From the April 1990 issue of Car and Driver.
This magazine unashamedly panders to car lust. Just name your passion. Be it come-hither styling or pulse-quickening horsepower or exotic machinery, we deliver your fix every month.
So who asked for a Hyundai Sonata, you’re wondering?
It just so happens that Hyundai specializes in the single feature most wanted by the majority of new-car shoppers, more important even than sexy fenders, twin turbos, or a glut of valves. Hyundai features low price.
Low price is the thing everybody wants and nobody lusts after, which means that this limousine of the Hyundai line, the Sonata, needs to be viewed a little differently than the normal road-test candidate. After all, most folks still think of South Korea as a Third World country. Moreover, the company didn’t build its first car until 1967 and didn’t export to the U.S. until 1986. So nobody expects an automobile wearing the Hyundai label to be a great car. The question is, is it good enough?
That question has to be answered with another question: what’s really important to you in a new car?
If you’re looking for the utmost in sophistication, there are other cars of comparable size that do better, although the difference is surprisingly narrow. But if the top three items on your list are price, price, and price, the Sonata is probably unbeatable.
Hyundai offers cars of two sizes. The smaller of the two is the Excel, now in its second generation. There’s not a grin in a boatload of Excels: they’re specialists in cost-efficient transport.
The four-door Sonata, new last year, aspires to much more. lt’s sized up into the smaller end of the intermediate range, close to the 1990 Honda Accord, about two inches longer than a Toyota Camry, about four inches shorter than a Ford Taurus. A 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is standard. A 3.0-Iiter, 142-hp V-6 (with automatic transmission only) is optional. This size and power, along with a reasonable list of convenience options, puts the Sonata squarely in competition with the no-excuses brands.
Yet the Sonata’s price is clearly lower. Exact price comparisons are difficult because of equipment variations on the base cars. But let’s take the least costly four-door version of each car and add a V-6 engine, an automatic transmission, air conditioning, and destination charges. The Sonata works out to $12,464, compared with $15,468 for the Camry, $14,547 for the Taurus, $14,340 for the four-cylinder-only Accord. As you can see, the price-conscious have a good reason to consider the Sonata.
And when they do, they’ll find a car that seems a whole lot closer to the others than price would suggest. Staffers of average weight and height find easy comfort in this car. In the base version, the only adjustments on the driver’s seat are fore and aft and seatback angle, but nothing more is necessary. The steering column tilts. The motorized shoulder belt does its thing and you’re ready to go. The Sonata is reasonably quiet on the highway: mostly you hear air rushing past the windows. The ride (if you avoid the 60-series tire option) is about normal for this class of car. The controls respond appropriately. The passenger seats are quite comfortable. In all, there’s nothing significant to complain about.
In fact, a trip in the Sonata is perfectly forgettable, which is a compliment for this relative newcomer. That means no annoyances, no bad habits.
Real car guys, of course, expect more of their car than simply the absence of bother. They want accurate controls, quick responses, and the general feeling of quality. How does the Sonata do on that score?
Well, it’s mostly forgettable there, too. Nothing stands out. While that’s not much of a recommendation to an enthusiast, it’s certainly an impressive accomplishment for a company that’s been making cars for only 24 years, in a country where driving is a luxury beyond the means of most citizens.
Already the Sonata has features of special interest to some professionals. The styling is must-have stuff for bank robbers. The look is pleasing enough; it has very little bright trim, and the curves are soft, rather in the aero mode. But turn away and, “Darn, what did that car look like, anyway?” Again, the word “forgettable” comes to mind.
The instrument panel is busy territory, with more switches, buttons, and dials than you’d expect. While Honda makes the driver’s compartment simple, Hyundai makes it look complicated. Our test car was equipped with a fine-sounding AM/FM/cassette system using six Polk loudspeakers, a $795 option. The radio’s digital display on the dash was too faint to read in the daytime, though. And the dashboard clock was the only electronic clock we can remember that was a hopeless timekeeper: it lost about two hours a day.
While the cloth-upholstered interior is quite comfortable, the eye notices details that are a bit behind the times. The map pockets, for example, are plastic moldings attached to the door panels in the fashion of a patch rather than being integrated into the shape. Also, the console and some of the dashboard trim seem tentatively fastened.
Still, nobody can accuse Hyundai of avoiding the hard jobs. A leather interior is optional. The alliance with Polk to produce a special sound system is a move you’d expect of a mainline carmaker, and the result is much superior to, say, the Bose system in the Nissan Maxima SE. There’s an even better sound option—it includes a CD player, a 160-walt amplifier, and twelve Polk speakers—that we did not hear.
Mechanically, Hyundai relies on licenses from Mitsubishi for some of its components. The engine, for example, is a Mitsubishi design, although it is not exactly the same as the one used in Mitsubishi and Chrysler cars in the U.S. The Sonata’s V-6 has two valves per cylinder and a single overhead cam per bank. Multipoint fuel injection, also a Mitsubishi-licensed system, is standard equipment. The engine runs quietly and teams happily with the electronically controlled four-speed automatic. Shifts are notably smooth, and the computer knows its business: it didn’t get confused when we accelerated hard in one of the lower gears and then eased back just when it was getting ready to shift.
Two sizes of Michelin Sport EPX tires are offered as options: 195/70SR-14 and 205/60HR-15. The 70-series option coordinates well with the Sonata’s intrinsic suspension response. The 60-series choice is less pleasing. This tire’s quickness seemed out of phase with the suspension, producing small darting motions in defiance of the driver’s steering inputs. The Sonata has a relatively soft suspension, good for comfort, unsatisfying for aggressive driving. So the avowedly sporting 60-series tires make about as much sense as ketchup on ice cream.
After numerous conversations around the water cooler, we’ve decided that the Sonata’s best feature—after price—is roominess. It’s not as big inside as a Taurus, particularly in width, but there’s more space inside for five passengers than you’d expect from the exterior dimensions. The trunk is reasonably large, too, with a low lift-over.
Because Hyundai is an emerging carmaker specializing in low prices, we cast a critical eye on the details. Overall, the Sonata is a reasonably well put together car. Our two test examples had no rattles, structural shakes, or wind leaks. The textures of the cloth and the vinyl used inside were pleasing. And yet, when you look at the basics‑the finish inside the trunk and under the hood, the hinges, the stampings, and the like‑you see rudimentary executions. Moreover, when driving we hear small, unidentifiable sounds that are uncarlike, little reminders that this is not a Honda.
That’s okay. All cars needn’t be the same. The Sonata’s prices aren’t in Honda’s league either. Yet Hyundai is obviously crowding its prices up about as fast as it dares. The leather interior and the twelve-speaker stereo are ways to raise the gross price without lifting the advertised base. Which leads us to the final water-cooler consensus. We’re impressed how quickly this South Korean company learned to produce a car of distinctly middle-class capabilities, and we’re equally impressed with its pricing ambitions.
In 1962 my father bought his first new car, a six-cylinder Ford Galaxie, for about 2600. It was the bottom-of-the-line full-sized Ford, with industrial upholstery and no power assists. It didn’t even have carpeting.
Cheap as it was, my father’s Galaxie was a serviceable unit: reasonably economical, reliable, and able to carry our family and all of our detritus on long trips. Not once, however, did we forget we were traveling in a barebones transportation appliance.
The Sonata V6 is spiritually akin to that old Galaxie. It’s big and roomy, and it offers a healthy powertrain and a reliable reputation. And, compared with other similarly equipped cars, it’s cheap. Of course, the passage of a quarter-century has endowed the Sonata with far more sophistication than any lowball sedan of the sixties. It has attractive upholstery and carpeting and an efficient climate-control system. It also offers features that didn’t exist in 1962. Still, like my father’s Galaxie, the Sonata V6 is a transportation tool, nothing more. —Csaba Csere
You can imagine reading a classified ad in your Sunday paper detailing Hyundai’s new Sonata V6: 1990 Hyundai Sinatra, vry cln, nvr titled, FM/cass, A/C, V-6, auto, pwr evrythng, nice car, must sell, $14,500.
Farther down the page, you could find similar descriptions of Mitsubishis, Nissans, and Toyotas, but those cars would cost at least $2300 more than the Hyundai. To find a similarly equipped car at the Hyundai’s price, you’d have to look for year-old Toyota Camry V-6s or used Nissan Maximas.
I’d prefer the used cars. Though the Sonata is roomy and well equipped, it lacks the refinements in noise and vibration control that you find in the Japanese sedans. Of course, if you go with a used car you have to worry about the previous owner’s maintenance habits and his pets and whether the warranty will transfer. Big worries. I still wouldn’t buy the Hyundai, but I wouldn’t laugh at anyone who did. —Phil Berg
The Hyundai Sonata is not my kind of car. But keep reading if you’re in the market for some decent, if unexciting, transportation. Our test example of the Sonata cost just over $14,500, erasing any thoughts of the Sonata being a bargain-basement steal. But it is V-6 powered. And the V-6 is matched to an automatic transmission that gives true meaning to the word “smooth.” It’s a driveline that Ford would kill to have in its Tempo.
When I sat down in the Sonata, my first thoughts were, in order, that it felt surprisingly large inside and that it looked more American than Japanese in the areas of fit and finish. The too-soft velour seats, in particular, clearly spoke American.
During the many miles I drove the Sonata, the car worked with a smooth dullness made to order for claims adjusters and health-food junkies. Practical Pig would love it. —William Jeanes
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