- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

Plagued by poor quality, South Korea's Hyundai worked itself into near-pariah status in the U.S. market not many years ago. But it has roared back with a vengeance, boosted by low prices and a warranty that it touts as "America's best."

Everybody loves a bargain, but nobody wants to buy inferior quality at any price. The Hyundai idea is to offer customers peace of mind while the company ratchets up the durability and reliability of its products. Eventually, the aim is to drop the long-term warranty and simply sell cars on price and merit.

On the face of it, price and merit would appear to be apt descriptions of Hyundai's new midsize Sonata sedan, which acquitted itself quite well in a test of more than a week under varying conditions. It didn't appear or feel at all like a car that needed an extended warranty, although there's no way to tell whether that initial impression will hold up over time.

Hyundai's limited (meaning it contains some exceptions) warranty offers bumper-to-bumper coverage for five years or 60,000 miles, with limited coverage on the engine and transaxle for 10 years or 100,000 miles.

In addition, the company offers free 24-hour roadside assistance for five years, with no mileage limit, and corrosion protection for five years or 100,000 miles.

In size and intent, the Sonata competes against such formidable opponents as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford Taurus. But its price is that of lower-class vehicles, which obviously enhances its appeal.

A base Sonata, with four-cylinder power, a five-speed manual transmission and a good level of equipment, starts at just $15,994. The tested mid-level GLS model, with a V6 engine and automatic transmission, had a sticker price of $17,994. With a couple of minor options, it delivered for $18,155.

Included in the standard equipment were air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels with performance tires, a remote locking and alarm system, a stereo with cassette and CD players, fog lights, motorized and heated outside mirrors, a power antenna, antilock disc brakes on all four wheels, side air bags, power windows and a leather-covered steering wheel.

Among the amenities not included were automatic climate control, a power driver's seat and leather upholstery. If you must have those, simply order the top-of-the-line Sonata LX.

For most people, however, the GLS, with its comfortable cloth upholstery, will do just fine. The front seats are comfortable and supportive, with enough manual adjustments to accommodate a variety of torsos, and there's plenty of head and leg room in back for two hefty humans. A third person can squeeze back there, but at a definite cost in comfort.

Out back, there's a large, carpeted trunk that can swallow a load of luggage for two or three people, but not four.

The surprising thing about this new Sonata was how posh and quiet it felt on the highway.

ngine and road noise were filtered out to the point where low-decibel conversation was easily accomplished, and the decent stereo system's volume did not need to be cranked up.

Moreover, the Sonata's interior had a look of near-luxury. The woodgrain accents, not surprisingly, were made of plastic. But they were tastefully applied and looked good.

Instruments and controls were ergonomically correct, with buttons, switches and levers where the average motorist would expect to find them. They did not feel flimsy or cheap.

The hushed 2.7-liter V6 engine delivers 181 horsepower to the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission. It provided enough power to handle any ordinary driving situation, even with four people aboard.

The transmission shifter included a manual-shift mode similar to the Chrysler AutoStick or the Porsche Tiptronic. That's a handy addition that provides flexibility under different driving circumstances, but is not a feature you ordinarily expect on a low-priced car.

Handling and ride were within expected parameters for midsize family cars. The Sonata is not a sports sedan, but it steered crisply and handled road irregularities without losing its composure. The ride is biased slightly toward the stiff side of the spectrum.

The only glitch was an occasional hesitation or slippage as the transmission shifted through the four speeds. Whether that was a normal characteristic for this car or a portent of a problem to come was undetermined.

Overall, the Sonata came across as a solid car that delivered good tactile sensations of tightness and quality. If that holds up, it will become one of the best bargains on the market. But if it doesn't, it could tax the patience of any owner who has to return to the dealer frequently for warranty work - even if it's free.

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