Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
"The introduction of the 2006 Hyundai Sonata is the most important vehicle debut in the history of Hyundai." This bold statement was made by Hyundai Motor America's CEO Bob Cosmai. Granted, many press introductions are filled with this kind of hyperbole as well as hokey sales meeting clichés like "hit the numbers" but Hyundai officials may not be overstating the importance of their newest car.
The Hyundai Sonata is the company's best-selling model and accounts for roughly 26 percent of total Hyundai sales.
The 2006 Hyundai Sonata is built on a new platform at an all-new U.S. factory in Montgomery, Alabama — the first Hyundai to be built in America. The sedan is bigger and offers two new engines plus a new five-speed automatic transmission. Think Hyundai is serious about making the Sonata a contender? We do.
Improved Interior The new car is 2 inches longer and taller with a 1-inch-longer wheelbase than the previous Sonata. It's wider than the 2005 versions of the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry.
Once inside the car, it doesn't appear notably larger than its Japanese rivals but the rear seat does offer about a half-inch more legroom than the Camry. The trunk is spacious as well and offers more room than the Accord and Altima. Only the Camry tops the Sonata in this area with 16.7 cubic feet of cargo capacity versus the Hyundai's 16.3.
But numbers don't tell the whole story. The 2006 Sonata's interior is not only larger than before, it looks and feels better, too. The dash and door panels are covered with soft-touch materials that, in some places, mimic the feel of an Audi. That's not to say the entire interior is up to Audi standards, but our initial impression is that this Hyundai's cabin is definitely on par with its direct competitors.
The seats are reasonably comfortable but the seat bottoms are too short and even the power-adjustable driver seat in the upscale LX model was difficult to position exactly right. We also feel the leather-covered seats are a little less comfortable than the cloth seats. Thankfully, that cloth is as good as or better than that found on cars like the benchmark Honda Accord. Even the cloth inserts on the doors feel soft and durable.
Lots of Features The Sonata is offered in three trim levels: base GL ($17,895), midlevel GLS ($18,795) and "loaded" LX ($20,895). The base car comes with features like six airbags, cruise control, ABS, stability and traction control, remote keyless entry and an MP3/CD player. The midlevel GLS has extras like 16-inch alloy wheels, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and automatic lights. The LX adds features like heated leather seats, sunroof, 17-inch wheels, V6, five-speed automatic and a power driver seat.
The GL and GLS come standard with a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine. A 3.3-liter V6 is optional on the GLS and standard on the LX. The four-cylinder makes 162 hp and uses variable valve timing. The V6 makes 235 hp and delivers its 226 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm.
Driving Dynamics The power and refinement of both engines are notable with the V6 being more fun and responsive. Still, the smaller engine doesn't sound or feel harsh and those who prefer the fuel economy and lower price of a four-cylinder car won't get shortchanged by choosing the Sonata GL or GLS.
The LX with its standard V6, 17-inch wheels and Michelin Pilot tires feels sportier and comes close to the Honda Accord's taut feel. The '06 Sonata is no road racing champ but it does have a combination of firm brakes, a powerful engine and predictable handling that makes it an entertaining drive should the mood strike you.
On the open highway, the Sonata LX is remarkably quiet. Even at speeds of 80 mph and above, wind and road noise are never intrusive. In city driving, the five-speed automatic transmission worked well. It never hunted or chose the wrong gear. If anything, the transmission is reluctant to downshift but this is likely due to the Sonata's V6 delivering most of its torque at a fairly low engine speed. Still, when downshifts came they were smooth and sure.
Tough Competition On the whole, the new Sonata is a huge improvement over its predecessor. It's attractive inside and out and is filled with standard features like six standard airbags and stability control. We don't like the leather seats and would wish for a more premium stereo on the LX model, but Hyundai has done so much right that it boils down to nitpicking.
The 2006 Sonata may be the first Hyundai we can recommend without qualifiers like "for the price." Sub-$20,000 pricing (GL only) and 100,000-mile warranties will only get you so far. With the Sonata's excellent attention to detail and generous standard features, the price is just icing on the cake. It may sound like blasphemy but Camry and Accord shoppers now have one more stop to make at the local auto mall before deciding on a midsize sedan.
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