Safety Excellence award. Meanwhile, the Sonata finished among the top three mid-size cars in the 2006 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study. And the Sonata earned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's five-star crash test rating for front and side impacts, the highest rating given.
For the 2007 model year, the Sonata promises more content for less money. Retail prices have been lowered on the entry GLS models. A new Sonata SE comes standard with the 234-hp V6 engine and 17-inch wheels and tires, and a new top-of-the-line Limited model features a new chrome grille and an optional Infinity premium audio system.
This second-generation Sonata is bigger, better equipped, more technologically advanced and sharper looking than the previous-generation (pre-2006) model. Exterior-wise, it competes primarily against the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima; and secondarily against the Chevrolet Malibu, Kia Optima and Ford Fusion. On the inside, however, the Sonata has moved up a class. Sonata is now a large car, with a full-size edge in creature comfort. It's roomier in almost every dimension than its mid-size competitors. Fit and finish are on a par with most others in the class.
In terms of performance, Sonata now equals or bests comparably featured cars. The Hyundai Sonata is a four-door, five-passenger sedan, and comes with a choice of four-cylinder and V6 engines. As you'd expect, the Sonata is aggressively priced, positioned smack in the middle of the range of mid-size sedans.
Hyundai Sonata GLS ($17,195); SE ($20,995); Limited ($22,995)
The 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 fog lamps 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 hot rod-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 LCDs.
Three round dials in the hooded instrument cluster communicate the bare necessities of operational data to the driver. The largest is 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 is 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. Beyond that is 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. Easier and more elegant when starting or shutting off the car.
All models get a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Redundant controls for the audio (optional on GLS, standard on SE and Limited) are appended to the lower left-side of the hub. They are 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. On the other side of the hub are the standard cruise controls, with a helpful Cancel function. Hyundai says the audio controls will be improved by the end of the model year.
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, ahead of the wheel well. There's a roof-mounted, hinged assist handle inside every door.
Seats are comfortable, with adequate bolstering for the style of driving to which the Sonata aspires. The standard cloth upholstery looks and feels durable; while the Limited's leather adds 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 comes in second only to the Honda Accord in front and rear headroom, and to the Toyota Camry in rear-seat headroom, and 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
Both of the 2007 Sonata's engines incorporate some of the latest developments in variable timing of intake valves, achieving the dual benefits of lower emissions and higher fuel efficiency. Both engines are rated LEVII ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) by the Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally, the V6 uses a variable-length intake manifold to fatten the torque curve and make more zip available over a broader range of engine speeds.
Fuel economy for the four-cylinder GLS with manual transmission, as estimated by the EPA, is 24 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. The V6-powered SE and Limited are rated 20/30 mpg.
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, and equipped with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, which improves stability and reduces stopping distances by balancing brake force between the front and rear tires; while ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control under hard braking. Yet we noticed little of the interference we've found with some more complex EBD-equipped systems, and then only in the final stages of a stop. 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 layout looks good on paper, with double wishbones in front, multiple control links in back, and twin-tube gas-pressure shocks and stabilizer bars all 'round. The V6 boasts a larger front bar 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. It's just that some of the transitions, in direction and between types and qualities of pavement, 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 suspension crosses rough or broken pavement, which suggests the hard parts are a generation or two behind in the alloys used and how they're formed. Still, interstate-intensive travel, even at socially irresponsible speeds, is smooth and unruffled, which is no small achievement.
The 2007 Hyundai Sonata moves the brand closer to Honda, Toyota and Nissan, and competes for buyers considering Ford or 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.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Francisco.