By Chris Chase
Photos by Grant Yoxon
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If I could change just one thing about the all-new 2006 Hyundai Sonata, it’d have to be the horn. Maybe it’s a small detail, but in the context of this car as a whole, the wimpy “beep-beep” that issues forth when you want to express your displeasure toward the dimwit who just cut you off is a poor fit.
There’s nothing else to be ashamed of here, though. From its chiselled exterior (have you been working out?) to the roomy interior and the refined and powerful drive-train (you have been working out!), this new Sonata is the Hyundai you might actually want to own, rather than the car you settle for because of its bargain price.
The Sonata’s not small, but it doesn’t look as big as a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, for example, even though all of its exterior dimensions are within millimetres of those of the class benchmarks from Japan. Open the door, though, and your perception changes: this car is spacious enough inside that the U.S. government considers it a full-size car, not a mid-size like its competitors.
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Move the front seats back as far as their tracks will allow and a front seat passenger of average height can easily cross his or her legs. Leave that front seat where it is and a six-foot-tall person will fit in the back with knee- and headroom to spare. The trunk is downright cavernous, offering oodles of cargo space without a huge rear overhang, a la Toyota Camry.
Judged simply by its looks, the Sonata carries itself far better than its price might suggest. For its M.S.R.P of $25,000, my GL-V6 test car featured a long list of standard equipment, including ABS, a tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel with remote audio controls, solar tinted glass, 16″ alloy wheels and fog lights. The only options available on the GL-V6 are a power sunroof and 17″ wheels, bundled together in the $600 Power Sunroof Group. My test car was painted a classy colour Hyundai calls Dark Cinnamon, paired with a beige and grey interior.
All 2006 Sonatas feature air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and door locks, keyless entry and alarm, cruise control, six-speaker sound system, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob. Standard safety items include dual front airbags and side and curtain airbags plus active front-seat head restraints to prevent whiplash in rear-end collisions.
The driver gets a straightforward instrument cluster with a large, central speedometer flanked by a tachometer on the left and fuel and coolant temp gauges on the right. Oddly, the speedo is ringed with silver, but the lack of a similar treatment for the other gauges is conspicuous.
In GL and GL V6 models, the dashboard and shifter surround are also trimmed with what Hyundai calls silver painted metal accents. They’re not lying about the silver and painted parts, but it certainly didn’t feel like metal to me. That said, it’s attractive and I think it looks better than the “I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-wood” trim available in the range-topping GLS model.
Fit and finish was very good with no unseemly gaps between dashboard pieces. Interior storage is ample, with a commodious glove box, a small bin in front of the shifter, a change box to the left of the steering wheel and map pockets in the front doors and seatbacks. There’s also a two-tier storage compartment between the front seats that ostensibly doubles as an armrest. In GLS models, this unit slides fore and aft but in GL and GL V6 models, it’s fixed in place – a place where it’s too far back to be of much use to anything but your elbows.
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The Sonata’s controls are simple and intuitive. My tester had a manual climate control system, with three big, grippy knobs to adjust temperature, fan speed and vent selection (an automatic system is optional on the GLS model and standard on the GLS Premium). The radio is similarly straightforward with nicely sized controls that look big enough to be used with gloved hands. A six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 sound system is standard across the Sonata line-up.
I found the driver’s seat to be comfortable enough for long hauls, thanks to the adjustable lumbar support, but the lack of a similar adjustment for the front passenger seat meant some passengers found it difficult to get comfy. Also, the front seats’ bottom cushions are a couple of inches shorter than they should be and as a result didn’t support thighs very well. And while the seats looked nicely bolstered, I didn’t find they provided enough lateral support.
The driver’s seat is height adjustable over a wide range which, combined with the tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel that’s standard in V6 models (four-cylinder models get a tilt-only wheel), means drivers of all shapes and sizes should be able to find a suitable driving position.
As far as the driving experience is concerned, I found a lot to like and a couple of things that disappointed. Good news first: Hyundai’s new 3.3 litre “Lambda” V6 is perhaps one of the best engines Hyundai has ever produced. Turn the car on and the motor settles into a smooth, quiet idle – so much so, in fact, that the only clue the engine is even running is the 650-rpm registering on the tachometer. Much of the credit for that can be given to the hydraulic engine mounts.
That smoothness continued when the car was in motion. The only time you’ll hear the engine is when you tip into the throttle to accelerate and even then the main sound is the V6’s nicely muted burble. The quality of the engine’s sound was one of my favourite aspects of the car – it never sounded harsh or strained, even during full-throttle acceleration. Instead, it sounded and felt very athletic. The motor’s 235 horsepower and 226 lb-ft of torque move the 1,569 kg Sonata effortlessly and without drama or torque-steer, a common affliction in powerful front-wheel-drive cars. Pin the throttle to the floor and the V6 hauls the car up to speed with nary a tug on the steering wheel. And once you’re travelling at highway speeds, the ride remains quiet. There was enough road noise to communicate information about the road surface to the driver, but it never became intrusive and wind noise was likewise minimal.
The brakes seemed equally well suited to their task. All new Sonatas have four-wheel-disc brakes, with V6 models getting slightly bigger discs than four-cylinder models (11.8 inches in front and 11.2 inches out back, compared to 11 inches and 10.3 inches). Despite a squishy pedal, the brakes on my test car inspired confidence in quick stops, biting aggressively upon initial application, and allowing excellent modulation with increased pedal pressure.
The new Sonata’s suspension and steering combined to make the car very pleasant to drive, even if they don’t turn it into a sports sedan. Steering feel is excellent and again, the driver gets just enough feedback through the wheel to know what the front wheels are doing. Over very rough roads, the wheels occasionally clunked and clomped, but in general, the suspension did a great job of isolating occupants from the worst road surfaces. My only quibble about the ride is that the front end tended to get floaty over large bumps at highway speeds, as if the front shocks were too soft. The rear suspension exhibited none of the same feeling, however, remaining tight and planted to the road, with the result that certain bumps taken at speed had the front and rear ends of the car doing completely different things. Whether this characteristic was isolated to my test car or is hard to say, but it took away from the Sonata’s otherwise excellent on-road demeanour.
Fuel economy-wise, my test car used about 9.5 L/100 km during mostly highway driving, splitting the difference between Hyundai’s city and highway fuel economy ratings of 11.5 L/100 km and 7.2 L/100 km, respectively. I found that to be pretty reasonable considering the air conditioner was on almost constantly to combat the hot and humid weather that persisted during my stint with the car.
If the fuel gauge were a person, it’d be a pessimist: with the gauge reading one-eighth of a tank remaining, the 67-litre tank would only accept about 50 litres. Even after draining the tank to well below the one-eighth mark, it would take less than 59 litres to fill it back up, and not once did the low-fuel warning light come on.
The Sonata’s five-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission operated smoothly and unobtrusively. The Shiftronic manual-shift mode feature is handy and gives the driver virtually complete control over gear choices. The transmission’s electronic brain will only interfere by upshifting to prevent over-revving the engine, and locking out higher gears at low speeds. At a stop, the manual mode allows the driver to select second gear to reduce wheelspin in slippery conditions. My only complaints here are that shifts didn’t seem quite as smooth in manual mode as they were when the transmission chose the gears for itself and its operation is counterintuitive, requiring a forward bump for upshifts and a rearward bump for downshifts. Leave the transmission to do all the work and its performance is commendably smooth, though it was at times slow to kick down to a lower gear for highway passing manoeuvres.
Overall, the new Sonata makes it clear that Hyundai has big plans for its future and wants this car to be taken seriously as an alternative to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. While I don’t think it will completely turn the tables in Hyundai’s favour – it will take more than one car to do that – it will have Hyundai’s competitors looking over their shoulders a little more often.
Technical Data: 2006 Hyundai Sonata GL-V6
|Price as tested||$25,715 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger mid-size sedan|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||3.3 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves|
|Horsepower||235 @ 6000 rpm|
|Torque||226 @ 3500 rpm|
|Transmission||5-speed automatic/manual mode|
|Curb weight||1569 kg (3452 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2730 mm (107.5 in.)|
|Length||4800 mm (189 in.)|
|Width||1832 mm (72.1 in.)|
|Height||1475 mm (58.1 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||462 litres (16.3 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 11.5 L/100 km (25 mpg) Imperial|
|Hwy: 7.2 L/100 km (39 mpg) Imperial|
|Warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|