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.