Getting in tune

2006, Hyundai, Sonata LX

Come to think of it, harmony is a magical thing. Out of an infinite number of possible tones, it so happens that a special few of these come together in particularly pleasing ways. And then, voila! Music. No lesser minds than Pythagoras and Plato, Kepler and Newton were obsessed with this experience of musical magic, which renders harmonious simplicity out of discordant chaos.

So I wonder if some closet Pythagorean Neoplatonists have had anything to do with the design and execution of the 2006 Sonata, Hyundai's newest rendition of the mid-size sedan. The name alone, of course, is a broad hint. So well does the Sonata render a harmonious automotive experience out of myriad mechanical complexities that one is tempted to suspect a bit of magic behind the rebirth of this important model from Hyundai.

It wasn't so long ago, after all, that contemplating the purchase of a Hyundai meant taking a bit of a gamble. Sure, the Hyundais were affordable, even cheap. But were they reliable? Would they perform adequately? Could you get them conveniently serviced? Hyundai took conspicuous, proactive steps to counter fears and suspicions by devising the most generous warranty terms in all of autodom: five years or 60,000 miles for overall protection; 10 years or 100,000 miles for powertrain protection; protection against rust perforation for seven years; roadside assistance for five.

These terms remain in place; but their persuasive value has subtly shifted from that of core message to mere icing on the cake. As the new Sonata demonstrates, Hyundai has arrived upon the main automotive stage with competitive cars and SUVs that rival the bestsellers from Japan, Europe and the U.S.

Even at the most superficial level, the 2006 Sonata looks like it belongs here-in the U.S., that is. Previous incarnations of this and other Hyundais evinced a quirky, not-from-'round-here gawkiness. In some cases, there was too much chrome. In other cases, certain proportions seemed out of kilter. For 2006, the Sonata looks elegant yet remains distinctive; but it also looks comfortable in its own skin, self-confident, convinced of its rightful place in the U.S. marketplace.

Maybe, then, it's just a coincidence that this Sonata is the first Hyundai to be built in the U.S., at a spanking new engine plant and vehicle assembly facility outside Montgomery, Ala. Whatever the case, this homegrown "transplant," to use the industry term, looks sleek, contemporary and muscular. There are hints of Honda at the rear, Volvo at the sides, Toyota at the front-in short, a look well in tune with what U.S. autobuyers already deem most popular.

But looks can be deceiving: Although Sonata's exterior dimensions approximate those of Accord, Camry and Malibu compacts, its cleverly engineered interior ranks it with larger family sedans like Avalon, Impala and the Ford 500. Sonata's packaging is, perhaps, its secret weapon. There's generous seating for five; and rear legroom, in particular, is abundant.

The 16.3 cubic-foot trunk is also of full-size sedan capacity. Thanks to 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks, this trunk space more than doubles for ferrying large cargo. In theory, a pallet measuring three by one by seven feet long might be loaded-in through the trunk, with a three by four by one-and-a-half foot tall carton slipped on top of it through the rear doors. That's 37 cubic feet; and that's impressive for what appears to be merely a compact sedan.

In the top-of-the-line Sonata LX tested here, a 3.3-liter V6 powerplant comes standard. This, too, represents an important coming-of-age milestone for Hyundai. Often, previous models may have boasted cockpit amenities to coddle passengers at the expense of powertrain performance to satisfy drivers. Now, Sonata exploits variable valve timing and twin-cam architecture to produce 235 horsepower and 226 foot-pounds of acceleration torque.

The engine is smooth and refined, mated to a shiftable five-speed automatic. Its power curve is biased to the higher-rpm range, so the Sonata isn't quite as quick from a stop as some of its rivals. But there's no denying this is a well-tempered powertrain made even more enjoyable by Sonata's relatively trim 3,458-pound curb weight. Accordingly, the car is light on its feet when cornering. The fully independent suspension, with anti-lock disc brakes all round, is tuned for sport-say, medium firm. And 50-profile tires on 17-inch wheels not only grip admirably but also look genuinely muscular.

Sonata's trim weight and sleek profile harmonize in another important way: fuel economy is a respectable 20 mpg/city, 30 mpg/highway, using regular. This is perhaps a benchmark for a Hyundai V6, since a previous version of Sonata, reviewed here in 2002, managed only 20 mpg/city, 27 mpg/highway, despite much smaller V6 displacement (2.7 liters), less power (181 hp) and much lighter curb weight (3,107 lbs.)

Much has changed for the better in Hyundai's Sonata, the company's avowed volume-leader; but one important note of consistency remains unaltered. This larger, quieter, prettier, more powerful family car is a fantastic value. At the top end, the LX version comes with Hyundai's every available amenity as standard equipment-leather, automatic climate control, AM/FM/CD, six airbags, the works. So its base and as-tested prices are identical: $22,895. Compared to a top-shelf Accord or Camry, this is anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 less expensive.

Even more affordable are Sonata GL models with a 2.4-liter, 162-hp inline-four. GLs start at $17,895 with a very generous selection of standard equipment.

In the past, Hyundai's reputation for "value pricing" often struck a discordant note. The cars looked inexpensive, unusual, odd, and they were. Yet some buyers just winced and did the deal despite vague misgivings. For 2006, the Sonata boasts at least four important, and new, advantages: elegance and power, comfort and versatility. That its affordability remains so remarkably unchanged almost seems like magic-like a perfect fifth, so to speak.

3.3-liter DOHC V6 w/ vvt; FWD, 5-sp. "Shiftronic" auto; 235 hp/226 ft.-lbs.; 20mpg/city, 30 mpg/hwy w/ regular; trunk: 16.3 cu. ft.; std. equipment: 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, auto HVAC, AM/FM/CD, 17-in. "Euroflange" wheels, Electronic Stability Control, front/front-side/front-rear curtain airbags, leather; as-tested: $22,895

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2006, Hyundai Sonata LX

2006 Hyundai Sonata LX
2006 Hyundai Sonata LX
2006 Hyundai Sonata LX
2006 Hyundai Sonata LX
2006 Hyundai Sonata LX
2006 Hyundai Sonata LX
2006 Hyundai Sonata LX
2006 Hyundai Sonata LX