Quebec City -- Just four years after its last redesign, the Sonata has been born again. This time, Hyundai recognized the fact that their midsize car would have to be a "world car," meaning they hope for it to compete with the midsize sedan sales leaders. "We targeted the Toyota Camry," said Jim Park, product planner for Hyundai North America. If Hyundai can take over even a small portion of the enormous sedan market in America, they'll likely be satisfied with a tremendous success.
The Sonata's most recent incarnation is a totally new car from the body panels to the powertrain. The sheetmetal is all-new and highly attractive in appearance for something that competes in a traditionally conservative segment of the market. One-piece headlamps with integrated turn signals lend a European flavor to the Sonata's front fascia, and a sweeping character line connects the side panels with the rear of the trunk. As a whole, the Sonata's appearance is much more dear than its price.
Despite a new skin, the Sonata hasn't ballooned in size. Length and height are nearly the same as before, but the car is two inches wider. That means a lot more shoulder room, and Hyundai's designers also managed to add another inch of headroom for front passengers.
The Sonata's new unibody construction increases structural rigidity and thus reduces a lot of excess noise from outside the cabin. Hyundai has also added acoustic dampeners to various body cavities, which is not as painful as it sounds: that just means that foam insulation was placed in the car's A-pillars and other strategic locations. Finally, the front side windows were thickened slightly to further reduce wind noise.
The interior provides a pleasant atmosphere for long trips, as we discovered during our 550-kilometer stint behind the wheel. Seats are plush, and the driving position is adequate for people of all sizes. The console is covered in wood trim or in the gray marble trim found on our test car. The refreshing black-and-gray swirls were much more pleasing to our eyes than the cliché black-and-brown swirls of fake wood found in so many new cars. Climate controls are easy-to-operate dials, and the stereo buttons on the CD player are well-planned and intuitive.
Most impressive on the Sonata's equipment list is the inclusion of seat-mounted side airbags. Hyundai is stressing safety, and to enhance the restraint system, Sonatas are equipped with a Passenger Presence Detection system, a device normally found only in high-end luxury cars that deactivates both front and side airbags if less than 66 lbs. is sitting in the front seat. Further, the front seatbelts come with pre-tensioners to take up slack in the event of a crash, and all five seating positions are equipped with three-point belts. Crash scores have not come in yet, but the new Sonata should do exceptionally well.
What motivates many buyers coincidentally motivates automobiles: the engine. The Sonata's base engine is a 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder unit that makes 149 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 156 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm. We drove the 2.5-liter DOHC V6 (optional on the base car and standard on the GLS), an all-new aluminum engine called Delta. The Delta's output is higher than the four-cylinder base engine, making 170 horsepower and 166 foot-pounds of torque.
But power from the Delta V6 comes on later in the game: horsepower peaks at 6,000 rpm and torque peaks at 4,000 rpm. To take off to a good start, the driver must first bury the throttle and wind the motor up near redline, which brings a sewing machine-like high-pitched noise screaming from under the hood. This won't be a problem for practical sedan buyers who are not looking for drag racing performance, but the engine can be noisy when power is needed in a hurry.
For a V6, the Delta engine sounds and feels a bit starved for breath. The previous Sonata's 3.0-liter V6 gave out slightly more torque -- 168 foot-pounds at 2,500 rpm -- but the engine didn't need such speed to achieve power. The horsepower increase is substantial, however (the old V6 only had 142), so the new Sonata can reach a little higher when it comes to top speeds.
Our test cars were equipped with automatics ($800 options), but Hyundai now offers the Sonata with a manual transmission -- even on the V6 -- which is exactly how this car should be ordered even though most buyers will still choose the automatic. The manual transmission is cheaper and probably more fun to drive, but the new automatic transmission didn't miss a beat. Shifts were smooth, though the engine was prone to jumping to high revs in order to gain power. The new automatic transmission uses an electronic program that pairs with the engine's electronic control, and the entire system is governed by fuzzy logic. Sound too confusing? Then go with the manual and use your own logic to shift.
The Sonata rides on a double-wishbone suspension up front and a five-link setup at the rear. Combined with power-assisted variable-ratio rack-and-pinion steering, torque steer is absent. Bumps and road irregularities are well-ironed out, and the steering wheel transmits just enough feedback to the driver. Understeer is moderate, only a detriment when driving fast on really twisty roads. The base Sonata comes with P195/70R-14 all-season tires, but even the meatier Michelin P205/60HR-15 rubber on the GLS gave out frequent squeals of protest on our road test.
One of the chief complaints during our test, strangely enough, is in regard to the cruise control that's optional on the base model and standard on the GLS. Rolling up and down Quebec Province's steeply graded roads, we were surprised to find the cruise drop out on several occasions, in more than one test car. This phenomenon occurred only when plodding up long slopes, so we decided to do a little research.
According to the owner's manual, the cruise control system can be deactivated by either stepping on the brake, switching the cruise button off, or decreasing the car's speed by 20 km/h (approximately 12 mph). Sure enough, the Sonata would lose more than 20 km/h during the long uphill climbs, and the system would cancel itself. Inattentive drivers may find themselves needing to step on the accelerator on occasion, because the cruise system doesn't like to change gears by itself.
Prices for the 1999 Sonata start at $14,999 (not including the destination charge). For such an inexpensive car, the Sonata is nicely equipped. The base model comes with air conditioning, rear window defroster, AM/FM stereo, rear child safety door locks, power windows, power locks and power mirrors, seven-position tilt steering wheel, tinted glass, halogen headlamps and side airbags. The step-up GLS (last year's GL and GL V6 trims have been dropped) brings with it a 100-watt six-speaker stereo with CD player, air filtration system, center console with an armrest and storage space, heated side mirrors, problematic cruise control, upgraded seat cloth, six-way adjustable driver's seat, 60/40 split-folding rear seats, four-wheel disc brakes, V6 engine, a powered antenna and alloy wheels.
The GLS with automatic transmission starts at $17,799. Antilock brakes (complete with traction control) are optional on the GLS, but our Canadian-speced test cars were not available with ABS. Load up the Sonata GLS with ABS, moonroof, leather package and power driver's seat, and the GLS peaks at around $20,000 - no longer a bargain except when compared to a full-loaded Camry or Accord.
Need a buyer worry about revving the engine for power? Need anyone fear that the brand-new engine might not have long-term reliability? To answer these questions, Hyundai has two words for you: Buyer Assurance. Thanks to this revolutionary concept, Hyundai prospects need not think twice about the car's potential for reliability: it's guaranteed. The powertrain warranty covers the Sonata for ten years or 100,000 miles. Read that again, and be impressed. Hyundai is billing the Buyer Assurance warranty the "Decade of Dependability" and "America's Best Warranty," and they're not kidding. Even if the car is purchased used, the powertrain warranty lasts for five years or 60,000 miles. The bumper-to-bumper warranty is good for five years or 50,000 miles, the corrosion warranty is five years or 100,000 miles, and 24-hour roadside assistance is provided for a full five years.
Hyundai is taking the guesswork out of owning a car. People who are shopping the value end of the market are not so concerned with a powertrain's performance as they are with the knowledge that at least the engine and transmission won't require any costly repairs. Dealer response has been lukewarm (don't forget that dealers make quite a bit of money selling extended warranty programs), but the Buyer Assurance warranty is a perfect plan for erasing any lingering concerns about Hyundai's reliability.
Finbarr O'Neill, Hyundai Motor America's CEO, says that Sonata buyers are "young 'sensibles' between the ages of 18 to 34." They're "practical yet stylish" people who "are looking for substance and value, not hype." Hyundai is hoping that they can purloin 20,000 buyers away from Toyota (Camry), Honda (Accord), Nissan (Altima) and Mitsubishi (Galant) with the new Sonata. If their estimates are correct, we can think of 20,000 buyers who will get exactly what they're looking for.