by Haney Louka
It’s official: Hyundai is now in Phase III of its journey to universal acceptance as a car manufacturer.
I’ll bet you really want to know what the first two phases were. Phase I was the era of the Pony, Excel, and Stellar of the mid-to-late-eighties; an era that the Korean automaker would surely like to forget. During that time, Hyundai sold many vehicles on the sole basis of price. A lower price than anybody else meant that people could have a brand-spanking-new car for the price of a used Japanese model. While that worked for a while, the buying public grew tired of cars that were cheap for the sake of being cheap.
Phase II saw tremendous improvement in Hyundai’s products throughout the nineties. The phrase, “it’s nice … for a Hyundai,” could be heard describing many a Korean car during this time. While quality improved, Hyundai still needed to set bargain-basement prices to compensate for the discrepancies in quality and refinement when comparing their cars to those of the Japanese.
So here we are with 2003 just around the corner and we find ourselves looking at Hyundai’s models-and this Sonata in particular-and thinking to ourselves, “That’s a really nice car.” Period. No qualifiers. This, folks, is officially Phase III, and for Hyundai, it’s been a long time coming.
The Sonata was completely redesigned for 2002. Aside from standard anti-lock brakes (ABS) on the top-end GLX model, it carries into ’03 largely unchanged.
The Sonata is available in three trim levels: GL, GL V6, and GLX. The GL starts at $21,595 and is equipped with A/C, cruise control, power windows and locks with keyless entry, CD stereo and more. The $22,695 GL V6 adds four-wheel disc brakes, alloy wheels, and fog lights. The top-end GLX, like the example I drove, lists at $25,695 and comes with heated leather seats, ‘wood’ trim, automatic climate control, sunroof, and ABS.
Nuts & Bolts
As is expected in the fiercely competitive mid-size sedan segment, Sonatas are available with either four- or six- cylinder powerplants. Offered only on the GL model, the dual overhead cam four-banger displaces 2.4L and puts out 149 hp at 5,500 rpm and 156 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. GL V6 and GLX models are propelled by a 2.7-L six-pot, the output numbers of which are 170 hp at 6,000 rpm and 177 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm.
Transferring power to the front wheels of all Sonata models is a four-speed automatic transmission with “Shiftronic” manual shift mode. The Shiftronic system allows drivers to manually select gears rather than letting the transmission’s computer do the thinking.
All models except the GL are equipped with four-wheel disc brakes, while the GL makes do with drums in the back. As I noted earlier, ABS is standard on the GLX, but for some unknown reason this active safety feature is not even on the options lists of the other trim levels.
Keeping the Sonata’s tires firmly on the ground is a fully independent double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension with stabilizer bars fore and aft.
Click image to enlarge
Styling – Inside & Out
A few observers opined that this Hyundai bears more than a passing resemblance to the products of a certain automaker from Coventry. The elliptical headlight treatment and strong character lines in the Sonata’s body panels do give the Sonata an air of understated elegance, as do the taillights that look like something between those of an Olds Intrigue and a Jaguar S-Type.
The ’02 redesign isn’t as groundbreaking as the new Altima’s, mind you, but it is a cohesive and classy package that I think will serve Hyundai well for the duration of the Sonata’s model run.
While the Sonata’s exterior styling makes a powerful first impression, its favourable influence is more than just skin deep. Inside, driver and passengers are treated to a tasteful interior with high-grade fit and finish. High-grade dash materials and subtle use of metallic accents make the inside of the Sonata a nice place to spend time. I’ve never been a fan of wood-grain trim, though, especially if it’s as unconvincing as it is in the Sonata. While I’m carping, I may as well express my disappointment with the grade of leather in my tester. It’s kinda hard and plasticky, and I have reservations about how well it will wear. It’s too bad that the GLX can not be ordered any other way.
All major interior controls fall easily to hand and the automatic climate control is very intuitive and effective. Rear seat room seems better than the numbers suggest – legroom back there is below average for the class at 36.2 inches-and the accommodations are comfortable.
The Driving Experience
The Sonata is a very easy car to drive. With excellent visibility and a low cowl that reminds me of Accords gone by, the view from the driver’s seat is relaxing and inspires confidence.
Power from the 24-valve V-6 in uplevel Sonatas is adequate, but below average in comparison to Hyundai’s Japanese and domestic competitors. In a day when Accord and Altima put out 240 hp, the Sonata’s 170 horses seem rather overworked. Add the relative peakiness of the engine’s power delivery-the real action starts above 4,000 rpm-to the meager peak output numbers, and the Sonata’s only major shortcoming makes itself known. The transmission doesn’t help matters either, as in automatic mode, part-throttle upshifts are made too early, not giving the engine a chance to build up enough steam.
There are two things that really help here: first, using the manual mode is easy and intuitive, and allows the driver to tell the transmission which gear to be in for maximum response and performance. Second, while the transmission only has four forward gears, the ratios are appropriately spaced to allow excellent passing power at highway speeds-a feeling of thrust that belies the story the numbers tell.
To Sum It Up
In this new Sonata, Hyundai has a product that stands on its own merit, not its fire-sale price. So go out and take a serious look at a new Hyundai before Phase III comes to an end, and Phase IV – when Hyundai realizes that its products will still sell at the same price as competing Japanese models – comes to fruition.
The Sonata competes in one of the most cut-throat segments of the market today and must do battle with the following mid-size sedans:
- Buick Century ($25,325-28,045)
- Chevrolet Impala ($24,875-29,410)
- Chrysler Sebring ($23,320-27,380)
- Ford Taurus ($24,550-27,520)
- Honda Accord ($23,800-32,500)
- Kia Magentis ($21,295-29,095)
- Nissan Altima ($23,498-27,698)
- Olds Alero ($21,480-27,670)
- Pontiac Grand Am ($21,405-27,830)
- Saturn L-Series ($23,480-26,890)
- Subaru Legacy ($24,995-32,495)
- Toyota Camry ($23,755-30,715)
|2002 Hynundai Sonata GLS|
|Price as tested||$25,695|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger mid-size sedan|
|Layout||transverse front engine, front wheel drive|
|Engine||2.7 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves|
|Horsepower||170 @ 6000 rpm|
|Torque||177 lb-ft. @ 4000 rpm|
|Transmission||4-speed automatic with Shiftronic manual shift mode|
|Curb weight||1485 kg (3274 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2700 mm (106.3 in.)|
|Length||4747 mm (186.9 in.)|
|Height||1422 mm (56.0 in.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 11.8 L/100 km (24 mpg)|
|Hwy: 7.9 L/100 km (36 mpg)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km; 5 yrs/100,000 km powertrain|