Hyundai Sonata: Lots of Pluses, Not Much Excitement

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Hyundai Sonata: Lots of Pluses, Not Much Excitement

New is usually better and in the case of the latest Sonata, it's a whole lot better. The verdict: It's as quiet as a tomb and just about as exciting.

So Hyundai marches on, steadily perfecting its cars and closing the gap with the industry leaders. The Sonata's engineering is rock solid, which is fine if all you want in a car is elevator-like reliability that gets you from point A to B. But as an emotional experience, this new and improved package falls short. Yes, the new Sonata proves Hyundai has mastered the basics of the business but now Hyundai must reach for the next rung on the ladder: Emotional engineering that stirs the senses.

This family car is Hyundai's bread and butter product, whose arrival provides us with the first set of "twins" from the Hyundai-Kia marriage. While the new Sonata shares identical underpinnings with the Kia Optima, designers have worked hard to establish a unique look and identity for each. However, there's a lingering resemblance in the rear and side views that will leave some wondering.

The Sonata gets the more sinewy, sportier treatment while the Optima is the staid, more-conservative looking sibling, which is a bit perplexing since company sources have indicated that Kia is to be developed into a youth-oriented brand.

Some minor refinements have been made in the 1.8- and 2.0-liter engines but no amount of tweaking can conceal their inherent roughness, a factor of the aging design of these two workhorses. Unless economy is your foremost concern, go with the 2.5-liter V-6, which really is a standout. Featuring an all-aluminum block and head, it's the most refined of the trio and wins hands down on all counts.

And, as an added bonus, it's a fuel sipper. The four-speed automatic transmission hums along like a charm and comes with the H-Matic semi-automatic, which already has my endorsement. In the pipeline is the Supertronics continuously variable transmission, which dispenses with gears altogether for a smooth, stepless transfer of power to the wheels and with greater fuel efficiency. Already quite popular in Japan, the CVT will make its debut this summer.

The domestic model I drove was loaded with all the conceivable extras including state-of-the-art high intensity discharge headlamps, an eight disc CD changer, leather interior, heated front seats and cabin air purifier:

Some of the car's options, like the electronically controlled suspension, rain-sensing windshield wipers and satellite navigation system aren't offered on export models.

For the spatially challenged, the satellite navigation system can be a godsend. The map, stored on a CD located in the trunk, is projected onto a color LCD screen that's bundled with the audio system on the dash. It zooms in on your current location and memorizes your route so you can retrace your steps. Landmarks and roads are well marked, making this the best thing since the invention of the compass.

That it's only available in Korean will come as bad news to some.

But having the system on board really does expand your horizons by enabling you to take side roads and detours with absolute confidence.

The bonus: You never have to stop to ask for directions. The drawback: This 1 million won ($833) option is reserved for the top-of-the-line 2.5 Gold edition.

First nitpicking complaint: the acres of faux wood grain trim plastered all over the dashboard and center console. This shortcut to a "luxury" look is so unbelievably tacky.

Second, those screw-on audio switches on the steering wheel. Mounted at the 8 and 4 o'clock points on the wheel, they are so exposed that I lost count of how many times I accidentally hit the audio mute switch and the station seek switch. Can't the vendor integrate these switches into the steering wheel spokes like other makers?

The base model with a 1.8-liter DOHC 4-cylinder engine starts at 12.8 million won.

Price as tested: 26.5 million won.

Next Week: Jaguar S-Type

The Sonata's engineering is rock solid.

by Oles Gadacz

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