By Haney Louka

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS
Click image to enlarge

Without a doubt, this is the most impressive vehicle I’ve driven all year.

Not on an absolute scale, mind you – that honour would have to go to the Porsche Carrera Coupe, and I’m scheduled to drive the Corvette Z06 next month. But it is most impressive on a relative scale, for many important reasons.

The new-for-2006 Sonata isn’t only vastly better than the car it replaces – it wouldn’t be such big news if that were the case. After all, for years each successive new Hyundai model has represented a notable improvement over its predecessor.

But here’s the big news: for the first time ever, it’s also better than many of its mainstream Japanese competitors. And when the competition includes Camry, Accord, Altima, and 6, the magnitude of Hyundai’s designers’ and engineers’ accomplishments becomes clear.

The theme for this new fifth-generation Sonata, as far as I can tell, is substance.

There’s substance in the styling: the wheels and tires are, at long last, meaty. The rubber says “Michelin Pilot” on the sidewall. The car has a broad stance with a meaningful presence. There are two exhaust pipes peering beneath the rear bumper.

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS
Click image to enlarge

Although not entirely original (the rear end looks like an Accord that has received a much-needed butt-lift, and there’s a hint of Lexus GS back there), the styling of the new car just plain works. With the exception of the current-generation Tiburon, this is the first Hyundai I found myself glancing back at while walking away after parking it.

There’s substance in the feel of every switch and surface: door handles, dash switches, gear selector, upholstery and most plastics. It looks good too, especially with my tester’s faux-carbon fibre trim (wood grain is optional). And it’s all laid out in an ergonomically sound fashion.

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS
Photo: Hyundai. Click image to enlarge

Interior storage is plentiful, with thoughtful cubbies throughout. On the centre stack, just below the climate controls, there’s a covered bin with a grippy surface to keep things inside from sliding around. There’s a change compartment left of the steering wheel, and beneath the sliding centre console armrest hides more commodious storage space. Gauges are of the simple white-on-black variety with a metallic ring to visually separate the speedometer from the surrounding instrument panel. A couple of nice surprises came in the form of one-touch open and close for the sunroof and driver’s window.

And there’s substance under the hood: V6-equipped models are powered by Hyundai’s new “Lambda” engine, which displaces 3.3 litres and produces 235 robust horsepower. More on that later.

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS
Click image to enlarge

The fact that I haven’t mentioned the price until several paragraphs into this review speaks volumes about the car’s other endearing qualities. But despite the car’s ability to more than hold its own against the best, it still undercuts its competition by several thousand dollars.

The Sonata line-up starts with the GL at $21,900. Powered by a 160-hp four-cylinder mated to a five-speed manual transmission, standard equipment includes A/C, side and head curtain airbags, windshield deicer, leather for the steering wheel and shift knob, power windows and locks with keyless entry, cruise control, 16-inch wheels, and six-speaker CD/MP3 player. A four-speed automatic transmission can be added for $1,000.

GL V6 versions of the Sonata list for an even $25,000 and include the aforementioned 235-hp V-6, five-speed automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, telescoping steering wheel, wheel-mounted audio controls, alloy wheels, and fog lights. Another $600 buys a power sunroof and 17-inch alloys.

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS
Click image to enlarge

Our tester was a GLS V6 model that, at $26,600, adds leather seats (heated in front), power driver’s seat, power sunroof, sliding centre armrest, and 17-inch alloys. Had our tester been the full load version, it would have included the $1,400 premium group, which comes with stability and traction control, automatic climate control, trip computer, HomeLink, and an auto-dimming mirror with built-in compass.

And that’s it. $28,000 is all you can pay for a fully-loaded Sonata. Oh yeah, you’ll need to add $125 for metallic paint. As a point of reference, similarly equipped competitors are priced as follows: Honda Accord EX-V6: $33,600. Nissan Altima 3.5 SE with automatic, sunroof, and leather: $34,298. Mazda6 GT-V6 with automatic: $34,095. Toyota Camry XLE V-6: $33,345.

Getting the picture?

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS
Photo: Hyundai. Click image to enlarge

But it’s not about the price. I drove the car for a few days before looking up its as-tested price so that I’d form my opinions without any “… for the price” qualifiers. And you know what? It doesn’t need them. The price advantage of the Sonata came as a genuine surprise after thoroughly impressing me with its solidity, performance, and all-around competence.

Let’s start with the powertrain. By the hard numbers, the Sonata lands right in the thick of the mid-sized sedan pack: 235 hp at 6,000 rpm and 226 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 revs. The all-aluminum engine features variable intake valve timing and a variable induction system to broaden the power band. Attaching the engine to the car’s subframe are hydraulic mounts to minimize the transmission of noise, vibration, and harshness to the car’s interior.

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS
Click image to enlarge

There’s a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode transferring power to the front wheels.

With a double-wishbone front suspension, Hyundai eschews the usual MacPherson struts for a layout more in common with the zoom-zoom Mazda6 than the pedestrian Camry. The L-shaped lower arm, Hyundai says, improves handling while reducing road noise and impact vibration. Rear suspension duties are accomplished using an independent multilink setup and stabilizer bars are provided fore and aft.

Four-wheel disc brakes (11.8- and 11.2-inch diameter front/rear respectively) with four-channel ABS and electronic brake force distribution are standard on V-6-equipped models, while four-banger Sonatas have smaller discs with ABS on the option list.

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS
Photo: Hyundai. Click image to enlarge

While stability and traction control are part of the $1,400 premium package, passive safety features such as side and head curtain airbags are standard across the board. Kudos.

But how does it all work? This is where the beauty of the Sonata lies: this car has, and I’m not kidding, the “gotta drive it” factor.

While the engine provides a welcome 65-horse increase over last year’s 170-hp unit, what’s really important is how accessible that power is. That’s where the 226 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 revs come in. That low-end grunt teams up with a transmission that’s truly difficult to confuse, rendering the manual shift mode mostly redundant. And that’s a sign of a good slushbox.

The engine turns a relaxed 2,200 revs at a road speed of 110 km/h, but when the hammer is dropped revs jump almost instantly to 4,500 – the meat of the engine’s power band – to make for excellent passing power.

Steering response is positive, although turn-in isn’t the quickest. Feedback through the wheel, however, is excellent. Ride quality is on the sporty side, which is to say pleasantly stiff while still compliant enough to keep things comfortable.

Interior space is up there with the best of them, and then some: with a total volume of 3,398 litres, it has been classified in the U.S. as a “large” car, or one size up from the aforementioned Japanese competition, although the Altima comes close. Rear seat space and comfort are especially noteworthy. Cargo capacity is similarly impressive: 462 litres’ worth of trunk space against the Accord’s 396 and Mazda6’s 429.

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS

2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS
Click image to enlarge

Complaints? For one, Hyundai’s model structuring is a little odd. Traction control should be standard equipment or at least available on lower-end models, not just the one with all conceivable options. Ditto the trip computer. The wheel-mounted controls for cruise and audio are well laid out, except there’s no way to change radio stations or CD tracks from there.

And there are a few locations in the interior that would benefit from higher-quality plastics, such as lower down across the dash. Note that this gripe applies to almost every entry in the Sonata’s segment, so once again, buyers aren’t settling here.

That’s it. Picking nits is as far as I can go with the new Sonata.

For once, Hyundai is right up there with the best in its class, bypassing many of its Japanese competitors while maintaining a convincing price advantage. Space, performance, style, price: this one has it all.

Shopping Around

It’s a crowded segment, but Hyundai has a winner:

  • Buick Allure
  • Chevrolet Epica
  • Chevrolet Malibu
  • Chrysler Sebring
  • Dodge Charger
  • Ford Fusion
  • Honda Accord
  • Kia Magentis
  • Mazda6
  • Mitsubishi Galant
  • Nissan Altima
  • Pontiac G6
  • Subaru Legacy
  • Suzuki Verona
  • Toyota Camry
  • VW Jetta

Technical Data: 2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS V6

Base price $21,900
Base price (GLS) $26,600
Options $125 (metallic paint)
Freight $615
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $27,440 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives
Type 4-door, 5-passenger family sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel drive
Engine 3.3-litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves
Horsepower 235 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 226 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm
Transmission five-speed automatic with manual shift mode
Tires P225/50R-17 all-season
Curb weight 1,569 kg (3,452 lb.)
Wheelbase 2,730 mm (107.5 in.)
Length 4,800 mm (189.0 in.)
Width 1,832 mm (72.1 in.)
Height 1,475 mm (58.1 in.)
Trunk space 462 litres (16.3 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 11.5 L/100 km (24.3 mpg Imperial)
  Highway: 7.2 L/100 km (38.9 mpg Imperial)
Warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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