2006 Hyundai Sonata Expert Review:Autoblog
We've been waiting the 2006 Hyundai Sonata to pull in the Autoblog Driveway ever since glowing reviews of the car hit the pages of every major auto rag. It's obvious at first glance that the 2006 Sonata is a major improvement over past iterations. There are so many questions to be answered, however, like whether it has improved enough to become a legitimate player in a family sedan market that's dominated by a pair of relatively pricey Japanese heavyweights: the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
One fact that no one seems to be questioning is that the Sonata looks great on paper. We received the GLS model with
the 3.3L V6 that has a base price of $20,895, above which resides only the LX starting at $22,895. The only available
options on the GLS are a power tilt-and-slide sunroof and a sorely missed Premium Sport Package for $1,500 that
includes the aforementioned sunroof, a power driver’s seat, a few odds and ends and larger 17” alloy wheels, all of
which our tester lacked. What it didn’t lack was an incredibly long list of standard features including six airbags,
nearly power everything, cruise control, a CD/MP3 stereo with wheel-mounted controls, Electronic Stability Control,
Traction Control, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, 16” alloy wheels, a 5-speed automatic with SHIFTRONIC and, of course,
the new 235-hp 3.3L V6 with continuous variable-valve timing.
All of that for just $20,895 less tax and delivery, which, according to this Edmunds comparison, is $2,880 less than a comparably equipped Camry and $3,055 less than an Accord, neither of which is even available with such dynamic hardware as ESC or TC. Sure the new Sonata’s a great deal, sure it’s the best product to come out of Korea yet, and sure, it’s pretty good looking to boot. But while me, you and every other car guy knows how far Hyundai has come with the Sonata, it’s those other folks out there who still associate Korean cars with basic, no-frills transportation that Hyundai has to reach.
For an automaker, trying to reverse a negative image with consumers is a painfully slow process – just ask one of the domestics. But Hyundai’s making all the right moves with this car and creating converts faster than Billy Graham in a biker bar. While I would certainly count myself among the converted, I’m still not convinced that the new Sonata can successfully compete at the elevated price level of its competitors.
As we learned from an earlier post, the car has been selling like gangbusters compared to the model it replaces and transaction prices at the dealership have also been rising. But as a car person you have to ask yourself, deep down, if someone gave you the choice of a loaded Accord or Sonata for free, which would you take? Yeah, it’s a tough question to answer. Is the Sonata a better car than the Accord or Camry? No, it really isn’t for reasons we’ll touch on later in the week. Is the Sonata a better car for the money? Yes, it absotively, posolutely is, and that’s enough in my book to earn it a pass to play with the big dogs.
Over the next week we’ll get into the experience of driving the Sonata, particularly how Hyundai’s new 235-hp 3.3L Lambda V6 performs in concert with the car’s 5-speed slushbox. The Sonata will accompany me on a trip that spans the length of Ohio so I’ll have plenty of seat time to evaluate the handling as well as the car’s interior design and overall fit and finish. I’m curious to know whether by the end of the week the Sonata will have me on my knees praising Hyundai or merely continuing my defense of it to those who still wrongly consider Korean cars to be crap.
We were planning on talking about the driving characteristics of the 2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS V6 in this second post, but there a couple of trips left to take in it so we thought we'd save that portion of the review until we've had the most amount of seat time. Instead we'll focus on the car's interior and general livability. We have already gobbled up a good number of highway miles in the Sonata on a trip to visit family and have some fun at Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH. This allowed us to use the car in much the same way many families would – packing up some gear, filling the tank and taking to the highway.
The new Sonata has a generous sized trunk that was easily able to swallow two baskets of laundry and a large duffel
bag. The picture is actually misleading as we later shoved those items another foot or so deeper into the trunk.
Compared to the Camry, Accord and Altima (added to the comparison at a reader’s behest), the Sonata’s 16.3 cubic feet
of trunk space beats all except the Camry’s 16.7 cubic feet. The Sonata’s trunk does feature gas struts instead of
space robbing hinges, one of the many nice touches we found throughout the Sonata.
Slip into the driver’s seat and you’re greeted by an interior that offers no surprises but is pleasant to behold, kind of like the exterior. The materials are of a surprisingly high quality and feel substantial to the touch. Buttons depress and knobs turn with a sort of deliberateness that you demand from an Audi but don’t expect from a Hyundai. Damping is employed wherever possible on such items as the grab handles above each door and little touches that are much appreciated like visor extenders can be found throughout the interior. Those small touches probably don’t add a lot of cost, but they go a long way in improving the quality of an owner’s time spent in the car.
The front seats were a point of contention in our jaunt across Northern Ohio. While I felt the driver’s seat was firm and that the seat cushion wasn’t long enough, my significant other said that they were fine and I should stop my bitching. The seats, in my bitchy opinion, were a weak point of the driving experience as it was difficult for me, an average size person at 5'10", to find a comfortable position. The seat cushion’s short length made me always feel like I was sliding forward, and adjusting the driver’s lumbar support only made it worse.
The Sonata GLS V6 does come standard with a SHIFTRONIC shift function that allows one manually select the five gears of the automatic transmission. The only reason I mention it now rather than later when we talk about the car’s performance is because this manumatic does nothing for the car’s performance. Though some people appreciate these faux manuals, a manumatic does nothing more than allow you to select the shift point of your slushbox. It will still shift just as slow as before and chances are it would’ve chosen a more appropriate time to shift than you anyway. Hyundai’s SHIFTRONIC is no exception and just adds another gate to the shifter’s track. Unless it’s a DSG or true electrohydraulic clutchless manual, I just leave it in D and drive.
We spent about four hours on the highway with the Sonata and were pleased with its demeanor. The GLS V6 with its 16-inch wheels and all-season tires is definitely tuned for a comfy highway ride, and the independent suspension soaks up potholes and expansion joints like a sponge. While there was a bit of wind noise while cruising up near 75-80 mph, it wasn’t substantial or unexpected in a vehicle designed more for Route 66 than the Autobahn. Steering wheel-mounted controls for the stereo are a standard feature, a quick tap of which increases the volume of the MP3-enabled CD stereo to the point where wind noise isn’t an issue.
We have a couple days left with the 2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS V6 and plan to make the most of them. The engine, transmission and handling of the vehicle are all left to talk about, so we’re wringing the car out as we speak. In fact, subject to the approval of our friends over at Hyundai, we may get to introduce this Sonata to its first Christmas tree, if you know what I mean. No promises though, so you’ll have to wait a couple days to find out if we were able to make it happen.
After a full week of wringing out the Hyundai Sonata GLS V6 we've come to some conclusions. Before we get to that, however, let's talk about performance.
P.S. There's a special surprise at the end of the review, at least it was for us.
The 3.3L V6 in the new Sonata is part of Hyundai's new Lambda series of engines, and for the 2006 model year it's
the most powerful powerplant in the company's stable. The 3.5L V6 in the Santa Fe and XG350 have a slight displacement
advantage, but fall short in both horsepower and torque to the 3.3L. This is an important engine for Hyundai, and one
that seems more than capable of competing with the V6 powerplants of its peers.
The 3.3L develops 235 hp and 226 lb-ft. of torque, and those numbers are all present and accounted for when you tromp the gas pedal. The five-speed automatic transmission is nearly transparent in operation as it quietly goes about choosing which gear will get the most out of the engine's powerband in any particular situation. While the engine doesn't have the grunt of the Accord's 244-hp 3.0L V6 or the Nissan's 250-hp 3.5L V6, it holds its own and comes out ahead against, say, the 210-hp 3.3L V6 in the Camry. It's the strong, silent type, which is right on target for this class of vehicles.
As is the case with many family sedans sporting a large V6, the Sonata's handling doesn't really measure up to its powertrain. We had to remind ourselves repeatedly that this wasn't the LX with the 17" wheel package and that the GLS was designed more for suburban reconnaissance than backroad barnstorming. While anti-roll bars are present front and rear, their participation in turns seems absent. Perhaps it was the Sonata's generous weight of 3,458 lbs (heaviest among the Accord, Camry, Altima and recently added Fusion against which we've been comparing the car) that was overwhelming the suspension. Regardless, the GLS isn't the model that's meant to be pushed. It's meant to be comfortable, and to that end it succeeds.
The Sonata's steering left us a little bewildered. At first the car was drifting to the right while cruising at 35-mph, which we initially attributed to a bad alignment caused by over 5,000 miles of abusive automotive journalists. During our time on the highway, however, the Sonata also happened to drift to the left on occasion. That it didn't seem to track straight was certainly an annoyance that detracted from the car's otherwise relaxing demeanor. The variable-assist power steering felt like it was still assisting too much at higher speeds where minor unintended inputs from the driver could easily cause the car to alter its path.
The Sonata's turning radius of 35.8 feet, however, must be commended. It's the best in our class of comparos and is much appreciated in parking lots that seem to be shrinking by the day.
After living with the new 2006 Hyundai Sonata GLS V6 we're prepared to say that it's a winner. While everyone keeps saying that it's a good car for the money, we've come to the conclusion that it's just a good car. While it may fall short in some areas to its peers, it flat out ties or beats them in many others. The Sonata, for instance, is King of the Hill when it comes to safety, offering the most comprehensive standard safety package that includes both Traction and Electronic Stability Control. It also offers a better warranty than any of its competitors.
Since it seems that no one can talk about the Sonata's virtues without also talking about its price, let's put it another way. We see the Sonata's relatively low price as not merely undercutting its competition, but rather reestablishing the price of full-featured family sedans back in the low-to-mid $20K range where it belongs. Option out a Camry, Accord or Altima to meet the Sonata's equipment level and chances are you'll be staring at the belly of a $30K price tag. That's not family sedan territory, that's entry-level luxury territory.
The Sonata reminds us that a bread-and-butter sedan should be about value, safety and performance, in that order. At the moment, its competitors are confused and have it backwards. The arrival of the Sonata on the scene, as well as the value-driven 2006 Ford Fusion, may mark the beginning of a return to values for the mainstream family sedan, and we think the new Sonata has positioned itself perfectly.
Now, speaking of the 2006 Ford Fusion...
We got a call from some white-collars over at Ford who were going to be in town with a brand new Fusion while we were reviewing the Sonata. They wanted to know if we were interested in parking the Fusion next to the Sonata and maybe talking about the future of the family sedan. I replied, "Sure, if you let me drive the Fusion."
The people we spoke with at Ford seem to have genuine respect for the new Sonata. It's obvious to everyone, even its peers, that Hyundai done good with this one. Everyone at Ford, however, is literally beaming with pride over the Fusion and they're more than confident it will not only sell well, but also change what people think about Ford.
The price ranges for these two cars are nearly identical, with both starting just below $18K and topping out around $25K or so. And while both will compete in the same class, they are obviously aimed at different ends. The Sonata is so obviously targeted at the Camry that it's hardly worth mentioning again. It's a safe driving, safe looking and just plain safe sedan. The Fusion, however, is much more dynamic, not only in its original and (we think) attractive styling, but also in its performance and handling. With a pair of engines slightly smaller than the competition, the Fusion isn't so much about how fast you can go but rather what you can do while going that fast.
It's good to have friends in high places, because our new buds at the Blue Oval have offered to set us up with a Ford Fusion to review ASAP. This is a treat as we'll be able to review perhaps the two most significant family cars of 2006 nearly back-to-back. It seems that the Year of the Car, which Ford touted throughout all of model year 2005, will be around for at least another 365 days thanks in no small part to this pair of sedans.
New Car Test Drive
All-new mid-size sedan is a compelling buy.
The mid-size, mid-price car market is approaching saturation. Depending on how they're counted, more than seven nameplates compete for shoppers looking for a car that's thrifty, yet performs; that's comfortable, but not expensive; that's fresh and new, but promises to be reliable.
Korea's car makers have never been a part of this class. They've danced around the edges, with the Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata. But neither car has broken through and established a solid foothold in the mainstream U.S. market.
Enter the all-new 2006 Hyundai Sonata.
While the previous-generation Sonata made a dramatic jump to the top spot in the J.D. Power and Associates 2004 Initial Quality Study ranking of entry midsize cars, the 2006 Sonata has been completely redesigned. It's bigger, better equipped, more technologically advanced and sharper looking than the 2005 model it replaces.
The class in which the new Sonata competes, however, is blurred. Exterior-wise, it goes against mid-size sedans, primarily the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima and secondarily against the Chevrolet Malibu, the Kia Optima and the upcoming Ford Fusion. Inside, though, the '06 Sonata moves up a class, to large car, which gives it a potential edge in creature comfort.
With minor and essentially immaterial exceptions, it lives up to that potential. It's roomier in almost every dimension than its midsize competitors, which is no surprise. Fit and finish is on a par with most others in the class, which also is no surprise. In terms of performance, it equals or bests comparably featured cars, which is a surprise. It's cleaner, too, than earlier Sonatas. Just as important, if not more so, the new Sonata is aggressively priced, positioned smack in the middle of the range of prices of the mid-size sedans.
All this combined makes the 2006 Hyundai Sonata good enough to put the mid-priced, midsize market on notice. There's a new player.
The 2006 Hyundai Sonata comes in one body style, a four-door, five-passenger sedan. Two engines and three transmissions are available. The base engine is a 162-horsepower four-cylinder. The uplevel engine is a 235-horsepower V6. The four-cylinder can have either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed Shiftronic automatic. The V6 comes only with a new-for-2006 five-speed Shiftronic automatic.
The model line begins with the Sonata GL ($17,895), which comes standard with the four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. Standard equipment includes air conditioning; cruise control; power outside mirrors, windows and central locking with keyless remote; AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo; and leather-wrapped, tilt steering wheel. There are but two options, the four-speed automatic ($900) and carpeted floor mats ($85).
One step up the ladder is the GLS ($19,395), which comes standard with the four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission. The list of standard items starts with those on the GL and expands to include fog lamps; premium-grade cloth upholstery and cut-pile carpeting; choice of wood-grain or metal-grain interior trim accents; steering wheel-mounted, redundant audio controls; adjustable lumbar in driver's seat; five-function trip computer; carpeted floor mats; and 16-inch alloy wheels in place of the GL's hub-capped steel wheels. The GLS order sheet has two option boxes. One is for a power, tilt-and-slide glass sunroof ($850). The other is for a Premium Package ($1350) containing the aforementioned sunroof plus auto-dimming inside rearview mirror with compass (both with a much-appreciated on/off switch), HomeLink programmable garage and security remote and eight-way power driver's seat.
Next up the GLS V6 ($20,895), which comes standard with a five-speed automatic. This brings with it solar control window glass, chrome exterior window trim and chrome-tipped dual exhausts. The sunroof is an option ($850). The optional Premium Sport Package ($1500) includes the sunroof, 17-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot tires, the electrochromic rearview mirror with compass, HomeLink and power driver's seat.
On the top rung is the LX ($22,895), which comes with everything on the GLS plus leather-trimmed seats and simulated leather interior door panel inserts. Distinguished by chrome exterior door handles, the LX also gets automatic air conditioning with Hyundai's Air Quality System, which shifts to recirculating when it detects offensive or polluted outside air; a sliding cover on the front center console; the auto-dimming inside rearview mirror with compass; the HomeLink system; the eight-way power driver's seat; and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel. The sunroof can be obtained separately ($850) or as part of an LX-exclusive Premium Package ($1400) that also has a AM/FM/CD6 changer/MP3 stereo with subwoofer.
Safety features in addition to the mandatory dual-stage front-seat airbags include front-seat side-impact airbags for torso protection and full-coverage side curtain airbags, designed to provide head protection, all standard on all models. Active-safety features include antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and electronic stability control with traction control, all standard. These crash-avoidance features are optional or not available on many of the other vehicles in this class.
Design tastes are extremely volatile in the automotive world. A styling cue like an arched-eyebrow headlight treatment can go from eye-catching to invisible in a couple years. Or it can survive for decades and come to be accepted as a brand trademark, such as BMW's twin-kidney grille. The Hyundai Sonata hasn't yet found its signature trademark cues, but the 2006's designers are looking in the right places.
The new Sonata's fascia is refreshingly clean and spare, with sharply angled headlight housings and a quiet, clean-cut grille topped with a sliver of chrome. Wide and deep openings beneath the front bumper provide a home for tightly focused foglamps and visually pull the front end closer to the ground while directing cooling air into the radiator. The striking, concave hood reduces the car's perceived mass without cramping the engine compartment.
The side treatment avoids the all-too-common wedge look with an almost horizontal beltline riding above softly shouldered fenders and door panels. Mirrored 'Z' seams where the end corners of the bumpers meet the quarter panels add interest, while blacked-out window surrounds play down the tallish side glass. Extended C-pillars shorten the deck lid, which itself presents a rounded, gently sculpted profile vaguely reminiscent of the much maligned posterior posture of today's BMW sedans. The flat-flanged rims on the up-level 17-inch wheels suggest a high-end European import more than an affordable Asian nameplate.
The taillight outlines repeat the headlight shapes and bookend a broad, trapezoidal license plate inset. Again, there's a hint of other cars' architecture, most notably contemporary Camrys and Accords. Sporty, California hotrod-idiom dual exhausts mark the V6-equipped models.
The 2006 Hyundai Sonata's interior marks a major step up the quality ladder. Some rough edges on a few plastic molds and a less-than-lustrous finish on some dash panels are the only shortcomings we noticed. The overall look, though, is clearly competitive with most in the class and better than some.
A polished, hard-surfaced applique capped with a thin slice of chrome divides the upper and lower halves of the dash. The upper is a glare-absorbing dark color, the lower a space-enhancing light tone. The passenger airbag enclosure is seamless, mimicking the trend in higher-end midsize sedans.
As with many modern cars, the stereo head is fully integrated into the dash, making difficult any aftermarket customizing of the sound system but adding an upscale touch. Air conditioner controls are mounted beneath the stereo, within the accent trim centered in the lower portion of the center stack. Stereo and air conditioner controls are substantial, finger-friendly, intuitive knobs and buttons, with status and selections clearly displayed in their respective LCD screens.
Three round dials in the hooded instrument cluster communicate the bare necessities of operational data to the driver, with the largest the speedometer nestled inside a polished circle. To its left is the tachometer, to its right conjoined water temperature and fuel gauges. In the lower dash to the left of the steering column are a bank of five switch plugs, only two of which are employed in the U.S. version, one as an on/off for the ESC, the other the dash-light rheostat, and a flip-down storage bin. The ignition key slides into a slot placed where it should be, in the dash to the right of the steering column instead of on the steering column itself.
All models get a leather-wrapped steering wheel. On the GLS and LX, the steering wheel serves multiple duties. Besides the obvious, redundant controls for the audio (arrayed somewhat oddly, with the mode selector on top and the volume controlled by the lower two, versus the more common approach of sandwiching the mode button between the volume controls) are appended to the lower left-side of the hub. On the other side of the hub are the cruise controls, with a helpful Cancel function.
Outward visibility is good, although the wide C-pillars constrict quick, over-the-shoulder traffic checks for lane changing. Rear side windows roll all the way down, thanks to small, fixed, rear quarter windows that move the windows' rear tracks forward in the door. All four doors have roof-mounted, hinged assist handles.
Seats are comfortable, with adequate bolstering for the style of driving to which the Sonata aspires. The cloth upholstery on the GL looks and feels durable; on the GLS, it's a bit fancier in texture and stitching. The leather surfaces in the LX add a touch of class without pretending to be luxurious. The height adjustment on the driver's seat, both manual and power, pivots on the seat's front mounts, which effectively moves the seat forward as it rises. This compels taller drivers to choose between rearward seat travel and forward sightline, not always a happy compromise. On the upside, this adds inches to rear-seat legroom behind the driver, one of the multitude of measures in which the '06 Sonata bests the competition. Among the primary competitors, the new Sonata only comes in second to the Honda Accord in front and rear headroom and to the Toyota Camry in rear-seat headroom, but by a mere one- to three-tenths of an inch. And of the second-tier competitors, the Kia Optima alone betters the new Sonata and then only by three-tenths of an inch in front seat hip room.
Rear seats are accommodating, with the bottom cushion in the center position only minimally higher than and nearly as well padded as the outboard positions. Both rear outboard seating positions have adjustable head restraints, as do the front seats. The rear seatback is split 60/40 and folds to allow the transport of lo.
Korea's car makers have been unabashedly frank about their lack of sophistication in engine technology and metallurgy. They've acknowledged they have some distance to make up to compete in both regards with the best of Japan and, of late, the U.S. and Europe. The all-new 2006 Hyundai Sonata marks a major step forward in the engine department and more than a couple steps forward in weight reduction.
Both of the 2006 Sonata's engines incorporate some of the latest developments in variable timing of intake valves, which achieves the dual benefits of lower emissions and higher fuel efficiency. Both engines are rated ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) by the Environmental Protection Agency, a first for Hyundai. The new V6 uses a variable intake system that boosts torque and makes more power available over a broader range of engine speed. Fuel economy in the four-cylinder GL with manual transmission, as estimated by the EPA, is 24 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the highway (up from last year's 22/30); the V6-powered GLS and LX are rated 20/30 (up from the '05's 19/27). And this is in a heavier car, by almost 200 pounds, and with a larger engine compared with the 2005 model. Those added pounds may seem problematic vis-a-vis Hyundai's weight-reduction hopes, but remember, the '06 Sonata is both a larger car by physical size and it's fitted with a number of added features, including vital safety upgrades.
The weight is hardly noticed from behind the wheel. What is noticeable is the state-of-the-art engine technology. Acceleration is brisk in the four-cylinder and brings a grin to the face in the V6. Hyundai officials say the V6 will turn 0-60 miles per hour times of about 7.5 seconds, with a top speed of 130 mph. Shifts are executed easily with the five-speed manual, and chirping the front tires is even easier. The Shiftronic automatic transmission moves between gears smoothly, kicking down for passing with minimal hesitation. The automatic offered responsive performance while tackling the hills of San Francisco. In manual mode, the Shiftronic will upshift automatically when the engine bumps up against redline, and it declines to downshift at all, leaving that to the driver's preferences.
Steering is light and direct, with good on-center feel and directional stability. Brakes are mostly linear, displaying little of the interference of some of the more complex EBD-equipped systems and then only in the final stages of a stop. Nevertheless, the Sonata is equipped with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, which improves stability and reduces stopping distances by balancing brake force between the front and rear tires, and anti-lock brakes, which allow the driver to maintain steering control under hard braking. The 17-inch wheel/tire combination makes its presence known on rough pavement, where the shorter sidewalls transmit more of the road's imperfections into the cabin. Wind and road noise is decently muted.
The suspension suffers more from what's best described as teething than from lack of proper geometry and components. The latter are there: double wishbones in front, multi-links in back, twin-tube gas-pressure shocks and stabilizer bars all 'round, with a larger front bar in the V6 to handle the larger engine's extra weight. But how it all works together still needs, well, work. Against the competition, which has been refining its suspension technology for much longer than Hyundai, the Sonata feels less polished, less of a whole. Not that there's anything wrong or necessarily lacking in the ride and handling, just that some of the transitions, in direction and between types and qualities of pavements, aren't as smooth as the look and feel of the Sonata promises. The front end tucks in nicely as steering is cranked in, but the car doesn't track as surely as expected. There's also the impression of poorly managed unsprung mass when the rear.
The all-new 2006 Hyundai Sonata is a giant step up for Hyundai, moving the brand closer to Honda, Toyota and Nissan, and contesting for buyers considering Ford and Chevrolet. There's nothing unique or especially exciting about driving the new Sonata, save for the fact it's a Hyundai. By that yardstick, and what that portends for shoppers in the class, it's a blast.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Francisco.
Hyundai Sonata GL ($17,895); GLS ($19,395); GLS V6 ($20,895); LX ($22,895).
Options As Tested
Premium Sport Package ($1500) includes 17-inch alloy wheels, power tilt/slide glass sunroof, auto-dimming inside rearview mirror, HomeLink programmable garage door/security system remote, compass, 8-way power driver's seat.
Hyundai Sonata GLS V6 ($20,895).
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