- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2005

“Comeback kid” describes a boxer who recovers after being rocked back on his heels.

Hyundai, the South Korean vehicle manufacturer, also qualifies. The company started in the United States about two decades ago, and it had an initial rush, selling economy cars at less than economy prices.

But bargains do not necessarily beget staying power, and Hyundai fell on hard times as it was dogged by quality problems. But it persevered, working to overcome not only the deficiencies but, as importantly, the persistent negative perceptions.

To help overcome consumer resistance, Hyundai instituted a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty on major mechanical components, on top of an overall warranty of five years or 60,000 miles.

But as anyone in the car business can testify, such Band-Aids go only so far. Even if a repair is covered, owners still become disillusioned and lose confidence if they have to return often to the dealership.

So Hyundai focused on quality, and in amazingly short order went from lying on the canvas to a standup position. The company ratcheted its midsize family car, the Sonata, to the top of the initial quality ratings, as measured by the industry standards monitor, the J.D. Power Co.

Now, for the 2006 model year, Hyundai has adopted a more aggressive stance with a redesigned Sonata. It competes as a midsize family sedan, a territory dominated by the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, with other worthy contenders that include the Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima, Mazda 6, Pontiac G6 and Ford Taurus.

There are three Sonata models, all built in a new plant in Montgomery, Ala. The base GL starts at $18,495, and includes a high level of standard equipment: electronic stability control, antilock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, remote locking, cruise control, air conditioning, an audio system with CD and MP3 player capability, power windows and heated outside mirrors.

The next step, and expected to be the biggest selling model, is the GLS, at $21,495, which adds such items as an automatic transmission, alloy wheels and premium carpeting.

At the top of the line is the LX model. Its $23,495 price tag includes a V-6 engine, five-speed automatic transmission, leather upholstery, heated front seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, a garage-door opener and a power driver’s seat.

There are two new engines, starting with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 162 horsepower. It is linked to either a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode. The other engine is a 3.3-liter V-6, which delivers 235 horsepower to the front wheels through the five-speed automatic, also with a manual-shift mode.

The test car was the midlevel GLS with the V-6, five-speed automatic and cloth upholstery. Interior space, as measured by the federal government, expanded just enough to move the new Sonata into the large-car category.

But it’s a difference without much distinction, though the Sonata does have trunk that — at more than 16 cubic feet — is larger than those of its midsize competitors.

Though artistry in styling is largely in the eyes of beholders, the Sonata presents a contemporary look that likely will attract more plaudits than criticisms. Inside, it displays quality materials, good fit and finish, and instruments and controls that are ergonomically correct.

The version with wood-grain trim, however, comes off as classier looking than the more subdued sport trim.

Front seats offer reasonable support and comfort, although there is little lateral support and the seat bottoms are low and short in the thigh. In back, the outboard passengers also have decent seat comfort, with plenty of head and knee room. But as in most cars these days, the center-rear seating position is strangled.

On the road, the Sonata performs capably as a family sedan, but without the agility of a sports sedan because of a suspension system that is biased toward a compliant ride. The result is some pitch and rebound if the Sonata is driven aggressively on curving roads with less than smooth surfaces. However, most owners are not likely to push it that hard.

In straight-line driving, the steering has a centered feel, with few corrections needed, and the motoring ambience is characterized by a noticeable lack of engine and wind noise, with tire and road noise apparent but muted.

The V-6 engine can move the 3,458-pound Sonata from rest to 60 mph in less than eight seconds, which is competitive in this class. In automatic mode, the shifts are smooth and unobtrusive, and the manual-shift mode is available to hold the transmission in a preselected gear if the driver chooses.

In 2004, Hyundai sold 418,216 vehicles of all types, including 107,189 Sonatas. With the Toyota Camry alone selling 426,990, the 2006 Sonata’s expected annual sales of about 150,000 won’t come close to challenging the leaders.

But if the quality holds up, especially long term, and if the company can maintain its price advantage, the comeback kid should be a formidable contender for years to come.

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