With its all-new Sonata, Hyundai has arrived. Finally. Best-known for selling inexpensive cars with short life spans, the Korean automaker takes a major leap forward with the redesigned Sonata. With a new V-6 engine, an attractive new body design,
fairly roomy interior and a sub-$20,000 price tag fully loaded with luxury features, the Sonata presents a formidable entry in the broad, competitive class of midsize sedans. The midsize class is the heart of the market, where Toyota Camry, Honda
Accord and Ford Taurus duke it out every year for laurels as best-selling automobile. And there are lots of other cars, ranging from the Chevy Lumina to the Mercedes C-Class, vying for family-car buyers. So what secret weapon does Sonata bring onto
the field? Price, for one. As Hyundai's flagship, the Sonata is not cheap, but it does offer considerable dollar value for those attempting to finance a new car on a limited budget. Plus, Hyundai is offering the best warranty coverage in the
industry. The powertrain is covered for 10 years or 100,000, and the entire car is covered bumper-to-bumper for five years or 60,000 miles. Obviously, part of the reasoning here is to counter Hyundai's reputation for spotty reliability. Many people
have unpleasant memories of self-destructive Excels, so the warranty protection goes far to assuage those fears. Whatever the case, Hyundai dealers are having a great year, and a number of would-be dealers are standing in line to snag franchises. One
lure is the new Sonata; another is the upcoming Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle. And, of course, that warranty. Sonata is not only the best Hyundai yet, it's also a good sedan when compared with the competition. I found it to be roadworthy and
likeable, well-equipped and enjoyable to drive. The test car was a top-of-the-line GLS model with a load of standard equipment, including power windows, locks and mirrors; V-6 engine; automatic transmission; 100-watt stereo with CD; four-wheel power
disc brakes with anti-lock; low-profile performance tires on good-looking rims; side air bags and seat-belt pretensioners (rare in this class of car); cruise control; and a host of other goodies. The only major option was a
leather-seating/power-driver-seat package, priced at $1,200. Even at that, the total fell significantly below the $20,000 barrier, probably $5,000 or $6,000 lower than its Japanese and U.S. competitors, comparably equipped. Prices for the base-model
Sonata start at just over $15,000, with well-equipped models coming in at just a few thousand more. The exterior styling is conservative but distinctive, looking low and sporty, with a large cabin area, and sculpted hood and trunk. One styling
clinker is the aluminum strip across the lip of the trunk, with Sonata embossed in block letters. It's dated and ugly. The interior is reasonably roomy with decent head and leg room. Two inches have been added to the overall width compared with the
t Sonata, and it's readily apparent inside. The styling is, again, conservative but seemed well-made and properly designed. The ersatz-wood trim around the console is pretty bad. I don't think any actual tree product ever looked like this stuff.
Hyundai needs to bury its fake-wood supply and stick with something a bit more realistic. Look at the interiors of some new Volkswagens for the kind of surfaces and textures that can replace phony wood. Forever, I hope. Otherwise, the interior was
pleasant and comfortable, more so than expected, with nothing that felt cramped or minimalistic. The Sonata has a smooth, competent ride, though serious road irregularities will throw it off course. Handling is very good, as long as you don't meet up
with any of those irregularities. Steering is responsive, and the four-wheel disc brakes stop on a dime. The new V-6 cruises nicely, though hard acceleration will make it roar. The power's pretty good once you get it up in the revs , but i
t will bog down at low engine speeds. Compounding this problem, the automatic transmission seemed reluctant to downshift unless I pressed hard on the accelerator, making the engine roar aggressively. I would have much preferred the available stick shift.
A pretty beefy 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is the base unit, cranking 149 horsepower. One thing to consider with the Sonata is that it may not hold its resale value, the way Camrys or Accords do, because of Hyundai's spotty past. Time will
tell whether Sonata is indeed the dawning of a new day for Hyundai, or just another false start. 1999 Hyundai Sonata Vehicle type: Five passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive. Base price: $17,799. Price as tested: $19,272.
Engine: 2.5-liter V6, 170 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 166 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Transmission: Four speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,128 pounds. Wheelbase: 106.3 inches. EPA fuel economy: 20 city, 28 highway. Highs: Dollar
value. Nice styling. Comfortable ride. Lows: Engine roar. Ugly fake wood. Resale value?