Hyundai Sonata: This V-6 goes after Accord and Camry

Friday, August 5, 2005

I've been trying for months to get my hands on Hyundai's redesigned Sonata V-6 for a test drive, and my day finally came last week. Hyundai thinks it has built a car that gives Honda Accord and Toyota Camry -- the best sellers in the mid-size sedans segment -- some direct competition. I wanted to see for myself.

My local salesman was justifiably proud of Hyundai's latest creation as he pointed out the many standard Sonata features that Honda and Toyota buyers would pay "extra" for. I was impressed, but I wasn't sold -- skid control, anti-lock brakes, side curtain airbags and automatic A/C do not, in themselves, make a great car. Building it in the states (in a brand new plant in Alabama) makes it more acceptable to Americans, and making it better looking than the Honda or the Toyota (in my humble opinion) doesn't hurt either. That amazing 100,000-mile powertrain warranty is a real asset, but the big question remains -- is it as refined as its Japanese cousins?

According to EPA classifications, the Sonata is a "large car" -- in the same category as the new Ford Five Hundred, Malibu MAXX, and Toyota Avalon. The Honda and Camry, of course, are midsize cars, which really muddies the water. Considering that the Ford Five Hundred is nearly a foot longer than Sonata, provides 30 percent more trunk space and 4 1/2 inches more rear legroom, one has to wonder if we need to rethink our car classifications. Or, you can just think of the situation as a bonus when you pass those "little" Accords and Camrys in your new Sonata.

But is the Sonata really roomier? A little bit. The Sonata, Accord and Camry each have about the same wheelbase, track, length, width and height, but the Sonata has more interior volume -- 121.7 cubic feet -- and so falls into the large car category. It also has a tad more rear legroom, shoulder room and hiproom than the Toyota or Honda. (In case you're wondering, the Accord has 116.7 cu ft of interior volume, the Camry 118.5.)

Driving the Sonata

The Sonata's 3.3-liter, 235-horsepower, 24-valve, continuously variable valve timing V-6 feels about as powerful and smooth as the Camry's 210-horsepower V-6 -- which is high praise. Hyundai's spec sheet says its car makes 5-horsepower less than the Accord, but 14 more foot-pounds of torque at 1,500 less rpm. So if the two cars weighed the same, had the same gearing and equivalent tires, they would be pretty evenly matched in a drag race. But the Honda is 100 pounds lighter, and my seat-of-the-pants impression is the Honda is the quicker car. But the Sonata V-6 is quick, the automatic transmission is slick and you'll find yourself mashing the gas pedal into the carpet just for the thrill of it. The sophisticated transmission does its job flawlessly, or you may select its five gears manually at the console-mounted shifter -- handy if you drive in the mountains or a hilly city such as San Francisco.

Steering, handling and ride are a technological leap forward for Hyundai, and are now in the same class as the Honda and Toyota. Not better than, but in the same class. The interstate is where the Sonata shines -- plush, with hardly a whisper of wind noise. The doors feature triple-sealed weather gaskets. The standard power windows fit precisely. Attention has been paid to aerodynamics. But Hyundai could study Japanese suspension sound-deadening technology. Run the Sonata over rough pavement and you'll hear the suspension working -- you don't hear that in Camry or Accord. The Sonata's seats are good, but they're not quite up to the Accord standard. Still, the Sonata is very comfortable, and thanks to all the standard amenities, you feel as if you're in a nicer car than the window sticker would suggest.

My test vehicle, a top-of-the-line LX, listed for $24,895, including destination charge. The car was loaded, but there were only two extra-cost items: an $850 power sunroof and a $550 6-disc CD changer with subwoofer and remote amplifier. Expensive optional items, such as electronic stability control, ABS, active head restraints, side airbags, automatic transmission, leather heated front seats, steering wheel audio controls, tilt/telescope steering wheel, automatic temperature control, 17-inch alloy wheels, trip computer and automatic lights are all standard equipment. According to Hyundai's Web site, an equivalent Accord would cost about $4,000 more, and a Camry would run about $3,000 more.

And that leads to a discussion of resale value. Hyundai's 100,000 mile warranty is bound to be a factor at trade-in time, but whether it will level the playing field with the spectacular used car values of Toyota and Honda is anybody's guess. It might surprise you to know that Hyundai is the fourth best-selling import in North America behind Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. It is also interesting to note that the Sonata gets exactly the same mileage, 20-mpg/city and 30-mpg/highway, as the V-6 Accord.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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