With the debut of the redesigned 2002 Sonata, it's likely that some of those remaining snide sneers will be transformed into smug smiles of satisfaction. The Sonata takes aim right at the heart of the mid-size family car segment. This means that Sonata is shouldering in among the Camrys, Accords, Malibus, Saturns and Jettas that have for years contested this automotive category like Afghan warlords.
Whereas a previous rendition of Sonata depended on offbeat, even goofy styling to draw attention to itself, the car's reprise in '02 is conspicuous for its courtly elegance. From side and rear, Sonata's lines are tastefully rounded and flowing. Up front, new modular headlights surmount standard cat's-eye fog lamps, evoking a decidedly sporty look. If anything, only the blacked-out grille, with its vertical strakes and prominent Hyundai badge, is a little too big for its britches.
The Sonata reviewed here is Hyundai's mid-level GLS version. That means it's powered by a 181-horsepower, 2.7-liter twin-cam V-6. Equipped with a four-speed automatic that incorporates Shiftronic manual gearchanging, this GLS cost $17,499, base. More significant yet, the only option was $86 worth of carpeted floor mats, so that after a destination charge, the as-tested price was $18,080. Pricing, in other words, is Hyundai's not-so-secret weapon, because for just that little, you can get V-6 power in a five-passenger sedan and bask in standard air-conditioned comfort with your AM/FM/cassette/CD sound system and power windows, mirrors and keyless-remote door locks. (The question remains, then: Why couldn't Hyundai just throw in the floor mats for good measure?)
If you can be satisfied with a 150-horsepower in-line four, there's a base Sonata with five-speed manual that starts at just $15,499; while at the top of the chart, there's the LX version that incorporates leather seating and automatic climate control starting at $18,324. In either case, add $500 for an auto transmission.
The GLS, however, may represent the line's most prudent compromise between performance and value. If those 181 horses are not exactly spirited, at least they're frisky. The V-6 Sonata features a nice, broad powerband that accelerates and cruises in traffic with complete confidence. I like Shiftronic clutchless shifting principally for toggling between overdrive and third. Downshifts are snappy and quick, although upshifts--particularly from first to second to third—engage slowly with a bit too much "virtual" clutch-slipping.
The big surprise is the Sonata's grown-up ride feel. Boasting four-wheel independent suspension and disk brakes, the Sonata makes stately progress down the road. It feels big and imperturbable. The 16-inch wheels help (the base model wears 15s); and the sound-deadening materials and structural design create the proper psychological effect of solid calm. This is not, however, a sport sedan for tossing too aggressively through the twisties--not unless, that is, you enjoy rather nose-heavy understeer and a relatively unresponsive rear end.
Baby got back
A nice byproduct of the Sonata's redesigned rear suspension is an eight-percent increase in trunk space to 14.1 cubic feet. This represents a generous complement to the roomy five-passenger cabin where three adults will find ample room in the back seat, although long-legged front occupants will tend to "knee-cap" equally leggy backbenchers.
Hyundai's only off-color note with the new Sonata is its handling of safety-related options for ABS brakes and traction control. Of these, I consider the former a near-mandatory feature in this day and age. I can understand giving some price-sensitive consumers a way to opt out of ABS but I can't fathom why one's only choice with the GLS and LX models must be a $1250 take-it-or-leave-it package that combines ABS, traction control and a sunroof. For crying out loud, the sunroof is even available as a $550 stand-alone option, but ABS is not unless you buy the base four-cylinder Sonata.
Far more generous (or less manipulative perhaps) is the Hyundai Advantage warranty. It's the best in autodom, and it boasts overall coverage for five years or 60,000 miles, including five years of free roadside assistance. What's more, the powertrain is covered for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Hyundai's warranty strategy is intended not only as a deft parry against reliability concerns for a relative newcomer to the U.S. It's also meant to address a genuine vulnerability: If Hyundai resale values have traditionally been low, the ability to transfer the balance of a generous warranty to new owners should help. And, in fact, the Hyundai Advantage does transfer (although the 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain provision transfers only to family members).
During its relatively brief history in the U.S., Hyundai has been nothing if not bold for barging its way into on our clamorous mid-size sedan category. After several preliminary years of trial-and-error rehearsal, the redesigned Sonata finally strikes a chord for 2002.
2002 Hyundai Sonata GLS
Price as tested: $18,080
Engine: 2.7-liter V-6, 181 hp
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 185.4 x 71.6 x 55.5 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Curb weight: 3107 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 20/27 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags
Major standard equipment: Power windows and mirrors, cruise control, fog lamps, tachometer, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM/CD cassette
Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles