The word sonata has negative associations for me. It is a universally acknowledged truth that all good, obedient Korean girls must take piano lessons from about the age of five. If they are good and obedient enough, they'll have garnered skills to play for Mom's friends (well enough not to embarrass her) when they come over for coffee. If they are exceptionally fine daughters who really love their mothers, enough to bring honor and glory to the family name, they will become world-renowned pianists, playing in front of enraptured audiences while wearing flowing white gowns (picked out by their mothers, of course).
Inherently lazy as I am, I hated practicing. What's more, I wasn't too fond of my piano teacher, possessed of a sharp tongue and a stiff ruler with which to rap my knuckles if I got a note wrong. "Play the Czerny Sonata! Again! Perfect this time! Ugh, you're hopeless!" To this day, every time I hear the word sonata, I can almost feel the stinging on my poor hands and hear the ghostly feint of mental abuse, yes, mental abuse that permeated my Thursday afternoons.
Similarly, some may have unhappy associations with Sonatas, not for any musical compositions for which they are named but for the less-than-illustrious cars that have borne that name. Introduced in 1989, the Hyundai Sonata was a step up from the Excel, yet its shoddy build quality and unrefined powertrain could do little to entice the American buyers away from their beloved Accords and Camrys, which cost a little more but were years ahead in terms of overall quality and performance.
The second-generation version, introduced in 1995, was a bit better in terms of fit and finish and Hyundai reported a 25 percent increase in sales. But it was in 1999, a watershed year for Hyundai, that a truly drivable car emerged, with new styling, engines and increased attention to eliminating the bugaboos of family sedans: noise and harshness. This is the one that nearly tied for third place in our Bread-and-Butter Sedan Test. Call it the law of diminished returns, but most of our editors were pleasantly surprised by this iteration.
Now comes the 2002 Sonata, sporting what Hyundai likes to refer to as a "major minor change," with small refinements and improvements to make the Sonata that much more palatable. In a look that they cutely call "neo-retro," its sheetmetal has been revised; we see that Hyundai designers have been looking at the "single-cell organism undergoing asexual reproduction" headlamp styling cue of the Mercedes C-Class. Actually, it's somewhat reminiscent of the second-generation Sonata. The rear fascia has also been revised; it keeps the crease on the decklid but drops the chintzy nameplate splashed across its behind.
While the 2.4-liter inline four engine, with 149 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque, soldiers on without alteration, the V6's displacement has been increased from 2.5 to 2.7 liters. The horsepower rating is improved from 170 to 181 at the same 6,000 rpm, while 10 more pound-feet of torque are available, totaling 177 at 4,000 rpm in order to achieve a flatter torque curve. This is a smooth, quiet motor that won't necessarily inspire you to don racing gloves, but it provides decent acceleration and enough thrust to merge with confidence on the highway.
These numbers are lacking compared to the output of the six-cylinder models of its Japanese competitors and actually exceeds those of most of its American rivals, such as the Ford Taurus or Chevy Malibu, but, as Hyundai contends, the price point of the Sonata with the V6 engine is less than that of the four-cylinder models of its rivals. Thus, a comparison between the Sonata's V6 and the Japanese models' I4s is more apt, in which case, the Sonata has them all beat. Given the choice, aside from the issue of decreased gas mileage, why not get a V6 over an I4?
Tempering both engines is your choice of a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. The latter comes with a Shiftronic automanual unit, which is more of a gimmick in a basic midsize sedan than an actual positive attribute. But it holds third gear on inclines and allows you to merge with bravura in traffic.
Ride quality is slightly improved, as Hyundai fiddled with the rear multilink suspension. It's tuned with a bias toward comfort, although bumps in the road are transmitted a little more harshly into the cabin than they should be. Steering, although light and somewhat flighty on the highway, is linear and direct, with a tight turning radius of 34.4 feet. Front and rear disc brakes stopped the car with confidence.
Inside, we found interior materials to be on the economy side, but perfectly acceptable for a car of this price. Additionally, even your basic Sonata boasts an impressive list of standard equipment. Included are a CD player; air conditioning; foglamps; power locks, mirrors and windows; 60/40 split folding rear seats; remote keyless entry; side airbags and cruise control. The trunk opens and closes with struts rather than parcel-crushing hinges, and cargo capacity has been increased to 14.1 cubic feet, a 1.1-cubic-foot improvement.
If you choose to equip your car with the V6, available only in GLS and LX trim, you get 16-inch wheels, a dual-tiered center console, a power antenna, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated mirrors and a cassette player along with the CD player. You also get front and rear disc brakes (optional on the base model) and the option of traction control. The LX, a new trim level for 2002, comes with leather trim, power driver seat and climate control. Disappointingly, though, ABS is an option on all trim levels.
The Hyundai Sonata lacks the polish and heft of several of its Japanese counterparts; for example, some of the plastics around the front passenger footwell area are unfinished and could use a bit more attention to detail. Plastic moldings that are imprecisely cut, with visible seam lines on some of the trim pieces, detract from a high-quality look and feel. But choosing a Sonata, with these few minor quibbles, will run you a few grand less than comparably equipped Japanese models.
Most midsize import cars, once seen as economy cars, seem to be inching toward the entry-level luxury sedan level in terms of content, with such once-highfalutin' features as navigation systems, side curtain airbags and in-dash six-disc CD changers on the options list. One once-humble sedan, the Nissan Altima, gets a fire-breather of an engine, with 240 horses for 2002. The Passat is awaiting an eight-cylinder powerplant. Those puppies can drive up the price of a vehicle to prohibitive levels.
Which means that if you don't have more than $20,000 to spend on a car, you'll have to settle for a used car or the very basic model. With a Hyundai, the same amount of money will get you an all-frills-included car.
At one time, buying a Korean car necessarily meant that a compromise had to be reached; you bought a Korean car because you couldn't afford anything else. No longer. The choice is almost on an even-keel now, and the Koreans are steadily gaining.