"What are you driving this week?" a friend asked me the other day, not an odd question since I get a new vehicle each week for testing.
"It's the Hyundai Sonata sedan," I replied.
"Is that the one that looks like a Jaguar?" he asked.
"Well, it used to," I said.
The exchange was a surprise to me, because until then, I thought maybe I was the only one who had noticed similarities in the styling of the previous generation of the Sonata and the baby Jaguar, the X-type sedan that arrived in 2002.
That Sonata was replaced for 2006 by a new generation with all-new styling, and the similarities to the exterior of the Jag disappeared.
But even without looking much like the X-type, the 2008 Sonata is a much better value - and probably even a better car - than the X-type sedan, which costs up to $17,000 more.
Maybe that's why Jaguar is being forced to drop the X-type for poor sales, while Hyundai is preparing to introduce yet another generation of the popular Sonata, whose top model, the Limited, has leather seats and other amenities that usually are reserved for luxury models such as Jaguars. (The redesigned Sonata will arrive this fall for 2009.)
Yes, there still seems to be some stigma attached to driving a Hyundai, but it's not really fair. I hear it all the time from people I recommend Hyundai products to - "Yeah, maybe it's a good car, but I just can't be seen driving around in a Hyundai."
Well, OK. If having a certain name on your car outweighs the value and practicality of your purchase, then go buy a Honda, Toyota or even a Jaguar.
But if you want one of the finest mass-market midsize sedans on the market, swallow your foolish pride and consider the Sonata.
Our test vehicle was the new four-cylinder Limited model, whose base price is $22,995, including freight. It was added to the lineup for 2008 to appease those who want all the luxury trappings of the Limited, but don't particularly want the V-6 engine, which uses more fuel.
The V-6 Limited costs $1,825 more, with the main difference, besides the six-cylinder engine, that it comes with a five-speed automatic transmission; the four-cylinder Limited has a four-speed automatic.
The other difference, of course, is fuel economy. The four-cylinder Limited is EPA rated at 21 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway, while the V-6 is 19 city/28 highway.
Since fuel prices began their climb to $3, several manufacturers have tweaked their midsize-sedan lineups to offer four-cylinder engines in models that have all the available upscale amenities, including leather interior, automatic climate control, upgraded audio systems with multi-disc CD changers, and so forth. It used to be that these models also came with the uplevel engine.
Our test car's 2.4-cylinder engine, with 162 horsepower and 164 foot-pounds of torque, had more than enough power for everyday driving, even on some hilly roads. I never felt that anything was missing. In fact, I thought my test vehicle had the V-6 engine the first day I drove it, as I didn't even look at the provided copy of the window sticker until that evening.
The leather seats - front and back - were a dark slate gray, and were quite elegant. They could just as easily have been in a Jaguar X-type or Lexus ES 350.
The front bucket seats were quite comfortable, unlike those of some entry-level midsize sedans I've tested recently.
My only complaint is that Hyundai should have ditched the four-speed automatic and used the five-speed for both the four-cylinder and V-6 models. The four-cylinder engine would have even better highway fuel economy with a five-speed automatic, as the fifth gear is a second overdrive.
This is an elegant-looking vehicle inside or out, making the package seem a lot more expensive than it is.
One place the Sonata beats the X-type is in rear-seat legroom. I sat in the back of my Sonata, with the front seats all the way back on their tracks, and had about three inches between my knees and the back of the front seat. Three average-size adults can fit in the back seat fairly comfortably, which is something I can't say for the X-type.
Electronic stability control is standard on all models of the Sonata, an important safety feature that some competitors still offer only as an option.
Designed to help the driver keep the car from leaving the highway and rolling over in a panic situation, the stability control system operates "like the invisible hand of God," Hyundai says.
As for including it as standard equipment - along with front seat-mounted side air bags and side-curtain air bags front and back - Hyundai's policy is that "Safety is not an option."
Standard convenience items on all Sonatas include air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and cruise control. The Limited adds even more, including the automatic climate control, an Infinity audio system with CD changer and XM satellite radio, heated front seats, fog lights, 17-inch alloy wheels, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, tilt and telescopic steering column, and universal garage/gate opener.
Extras on our car included a power sunroof ($900), carpeted floor mats ($85), and a cargo mat in the roomy trunk ($90).
Total sticker was $24,070, including freight and options. To get even a Camry or Accord with all of these amenities would cost several thousand dollars more.
With the redesign for 2006, the Sonata grew to an interior volume of 121.7 cubic feet. That's actually so big that it's classified a "large car" by EPA standards.
Cargo space is near the head of the class, at 16.3 cubic feet.
The Sonata is the main product from Hyundai's new manufacturing plant in Montgomery, Ala. The company has invested $1.1 billion to build the plant.
Sonata prices begin at just over $18,000 (with freight) for the base GL model with a four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual gearbox - the only model in which manual is offered. A four-speed automatic is available in the four-cylinder models for an extra $1,200.
The uplevel engine is a 3.3-liter V-6 rated at 234 horsepower and 226 foot-pounds of torque. It's linked only to the five-speed automatic transmission.
Top speed of the V-6 model is 136.8 mph. The car accelerates from zero to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds and has a 0.32 coefficient of drag, making it one of the sleekest exterior designs on the market.
Four-wheel disc brakes with computerized antilock system and traction control are standard on all models.
2008 Hyundai Sonata
The package: Midsize, four-door, front-drive, four-cylinder or V-6 powered, five-passenger sedan.
Highlights: Hyundai's popular family sedan offers great value in the midsize segment with lots of standard amenities, styling that makes it look like a luxury car, and decent fuel economy, especially with the four-cylinder engine.
Negatives: The four-speed automatic that comes with four-cylinder models is behind the times, as most competitors have five- or six-speeds to achieve better fuel economy; resale values still lag those of the Japanese competitors.
Engine: 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder; 3.3-liter V-6.
Transmission: Five-speed manual; four- or five-speed automatic.
Power/torque: 162 HP./164 foot-pounds (I-4); 234 HP./226 foot-pounds (V-6).
Length: 188.9 inches.
Curb weight: 3,253-3,458 pounds.
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.
Cargo volume: 16.3 cubic feet.
Fuel capacity/type: 17.7 gallons/unleaded regular.
EPA fuel economy: 21 city/31 highway (I-4, manual); 21 city/30 highway (I-4, automatic); 19 city/28 highway (V-6).
Base price range: $17,670-$24,170 plus freight.
Price as tested: $24,070, including freight and options (Limited model, four-cylinder automatic).
On the Road rating: 8.7 (of a possible 10).
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.