This town is in the wrong state. It should be in Louisiana, where French-speaking people would at least pronounce its name correctly. The folks here call the place "Bell Fountain" or "Bellfontin," stripping the name of any romance. That's too bad, because this is a neat little town, plopped in the middle of rolling farmland, a bit more than three hours south of Detroit. I arrived on a Sunday afternoon, when there was little to do except pray and drive, which appear to be the main pursuits in these parts on workweek's eve. I drove a 1998 Hyundai Sonata GL sedan, a pking-new rental car of which I had modest expectations. I wasn't disappointed. Though discernibly better than any car yet produced by Hyundai, the Sonata sounds a mediocre note, especially in comparison with its rivals -- the Ford Taurus, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Mazda 626 and Chevrolet Malibu. What the Sonata has going for it are price and good looks, which is why the car truly is a matter of getting what you pay for -- bargain-basement beauty. Customers willing to accept that reality should be happy with the Sonata. It will take them wherever they want to go in reasonable comfort and safety at reasonable cost and should provide long service, as long its maintenance schedule is observed religiously. Also, the car is ultimately likable, in the manner that an old shirt or an aged yet serviceable pair of tennis shoes is likable. After five days of rolling around Michigan and Ohio, I adjusted to the Sonata GL's quirks, such as the soft wallow of its suspension system over anything resembling a bumpy road. In terms of performance, the car's virtue was in its reliability -- marked by consistent, strong engine starts in the damp chill of the Midwest's El Nin~o winter. Also, the Sonata GL held its own at highway speeds -- no draggy acceleration, no waiting to file an application to enter expressway ramps, just a rather decent zoom. The Sonata's winged hood -- accented by a sportier-than-thou oval nose flanked by ellipsoidal headlamps -- drew lots of attention here and in Detroit. Some folks mistook it for a Honda whose first name was spelled wrong. But had folks taken a closer look, they would have seen that this Hyundai was no Honda. For example, Honda never would have produced a car with gaps between the hood and nose and the doors and fenders as wide as those found in the Sonata. Nor would Honda have used cheap-feel vinyl like that adorning the Sonata's instrument panel. Like its rivals, the Sonata is a front-wheel-drive car that seats five people. It can be bought as the base model, the tested GL or the upscale GLS. The base and GL come equipped with a standard in-line, double-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine that produces 137 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 129 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. A five-speed manual transmission is standard with that engine. A V-6 is optional on the GL and standard on the GLS. It produces 142 horsepow er at 5,000 rpm and 168 pound-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm. The V-6 is mated to a standard four-speed automatic transmission. Standard brakes include power ventilated front discs and rear drums. The V-6 cars get four-wheel power discs. Antilock brakes are optional. 1998 Hyundai Sonata GL Sedan Complaints: Though overall build quality has improved, the Sonata still needs more fine-tuning in the fit-and-finish department. Praise: A decent mid-size family sedan for a decent price. Head-turning quotient: Among the best in its class. Ride, acceleration and handling: Acceptable ride. Decent acceleration. Fair handling. Okay braking. Nothing exceptional in these categories. Safety: Dual front air bags, front and rear crumple zones, a reinforced steel frame to improve overall vehicle rigidity, energy-absorbing steering column -- the basics. The jury is still out on real-world safety performance. Sound system: Optional six-speaker AM-FM stereo radio an cassette . Installed by Hyundai. Very good. Mileage: Not impressive. About 22 miles per gallon combined city-highway. Fuel tank holds 17.2 gallons of recommended 87-octane unleaded. Estimated range on usable volume of fuel is 370 miles. Price: Base price on the 1998 Sonata GL is $17,349. Dealer invoice is $15,546. Price as tested is $18,190, including $406 for optional cruise control and a $435 destination charge. A bona fide value buy among mid-size passenger cars.
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