Thirteen years ago, Hyundai’s midsize Sonata sedan was a budget-value four-door that didn’t entice car buyers used to Camrys and Accords. Then, the new 2006 Sonata broke down barriers and splashed onto the family sedan scene with a host of credentials that suddenly made Hyundai a player in the lucrative, top-selling sedan class.
Hyundai hasn’t looked back since, as that car put the brand squarely in the crosshairs of buyers wanting more — more features, more performance, and all for less money.
Now, that Sonata has been restyled three times since then, bouncing from evocative extroversion to conservative and responsible. Buyers surged to the Sonata’s none-to-subtle appeal and propelled the sedan up the sales charts to become a niche family sedan no longer.
Central to the list of virtues evident here is a spacious, user-friendly interior that offers convenience, safety and sensible operation in a design that won’t offend but also won’t bore you. The limousine-like back seat is closest to the larger Toyota Avalon in overall dimensions while shattering the comfort and closed-in feel of large cars like Taurus or Chrysler 300; it is just huge back there. Remaining true to the size template of the class leaders, cars named Camry, Accord, Altima, etc., the Sonata utilizes very efficient packaging and construction techniques.
While three different engines are available, plus a hybrid-powertrain, our Sonata Limited featured the 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 185 hp. Backed by a six-speed automatic, power is ample and crisply delivered while observed fuel economy ranged from 31.5 mpg to 35 mpg over the course of back-to-back 400-mile days. A stable and quiet highway cruiser, the Sonata proved to be a worthy road warrior companion as the miles piled on during its visit. With a range up to 600 miles per tank (EPA rating of 28/35-mpg) the Sonata can cover a whole lot of ground and leave its occupants relaxed upon arrival.
Loaded with content ($31,310 fully equipped, heated and cooled leather, dual-zone climate, dynamic cruise, forward collision braking, parking sensors, sunroof, Infinity audio, heated steering wheel, rear sunshades, navigation and much more), the Sonata Limited only needed one more feature to really make an impact in this segment — all-wheel drive. Only the Ford Fusion and Subaru Legacy offer AWD in the affordable midsize sedan segment, in sharp contrast to the premium class, where almost all offerings at least make AWD an option. Given the competence with which this sedan works — as do many competitors — AWD is the last remaining feature that could help Hyundai separate from the pack.
It also would aid the car’s mass appeal in the Snowbelt, where consumers continue to go ga-ga over crossovers. The functional appeal of crossovers — greater cargo capabilities, higher hip-point for visibility and comfort, as well as a preponderance of AWD systems in all versions — has led to a sharp decline in the sales of almost every car line. Literally based on the car platforms that they compete with, crossovers have reshaped how consumers look at their daily transportation needs and the vehicles that assist them in everyday driving tasks.
It won’t be enough going forward to build just competent products. Auto consumers will demand greater efficiency and versatility before unique powertrains are installed. Will every sedan in five years have to be a hybrid or a plug-in EV in order to meet automakers fuel economy standards because crossovers dominate sales? Will consumers even want conventional four-door sedans in ten years, if the driving population has shifted to taller, larger crossovers and trucks that make heavy-traffic visibility more stressful for sedan drivers?
Confront these issues, and many more, while considering what the next Sonata needs to be — or the next Camry, or the next Cruze. That the current Sonata is a top-tier midsize sedan is evident by its popularity, combining features, price and performance that carries real street credibility. As with its rivals, the next Sonata is now the critical product — how will it stretch the boundaries of existing performance standards and expand its appeal.
We know for sure that this Sonata is a great foundation for progress to continue. Credit the 2006 Sonata for starting that trend.