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RUMBLE SEAT

Hyundai ... seriously

The Sonata's precision mimicry deserves sincere flattery and proves that this company's worth another look.

August 10, 2005|Dan Neil

IMITATION is the sincerest form of thievery, and no car is more sincere than the new Hyundai Sonata. The first car issued from the loins of a new billion-dollar factory in Montgomery, Ala. -- chances are you've seen the ads trumpeting Hyundai's investment in the right-to-work homeland -- the Sonata is to the Honda Accord what the tribute band Zoso is to Led Zeppelin, a startlingly faithful rendition of the original at state fair prices.

But ultimately not very original. I know it's sheer coincidence, but isn't it strange how the name Hyundai sounds like Honda with a deviated septum? And the curvilinear chrome "H" of the Hyundai's snout looks like a Honda badge that's been left in the kiln too long.

I confess, I'd taken my eye off Hyundai. I've been a big fan of the Tiberon sport compact and then, well, everything else the company made hovered obscurely in my peripheral vision, especially the previous generations of Sonata, which have seemed as routine as a night watchman's rounds.

Somebody's been feeding the gorilla. In the last decade, Hyundai has grown to the fourth-largest import nameplate in the United States, outselling household names like Lexus and Mazda, and its products have recently been at the top of quality surveys by J.D. Power. Part of the company's sales success, surely, is the mind-boggling 10-year powertrain warranty, which provides budget buyers inestimable peace of mind. It's like an automotive sinecure. I mean, tattoo parlors don't offer a 10-year warranty.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Hyundai vehicle -- The Rumble Seat column in Wednesday's Highway 1 section misspelled the name of the Hyundai Tiburon as Tiberon.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 17, 2005 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Features Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Hyundai Tiburon -- The Rumble Seat column in the Aug. 10 Highway 1 section misspelled the name of Hyundai's Tiburon model as Tiberon.

With the new Sonata, the Korean company's march from ignominious thrift to mainstream value is complete. On paper, at least, this thing crushes the competition. Our test model was a Sonata LX, which has a base price of $22,895, and comes standard with a 3.3-liter, 235-hp V6 paired with a five-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift gate in the gear selector slot; 17-inch alloy wheels; leather upholstery (and faux wood culled from the Mattel forests); heated front seats; and all the heated outside mirrors, power windows, fog lights and power outlets you could reasonably ask for. The base model, powered by a 2.4-liter four cylinder and five-speed manual, sells for $17,895.

More impressive still is the suite of electronic helpmates -- anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability control systems -- as well as six airbags and active headrests that protect against whiplash.

In terms of styling, it's too much to say that the Sonata is a clone of either the Accord or the Toyota Camry, even though all three are within a couple of inches of each other in every dimension. Rather, the Sonata masters the same kind of competent, high-order blandness that makes all three cars nearly subliminal. So, although not a Xerox copy, the Sonata can defy the expertise of seasoned car buffs who at a glance will struggle to distinguish it from an Accord or Camry. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. A lot of buyers in this price range prefer to opt out of statement-making, making denial its own aesthetic.

The hardest part of this job is describing what I think of as timbre, the way a car sounds and feels -- the levered balance and heaviness of the door on its hinges, the stubbed sound of thick door seals, the thrust and throw of pedals and gear shifts. The Sonata has something of the Camry's Novocain quiet, thanks to the smooth-running V6 and, like the Camry, it feels very light in the controls, from the over-assisted power steering to the feathery brake pedal. The upholstery feels overstuffed, a la Camry and even the Toyota Avalon.

What it has in common with the Honda is its sense of execution. Everything lines up nicely and there's a comforting rigor in the way stuff operates. It is also like Honda -- the Honda of a decade ago, at least -- in segment-defining value, a more-for-less quotient that will leave its competitors winding their bedsheets in anxiety.

The Sonata doesn't quite have the agility on the road that the Honda does. The freeway ride is smooth enough, but the rear suspension can get unsorted on rough pavement. The car has some velocity in reserve but nothing conspicuous.

Generally, it handles exactly like you'd expect a mid-size front-drive import would handle -- and that makes sense, since this car's spiritual home is the center of the bell curve.

Stravinsky said lesser artists borrow, great artists steal. Hyundai is turning out to be the Rembrandt of affordable transportation. Building a really fine and affordable sedan is no mean feat. Hyundai had the advantage of a template established by Japanese transplants. The harder thing is to come: building a car to move the spirit.

*

2006 Hyundai Sonata LX

Base price: $22,895

Price as tested: $24,295

Powertrain: 3.3-liter dual-overhead cam, 24-valve V6 with variable valve timing; five-speed automatic; front-wheel drive.

Horsepower: 235 at 6,000 rpm

Curb weight: 3,458 pounds

0-60 mph: 7.5 seconds

Wheelbase: 107.4 inches

Overall length: 188.9 inches

EPA fuel economy: 20 miles per gallon city, 30 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Beautifully redundant

Automotive critic Dan Neil

can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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