Until recently, Hyundai cars left a lot to be desired in terms of quality and design. Consequently, Hyundai dealers were left to sell the cars based on their price rather than the merits of their design and features.
That started changing a few years ago, when the Hyundai Tiburon sport coupe debuted. The car represented a new benchmark for Korean-car quality. It was, and still is, a good car for a reasonable price. When the Tiburon hit the market, it was obvious that Hyundai was committed to building better cars.
After driving the 1999 Hyundai Sonata GLS V-6, it seems that Hyundai is
committed to this strategy. The car is light-years ahead of its predecessor in
every way and is a legitimate competitor to such cars as the much vaunted Honda
Accord and Toyota Camry.
Shocks and surprises from a capable Korean
For $17,799, the Sonata GLS V-6 comes with a 2.5-liter DOHC V-6 engine, an electronically controlled automatic transmission, 15-inch alloy wheels with Michelin tires, power windows and locks, air conditioning, and a 100-watt audio system equipped with a CD player.
But while the Sonata's equipment list is impressive, it stands out more because of the execution of its design, rather than its long list of equipment. The car's high-quality feel and handling dynamics are better than those of any other Korean car we've driven.
A chassis equipped with four-wheel independent suspension, rack-and-pinion
steering, and four-wheel disc brakes gives the Sonata its excellent handling
manners. And if the Michelin tires were more interested in gripping the road
instead of suppressing noise and wear, the car might even have handled better.
Five ways to more fans
Also adding to the Sonata's appeal is the availability of a manual transmission in all Sonatas, regardless of whether they are equipped with the V-6 or 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Precious few sedans in the United States are available with the combination of a V-6 and manual transmission.
1999 Hyundai Sonata
Speaking of transmissions, one of our few gripes with the Sonata has to do with its automatic transmission. It feels like the engine-control computer momentarily cuts engine power as the transmission shifts. While the transmission probably shifts smoother, the car bucks back and forth for a second, seemingly negating any effects of a smoother shift.
But what the car gives up in smoothness because of a seemingly easily
correctable fault, it makes up for with excellent noise, vibration, and
harshness characteristics. On the highway, the interior was unbelievably quiet
for a car in this price class. The smooth, quiet V-6 combined with the excellent
noise-suppression characteristics of the interior makes the inside of the Sonata
a welcome place.
Good sound, bad "wood"
And it lets passengers hear the impressively accurate sounds emanating from the audio system. The quality of sound produced by this system is excellent. Unfortunately, the AM/FM/CD radio faceplate is one of the worst we have ever encountered. Its minute buttons and lack of an easily usable seek function are surprising in such an otherwise well-designed car.
Speaking of design, that is one other area where the Sonata really stands out against the competition. It's styling is much more expressive (love it or hate it) than the muted designs of the Accord and Camry. But there's one thing that, in our opinion, Hyundai's designers really messed up on. The gray interior of the Sonata we sampled was severely marred by hideous silvery plastic faux-wood on the doors and instrument panel. Get a car with tan interior, and you get brown fake wood that is at least remotely akin to the real thing.
Despite all the merits of this car, Hyundai is aware that buyers may be leery of buying a Hyundai because of the outmoded perception that its cars fall apart. For those people, the Sonata comes with one of the best warranties in the business. It includes five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper coverage, a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, and five years of unlimited mileage roadside assistance. That warranty is further proof that Hyundai is committed to building better vehicles and is actually following through on that commitment.