Monday, December 19, 2005

Can Hyundai Hit the High, Hard Inside Fastball?

Aspiring major leaguers have to be able to hit the high, hard inside fastball. In the mid-size family sedan segment of the auto market, nobody throw’s harder or closer to rivals’ ears than Toyota with its Camry and Honda with its Accord.

That’s what Hyundai took on when the South Korean company decided to remake its bread-and-butter Sonata into a Camry and Accord challenger. The result has been a bit of a mixed success, though not on the product side of the ledger.

Sales of the 2005 Sonata were up a little more than six percent, compared to the previous year, which is an excellent increase. But somehow I expected a bit more spectacular first-year performance for the new Sonata. Maybe I was overly optimistic about what this most impressive Hyundai could do against the bad boys from Japan.

One thing is certain – the redesigned for 2005 Sonata is a sharp, well-designed and nicely performing family sedan offered at a price that is very tough to beat. My Steel Gray XL tester arrived with the usual assortment of standard features, plus Hyundai’s 2.4 liter four cylinder power plant rather than the more desirable 3.3 liter V-6.

The V-6 can be had with a five-speed automatic and will do 0-60 mph a full second or so faster than the four-speed transmissioned four-cylinder, but the two extra cylinders also add more than $2,000 to the Sonata’s sticker and you have to go to GLS model.

The GL keeps the sticker under $20,000 but still provides decent acceleration for daily driving despite sounding and feeling a bit more like an econocar. Fuel economy is mid-twenties for around-town motoring but is likely to be lower for those who are frustrated by an 8.4 second 0-60 mph time.

The interior is well appointed for the price, with quality materials used throughout and with switchgear and instrumentation well-located and ergonomically designed. There is more than enough room for four adults, with rear seat passengers being especially well-treated.

The Sonata’s body structure feels solid and quiet. This is definitely the most quality feeling Hyundai sedan ever. Handling displays some body lean but the brakes and steering are positive and responsive.

The problem for Hyundai is that a four-cylinder Accord or Camry is smoother, gets at least competitive, if not better, fuel economy and isn’t that much more costly. The V-6 Sonata is definitely ready for the majors, but the four-cylinder could use another season in the minors.