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By Greg Wilson
Photos by Greg Wilson and Jil McIntosh
San Francisco, California – When North America’s most respected consumer publication, Consumer Reports, named the 2004 Hyundai Sonata “North America’s most reliable car,” it sent shockwaves across the automotive industry and surprised consumers who were used to seeing Japanese makes at the top of reliability studies.
How could this South Korean car company, that many people still associate with the Pony, Excel, and Stellar, beat out quality leaders like Toyota and Honda?
There are many factors in Hyundai’s improving performance, but perhaps the most significant is that in 1999, the company put together a leadership team composed almost entirely of engineers. Quality was made a corporate priority, and not just in an advertising slogan. The results were evident a few years later: in addition to being named most reliable car by Consumer Reports, the current Sonata was rated the best entry mid-size sedan in J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Survey, and Hyundai as a brand was ranked Number 2 in IQS across the industry.
But it was the speed of the company’s progress that took people by surprise. In 20 years, Hyundai has come from the Pony to the Sonata. It took Japanese automakers 30 or 40 years to do the same thing. In the early 1990s, I made a prediction that, because Hyundai’s rate of progress was so much faster than the Japanese automaker’s rate of progress, it was inevitable that Hyundai would eventually pass the Japanese automakers in quality. That day, or perhaps that decade, may now be here.
For Hyundai, the timing couldn’t have been better. They just introduced the all-new, fifth generation Sonata, and common sense dictates that if the current generation Sonata is the most reliable car in North America, the 2006 model must be at least as good.
Longer, wider and taller than the current model with new styling, two new engines, a new automatic transmission, a new interior, and similar but revised suspension, the 2006 Hyundai Sonata is a radical departure from the old Sonata.
In fact it’s hardly worth comparing it with the current model. For consumers interested in buying a mid-size family sedan, a better comparison is with the import leaders in the mid-size family sedan class: the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima. The 2006 Sonata is longer, wider and roomier than those cars, and with more than 3,426 litres (121 cubic feet) of interior space, the 2006 Sonata is now classified as a “Large Car” by the EPA, while its Japanese competitors are “Mid-size”. For example, the 2006 Sonata has over 84 litres (3 cu. ft.) more cabin volume than the Camry and Altima.
The Sonata’s 461.5 litre (16.3 cu. ft.) trunk is a tad smaller than the Camry’s 473 litre (16.7 cu. ft.) trunk, but much larger than the Accord’s (396 L/14.0 cu. ft.) and Altima’s (442 L/15.6 cu. ft.).
Two all new engines power the 2006 Sonata: a 162 horsepower all-aluminum 2.4 litre DOHC 16 valve four cylinder with continuously variable valve timing and balance shafts (replacing the 138 horsepower 2.4 litre four cylinder); and a new 235 horsepower all-aluminum 3.3 litre DOHC 24 valve V6 with CVVT, variable intake system and hydraulic motor mounts (replacing the 170 horsepower 2.7 litre V6). Though not the most powerful engines in the class, the Sonata’s engines are right up there with the leaders in horsepower and torque.
The four cylinder Sonata is now available with a standard five speed manual transmission as well as an optional 4-speed automatic with Shiftronic manual shift mode. V6 Sonatas are offered with an all-new 5-speed automatic with Shiftronic.
The Sonata’s fully independent suspension (front double wishbone/rear multi-link) is an improved version of the previous set-up with larger anti-roll bars on V6 models.
All 2006 Sonatas now include six standard airbags: dual front airbags, dual front seat-mounted side airbags, and dual curtain airbags. Active head restraints, to help prevent whiplash, are standard on the front seats.
Official government crash tests have yet to be conducted, but the company asserts that the 2006 Sonata will receive a five star rating.
Four disc brakes are standard on all Sonatas, but anti-lock brakes are optional on 4 cylinder models. Top of the line Sonatas are also available with electronic stability control.
Driving the V6 model on the twisty Number 1 Highway just north of San Francisco, I was surprised at how well this fairly big family sedan attacked the corners. With very little lean, minimal understeer, and accurate steering, it was easy to drive quickly. For the most part, the new Sonata has a very comfortable ride. Railway tracks and cracked pavement will produce ‘suspension slap’, but on typical paved surfaces, it’s a comfortable, stable car.
At first, my co-driver, Assistant Editor Jil McIntosh, and I had some difficulty getting the right line through the corners. We pondered this for a while, and Jil finally figured it out: the sculpted concave hood has two ‘V’ lines that run down towards the centre of the hood, drawing your eye to a point that is not at the corner of the car, causing you to steer closer to the road’s edge than you normally would. After adjusting for this ‘illusion’, we were back on track.
The 3.3 litre V6 has lots of off-the-line grunt and terrific highway passing power. With the exception of some unusual idle tappet noise (this was a pre-production car), the engine was very quiet. Hyundai claims the Sonata’s interior decibel levels at idle and during full throttle are lower than Camry and Accord. As well, Hyundai claims less wind noise at highway speeds. I would agree that the Sonata V6 is a very quiet car, but to my ears, it wasn’t noticeably quieter than a Camry V6.
The 5-speed automatic shifts up and down smoothly with no complaint, and during my twisty drive, there was a lot of shifting. I tried the manual Shiftronic mode, but couldn’t really see a use for it in a car like this.
I had a brief drive in the four cylinder Sonata with the 4-speed automatic and was mightily impressed. For a few minutes, I thought I was in the V6. Idle is very smooth, as is acceleration and cruising. There’s plenty of power: on the steep streets of San Francisco, the four cylinder Sonata powered up the hills with no problem. My feeling, in that brief drive, was that the four cylinder engine is all you really need in the Sonata, and the V6 is a luxury.
The interior is indeed roomy. There’s lots of headroom and legroom for four or five adults, and the quality of the interior materials is generally pretty good. Base models get an attractive fake carbon fibre trim on the dash and uplevel models have a simulated woodgrain trim.
The standard soft cloth seats look a bit cheap, but so does the cloth in its major competitors. The optional power driver’s seat has a height adjustment and a manual lumbar adjustment. The gauge cluster is classy and includes a tachometer. The stereo is mounted high in the centre dash where it is easy to operate – although wearing my polarized sunglasses, I had trouble seeing the LCD display. A simple heating/air conditioning system is located centre dash, and there are a few nice touches like a covered storage nook below the heater, a 12 volt powerpoint and space to lay a cell phone, a grocery bag hook on the right front passenger side, and a dual level centre armrest/storage.
What didn’t I like about the new Sonata? The styling is really very generic and shamelessly borrows some styling elements from its competitors. Having said that, it is not offensive or unusual and is well proportioned. And in the family sedan class, styling usually takes a back seat to reliability, comfort, affordability, roominess, and practicality.
The icing on the cake for the 2006 Hyundai Sonata is its low price. Starting at just $21,900 ($22,900 with automatic transmission), base four cylinder 2006 Sonatas include six airbags, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player, power windows, door locks and heated mirrors, keyless entry, leather wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, windshield de-icer, and 16 inch tires and steel wheels.
You can add a $2100 option package to the base model that includes a 4-speed auto, ABS, fog lights, power sunroof and alloy wheels.
For $25,000, the Sonata GL V6 includes the 235 horsepower 3.3 litre V6, 5-speed automatic, anti-lock brakes, alloy wheels, telescopic steering wheel, and fog lights. A $600 upgrade includes 17-inch tires and alloy wheels plus a sunroof.
The top-of-the-line Sonata GLS V6 retails for $26,600, and it includes leather heated seats, power driver’s seat, woodgrain interior trim, power sunroof, 17 inch tires and wheels, and sliding centre armrest.
A $1400 option includes stability/traction control, power adjustable pedals, automatic climate control, air filters, trip computer, compass and Homelink garage door opener.
When you compare the price of the Sonata to Accord, Camry and Altima you can see that the V6 Sonata is about the same price as a four cylinder Camry or Accord. Even the most expensive Sonata is just $28,000. Resale value is a concern, but remember you’re paying less to begin with.
Currently, the V6 Sonata is built in Hyundai’s new plant in Alabama and the four cylinder is built in Korea, but it will eventually be coming out of Alabama. Production is just ramping up now.
With its roomy, quiet cabin, two great new engines, good handling, and low price, the 2006 Sonata is a great buy in the mid-size family sedan category. My only complaints are its lack of standard ABS on base models and its uninspired styling.