It's easy to forget that in the great middle-ground of the automotive marketplace, the inoffensively non-descript hold sway. Sure, the flashy and the different garner all kinds of attention and, often, a lot of the sales -- for a while, at least. But the automotive troopers that sell thousands upon thousands of cars, year after year? Those would be the inoffensively bland and vaguely attractive Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords.
A possible new addition to that list: the Hyundai Sonata.
Once the purveyor of small econo-boxes that earned the mild scorn of many Americans -- yet still sold -- the Korean automaker has carved out a reputation for economical and, increasingly, quality cars. With the new Sonata, Hyundai is taking even closer aim at the Japanese automotive giants that maintain a solid lock on the mid-size sedan market.
The Sonata is a nice-looking four-door that emulates some of the best of the Japanese design aesthetic without succumbing to some of the worst tendencies of that approach (like the Honda Accord sedan, a car that starts off with a sharp and shapely nose yet ends up with a chunky and ungainly ass). It's pretty, yet indistinct. It sat in my driveway for a few unremarkable days before I looked at it one morning and thought, You know, that's not a bad looking car.
The Sonata creeps up on you that way.
I particularly like the slightly aggressive cast to the Sonata's rear taillights. Of course, the fact that I see faces in the rear ends of many new cars -- from the Subaru Tribeca to the BMW 3-series -- either says something about the state of automotive design or about the likely outcome should I decide to take a Rorschach test.
Luckily, my test drive model came in basic black, a color that ups the cool-quotient on any car it touches. To my eyes, the Sonata really benefits from the correct color choice -- the silver ones I've seen in the wild slip too far into blanditude. Leave the silver behind, people. Add some spice to your life, even if it's just a touch of pepper.
Aside from the fake wood trim that tries too hard to class up the dash, the Sonata's interior is inviting and comfortable. It could use a bit of consolidation, given that there are four illuminated displays in addition to the standard gauges: the odometer and trip info, the CD/radio interface, the climate controls and an afterthought clock. This problem isn't unique to the Sonata, but I'm finding it increasingly disconcerting to have to search the dash for the most basic information.
Airbags surround the front seat, with side and curtain airbags coming standard, making the base price of the Sonata even more reasonable, especially with the included traction control and anti-lock brakes on the LX model.
The Sonata LX comes with a V6 engine that's appropriately peppy for everyday driving or extended highway trips. I haven't driven a four-cylinder model, so I can't directly compare. My personal rule of thumb is to take six over four, when possible. I have this thing about being squashed like a bug when merging onto the Beltway, you see. But those worries were unfounded with this version of the LX.
On the downside, the Sonata's suspension is overly soft, keeping the road too distant from the driver and the handling too vague. It's as much a matter of taste as anything -- if you prefer a smoother, quieter ride the Sonata may be your ticket.
I do, however, love the trunk. It's a cavernous enclosure, with more than enough room for a trip to the grocery store, a run by Target and maybe even a quick stop at Home Depot. You could fit a family of four back there. Not that you would, of course. Right?
By the time you add in the reasonable low-to-mid $20s price, the included safety devices, the solid mileage (20 city and 30 highway), and a great warranty (5 year/60,000 miles, with a 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty), the Hyundai Sonata is one of the best values you'll find in a mid-size sedan. If you've been thinking about hooking up with a Camry or Accord, you'll be doing yourself a favor to take a spin in the Sonata.