B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
Upon climbing into the Sonata that Hyundai provided Edmund's staffers for evaluation while on a recent trip to sunny California, I was struck by how different the car felt from the unloved Excel, the first Hyundai I ever drove. The Excel, unfortunately, is the only Hyundai that many people have ever driven. I remember when the car went on sale in 1986; its cheap price brought droves of my classmates into Hyundai showrooms, many of whom were thrilled to drive off the lot in a new car. The bad news is that many of those who drove off the lot in a new car were quickly bringing it back for service. The Excel went on to become one of the biggest automotive jokes of the late eighties. Because of the Excel, many people swore that they would never drive another Hyundai.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I climbed into Hyundai's latest midsize offering. The doors on the Sonata slammed shut with a reassuring thunk, the seats were firm and supportive, there was high quality plastic used on all of the interior trim pieces, and the dashboard was intelligently arranged. At first glance, I felt that the car was nicely done.
My impression of the Sonata remained the same as I threaded my way through dense Los Angeles traffic. The interior of the Sonata is quite roomy and comfortable, larger in size than the highly acclaimed Nissan Maxima. Its cargo space is lacking somewhat, offering less than the Chevrolet Malibu's impressive 16.4 cubic feet, but was more than enough to swallow my garment bag, valise, briefcase, and duffel. Visibility in the Sonata is quite good; large windows, a low beltline, and oversize sideview mirrors make it easy to keep track of traffic in every direction. My biggest complaint about the Sonata's interior was the ugly seat fabric, which had a busy geometric pattern and exhibited a Velcro-like ability to grip my clothes. Climbing out of the Sonata with the seat fabric pulling back on me was like trying to claw my way out of quicksand.
After sampling the Hyundai's well-done interior, I was disappointed to find that some of the Hyundai's mechanical components were not as well sorted out. The Sonata's 3.0-liter V6 engine with 142 horsepower and 168 lb./ft. of torque provided adequate acceleration and passing power for this car at sea level, but felt like it would be wheezy and out of breath if we were to bring it to a higher elevation. The transmission shifted surprisingly smoothly, but seemed to take a long time to decide when a downshift was required for passing or merging. Since this car's primary duty is family hauling, these minor annoyances could be easily overlooked. Nobody buying a Sonata would expect a fire-breathing racer capable of 30-foot smoky burnouts. What they do expect is a smooth, stable ride; something the Sonata did not deliver over the course of our evaluation. Frankly put, the Sonata's suspension is not up to the task of keeping this 3072-lb. car firmly planted on the road. Even small bumps and dips on California's relatively smooth freeways upset this car's suspension, which fully extended and crashed onto itself like some out of control teeter-totter. Worse, perhaps, is the steering kickback, which can be felt when the front tires encounter a pavement irregularity. On pockmarked rural roads it felt as if some unseen force was trying to wrench the steering wheel from my hands when I least expected it, not the sort of thing that I would like to contend with if I had a car full of kids and groceries.
Despite including standard equipment like alloy wheels, premium stereo with cassette, cruise control, and six-way power driver's seat, the Sonata GLS does not necessarily represent great value. Although its price seems to shine when compared to V6-powered Japanese midsize sedans like the Toyota Camry, Nissan Maxima, and Honda Accord, it loses much of its luster when compared to American offerings such as the Chevrolet Malibu LS and Ford Contour SE. The Contour SE offers one of the most convincing front-wheel drive driving experiences in the world, its level of suspension sophistication outperforming even the new Volkswagen Passat GLS. The Ford's interior is a bit cramped, but the car can hold four adults in relative comfort on short trips. Best of all, it costs $500 less than the Sonata when optioned to the same level of comfort. The Chevrolet Malibu LS is perhaps one of the best deals in all the land. With a sticker of $18,995 and very few options to select, it would be hard for any car to beat in a value assessment.
Hyundai has made great strides since they introduced the Excel 11 years ago. Last year, they sold 113,000 vehicles in the United States alone, a 4.5 percent increase in a car market that was down 3 percent overall. Reliability and build quality questions have largely been sorted out since the introduction of this current generation of vehicles, and buyers have expressed their happiness with the company by giving Hyundai high marks in J.D. Power's customer satisfaction surveys. The question remains, however, of whether we should consider the Sonata a good deal when compared to the well-built Accord and Maxima, or whether we should consider it a bad deal when compared to the affordable Contour and Malibu. If the early negative feedback we've received from Malibu owners, and our own observations about the Ford's Contour's hit-and-miss build quality are any indication, it might be the former.
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