San Francisco Let this be the first Hyundai story that does not say that Hyundai is really getting there. Hyundai is here. Right now, it outsells every import nameplate save Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. And its new, 2006 Sonata shows why it deserves to be onstage alongside the other big boys.
The outgoing Sonata's first-place finish among "entry mid-size" vehicles in J. D. Power's Initial Quality Study and its clean bill of reliability from Consumer Reports would seem to put the quality question to rest at last. (Although . . . the old Sonata was built in Korea, but the new one will come together at a new plant in Alabama, and given the quality problems Mercedes-Benz and Nissan experienced with brand-new factories in Dixie, it's possible that, initially, the new Sonata might not equal the quality of the old.)
Any issues that do crop up had better be addressed quickly, because you can't play in the big leagues being almost as good but cheaper. Fortunately, the new Sonata can stand on its merits. To start with, the car looks good, managing to thread the needle between controversial (as in the Honda Accord's droopy butt) and boring (we're looking at you, Ford Five Hundred). Inside, we find more good design, with a well-laid-out dash, simple controls, and attractive materials-except maybe the bathrobe-like cloth upholstery in the mid-level GLS.
Hyundai managed to cram a lot of space into its good-looking package. The large trunk and roomy interior combine to put the Sonata into the EPA's "large car" category, besting the "mid-size" tag affixed to the Toyota Camry, the Accord, and the Nissan Altima. Indeed, front- and rear-seat riders have plenty of space, although rear-seat comfort suffers with a low seat cushion and squishy padding.
Under the jauntily sculpted hood, both engines are brand-new DOHC units. The 3.3-liter V-6, whose 235 hp is more than the Toyota's but less than the randy Nissan's, is more notable for its quietness (outstanding) than its punch (good). It's paired with a well-mannered five-speed manu-matic only. The 2.4-liter four, again with outputs between Toyota's and Nissan's, is another pleasant piece, but this one's a little shortchanged in the transmission department. Its automatic is only a four-speed, and the manual's linkage is kind of ropy (though the latter will be of interest to a tiny fraction of buyers).
Given that Hyundai is looking to join the mid-size-sedan group rather than stand out from it, it's no surprise that the Sonata's driving dynamics are much closer to those of the mainstream, comfort-oriented Camry and Accord than to those of the firmer Altima or a Mazda 6. Unlike its predecessor, however, this is not a queasy mushmobile patterned after a Nixon-era Buick Electra. It is a plush-riding, modern car that is willing to turn in but just isn't very rewarding when pushed hard.
So, compared with its competition, the new Sonata looks about as good, is at least as roomy, and drives as well. How, then, to pry shoppers away from the vaunted brand-name competitors? First, Hyundai makes all relevant safety equipment-six air bags, ABS, traction control, stability control, even active head restraints-standard on every model. Second, it prices its three trim levels (GL, GLS, and LX) to undercut the competition by at least a grand and sometimes by a few. The big thing that's changed for the '06 Sonata is that the price undercutting is there to overcome inertia, not inferiority.
Price: $18,495(GL), $21,495(GLS), $23,495(LX)
Engine: 2.4L DOHC I-4, 162 hp, 164 lb-ft; 3.3L DOHC V-6, 235 hp, 226 lb-ft