Ingrid Loeffler Palmer, Contributor
Hyundai's television advertisements and press materials for the new Sonata state: "Driving is Believing." In other words: don't judge a car until you've gone a mile in its tire treads ... or, something like that. Anyway, it's an awfully confident motto for a redesigned family sedan taking on powerful market competitors like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Volkswagen Passat, Pontiac Grand Am, Nissan Maxima and Mitsubishi Galant. We, too, were skeptical of the claims Hyundai was making, but after a two-week stint in a Sonata GLS this spring, we became true believers.
Hyundai has outdone itself with the all-new 1999 Sonata. Pricing out just under $21,000, we are impressed with Hyundai's latest efforts. However, we must point out that our test vehicle was equipped in a manner that defies logic. According to our pricing source, a third-party price provider and Hyundai dealer-pricing sheets dated April 12, 1999, it is virtually impossible to order a Hyundai Sonata GLS V6 with leather, premium sound, antilock brakes and traction control without also getting a power sunroof and remote keyless entry. The window sticker supplied with our test car, which had been shipped to a dealership in Denver prior to joining the press fleet and is, therefore, a regular-production model, contained the information in the pricing box above. Indeed, the car was equipped as the sticker dictated--no sunroof or remote keyless. We remain mystified.
The all-new Sonata four-door family sedan that we tested in late spring arrived in GLS trim with a standard 2.5-liter, DOHC, V6 aluminum engine called the Delta. It makes 170 horsepower and 166 foot-pounds of torque, which peaks high at 4,000 rpm. While the V6 provides plenty of highway cruising and passing power, the Sonata's Delta engine felt like a four-banger down low where most Americans want a solid punch of off-the-line grunt. Higher in the rev range, we noticed some disturbing engine racket that accompanied spurts in forward motion. The Sonata's automatic transmission was also easily befuddled, causing occasional hard shifts. Despite this, we appreciated the extra power provided by the V6 and enjoyed driving the Sonata leisurely around town as well as twisting around some mountaintops. We couldn't help but notice the squeal of the Michelin P205/60HR-15 tires when going fast around corners, however.
What consumers should remember is that Sonata is first and foremost a passenger vehicle, and one thing passengers will love about this newly designed car is its extremely smooth ride. Set somewhere between Camry float and Accord tautness, the four-wheel independent suspension provides plenty of damping without becoming too springy. On harsh bumps, however, we felt the front suspension cause some sharp feedback through the chassis and steering wheel. Steering is reasonably direct, body roll is well-controlled, road and wind noise is adequately muffled, and the brakes stop the car with confidence.
Inside is where the Sonata really shines. And we're not talking about the glare off the car's ruby-red hood, either. Hyundai has developed a comfortable seating position in the Sonata with unobstructed visibility in all directions. The instrument panel is well laid-out, sporting a PRNDL display to let you know what gear you're in. Ergonomics are splendid, with easy-to-read numbers and letters. The hieroglyphics that exist on some controls are intuitive enough to decipher and, though we found the stereo layout a bit funky-looking, it took only seconds to figure out how to work it.
Hyundai went and did something to win points in every writer's heart with this year's Sonata-they installed a penholder in the center floor console. It's simply an indentation with a clasp that allows occupants to snap a writing utensil into place. Brilliant. There is also a coin divider and small cubby below the stereo for slotting cell phones and the like. The cruise control on/off switch is easy to locate just to the left of the steering wheel on the dash and the system's controls are mounted conveniently on the steering wheel. We liked the feel of the leather-wrapped gear shifter, appreciated the utility of the dual-compartment center cubby/armrest, and were happy that both the driver and passenger received vanity mirrors with lights.
There were some interior features that we weren't quite smitten with, however. Our test car's dashboard airbag light was on when the vehicle was delivered, and it never went off while in our possession. After filling up the gas tank, the needle hovered just below full, preventing drivers from getting a true fuel-level reading. The driver's seatbelt clasp makes a consistent creaking noise when fiddled with. And, though one editor disagrees, most of us found the marble-like plastic trim that surrounds the center console, door controls, and center cubby extremely ugly. Its brown and tan swirls reminded us of a TCBY yogurt smoothie and it clashed badly with the gray plastic material adorning the rest of the car's interior.
The cupholder design disappointed us as well. A covered lid hides the front cupholders located just behind the gear shifter and it flips open toward the driver, making it difficult for the person in control of the car to reach beverages without taking his eyes off the road. Plus, the cupholders are too shallow to hold tall drinks with security, and the size adjuster is just plain useless.
Overall, Hyundai did such an outstanding job with its new Sonata that we were sad to see the car go. Not only did it meld seamlessly into our suburban lifestyle, but the 1999 Sonata also offered some impressive safety features. Standard side airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners and a passenger-presence detection system (that automatically disables the front airbags if less than 66 pounds is resting on the seat and the side airbags if less than 33 pounds is detected) all contribute to a safer environment.
The company's problem now is overcoming a reputation for producing vehicles of questionable quality. For those who will inevitably challenge the long-term reliability of the new Sonata, don't sweat it. One of the goals of Hyundai engineers was to create a "highly competent, long-lasting vehicle" and this year, they back up their efforts with the bucks. Hyundai now provides all consumers with an industry-leading buyer-assurance program called the Hyundai Advantage. Here's what you get: five years or 60,000 miles on a limited bumper-to-bumper warranty, free 24-hour roadside assistance for five years, corrosion coverage for five years or 60,000 miles, and a 10-year or 10,000-mile powertrain warranty. And, if you sell the car before 10 years are up, the new buyer is entitled to five years or 60,000 miles on the powertrain coverage.
Hyundai has created a desirable, safe and well-equipped automobile perfect for hauling the family around town. If you're still not convinced that the Sonata could lure you away from that Camry, Accord or Passat you've been salivating over, go drive one. They're not lying when they say, "Driving is Believing."
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