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1997 Hyundai Sonata

  • Driver

Time doesn't march on — it gallops. Particularly in automotive

engineering, it flies — like Michael Johnson valiantly trying to

keep up with Donovan Bailey.

No company has experienced this to greater degree than

Hyundai. Look at how much better the Accent is than the Excel,

the new Elantra is than the old, the Tiburon is than the

S-Coupe.

Then there's the "new" Sonata.

New is in quotes because it isn't really all that new. Rather,

it's a clever and handsome rebodying of the old Sonata; most of

the underbody and mechanical bits are carry-over.

What you see looks fine. The Sonata has design features that

resemble other carmakers' concept cars for the future, notably

at the front end, with its free-form, multi-faceted headlights

and bodycolor, vertical-bar grille. The triangular taillights

whose inner contour follows the trunk lid, are reminiscent of

such style leaders as the Jaguar XJ6 and various

Mercedes-Benzes.

As I said about the previous-generation Sonata's design,

Hyundai's stylists can hold their heads high, in any company.

The interior design is also competitive/contemporary, with

clear, legible gauges, and generally good ergonomics.

There's plenty of room inside, although I couldn't find a

combination of seat and wheel adjustments to perfectly suit me.

The rear seat is capacious, better-contoured for comfort and

support than most. There is lots of toe-wiggle space under the

front seats, and pockets in their rear faces for monsieur or

madame to slip their copies of The Saturday Star.

The trunk is enormous, with a wide, deep opening.

Do you feel a "but" coming on? Here it comes:

But, while the Sonata looks new and up-to-date, it feels old.

And that's where the rapid car engineering progress thing comes

in (you knew I'd get to this sooner or later . . .)

The engine in my all-singing, all-dancing GLS model is a 3.0

litre single overhead cam-shaft V6, derived from a Mitsubishi

engine that wasn't especially brilliant when it was brand new.

(Mitsu must have a fabulous obsolete-parts export sales

department; it's sold its super-annuated stuff to just about

everybody.)

It produces only a feeble 142 horsepower at 5000 r.p.m., which

isn't far off what everybody else, including Hyundai, gets from

a 2.0 litre four. (Indeed, base and GL Sonatas use Hyundai's own

2.0 litre twin-cam four, which cranks out 137 horses and gets

vastly better fuel economy too.)

As the low peak-power rev limit suggests, it doesn't enjoy

being worked hard. It sounds strained at high r.p.m., although

relatively tall gearing makes it reasonably quiet at cruising

speeds.

Hyundai bolts its own four-speed electronic automatic

transmission onto this motor, with driver-selectable dual mode

(power and normal) control. This is a modern tranny, which

works well in other applications, but doesn't always shift

smoothly here. The obvious thing is to blame the engine, so I

might as well.

While the Sonata's styling is strong, I'm not convinced its

body structure is as stout in a physical sense. That's where car

engineering has really progressed in recent years. It's well

known that a stiff body returns huge dividends in ride, handling

and noise suppression.

It's not that Sonata is as willowy as some of the flexifliers

of the past. But there is a fair degree of road rumble on rough

pavement, rather like a mid-'80s Buick. I don't have stiffness

measurements for the Sonata, but this trait is often attributed

to insufficient body robustness.

Still, the suspension does a decent job, Hyundai having gained

a fair degree of expertise in this area, no doubt learning a

good deal from hiring Porsche to help develop some of its new

models.

The Sonata handles high-speed corners with confidence, and

ride quality will cause few concerns, the gas-pressurized shocks

that are standard on GLS models surely helping to achieve this

difficult balance.

The power steering is light and reasonably direct. Brakes are

disc/drum on base and GL-level Sonatas, while the GLS has

four-wheel discs. Two out of three GLS option packages include

four-channel anti-lock control.

The trim materials aren't up to state-of-the-art standard,

with the seat upholstery seeming thin, and bits like the plastic

trim on the back of the steering wheel housing rattling freely.

Hyundai got its start offering cars that were cheap. Now, they

are building cars that are excellent value — a big difference.

Where the Sonata fits on the value scale depends entirely on

what model you choose.

The base car, with the twin-cam 2.0 litre four, comes in at

$16,995. Put into Toyota terms, that's a Camry-size car for a

Corolla-sized price, and it's easier to overlook some of the

car's shortcomings.

But when you begin with the GLS, like my test car, you start

at $23,095; the top option package, with leather, power sunroof,

high-grade stereo and ABS, is a healthy $3,915, leaving you with

a sticker of $27,010.

There's a lot of stuff in there, but if you're shopping in

that price range, you'll probably be able to stretch a bit

further and get, for example, that Camry or an Accord, which

despite being more expensive will be better value in the long

run.

The restyled Sonata looks to me like a holding pattern: keep

the car fresh until an all-new one arrives, likely in a couple

of years. If Hyundai's recent experience with all-new cars holds

true, that will be a car to reckon with.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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