Great television shows occasionally hit the ground running, offering a truly incredible experience from the first episode onward. Others initially struggle to find their footing, ultimately reaching their potential in season two and beyond. NBC’s The Office suffered from a lack of identity during its initial six episode run largely because it operated as a pastiche of its BBC counterpart. Did that make the show bad? Absolutely not. Critics generally liked the show, but felt that NBC didn’t do enough to distinguish it from the original, which by that point had become an international sensation.
Like season one of NBC’s The Office, Hyundai’s fifth generation Sonata was a competent and historic product that struggled to differentiate itself from international predecessors.
Hyundai’s path to relevancy didn’t begin with the Sonata, but a product based on its platform did. Introduced in 2001, the Santa Fe represented a departure for the Korean automaker. Prior to its debut, Hyundai’s lineup only featured cars not explicitly designed for the North American market. The Korean automaker decided to change the formula with the Santa Fe, using their design studio in California to develop the exterior while basing its size on the Ford Explorer. It represented a clear step up from the entry level cars consumers came to expect from Hyundai.
Creating a vehicle for a burgeoning segment where all the products are relatively new is different than redesigning a car in a mature segment that feature models with decades of established credibility. The Sonata carried the baggage associated with previous generations in its trunk.
If you asked the average car shopper to outline the advantages of owning a Hyundai in 2006, their top response likely centered around the value proposition the brand represented. Hyundai’s strategy relied on packing their vehicles full of standard features with pricing considerably lower than their American and Japanese counterparts. While that is still mostly true in 2017, contemporary Korean cars compete on more than just price.
That was not the case for the fourth generation Sonata. Hampered by awkward styling, the mid-size sedan struggled against better known competitors. But it did succeed in attracting a growing number of customers looking for a value packed sedan, and sales increased 36 percent over three years. That didn’t mean Hyundai could rest on its laurels. In the February 2002 issue of Car and Driver, Daniel Pund outlined the status of the Sonata as a viable competitor to the Camry and Accord:
Does the Hyundai feel as well engineered, well constructed, and satisfying to drive as the Accord and Camry? No. Should Honda and Toyota worry? No.
If Hyundai wanted to gain more credibility (and customers) they needed to field a vehicle substantially better than the fourth generation sedan.
And they largely did. The 2006 Sonata boasted a more elegantly chiseled exterior than its predecessor. Hyundai ditched the dual circular setup of the headlights for a single, rectangular design much more aligned with the established norms of the mid-size sedan segment.
The somewhat rounded silhouette of the fourth gen model gave way to a more traditional boxy shape with the fifth generation.
Out back, the Sonata ditched the bulbous, square shaped tail lights for some rectangular units.
Obviously, Hyundai decided to style the Sonata after the Accord. Introduced in 2002, the Honda made its debut at about the time the fifth generation Sonata was in its initial design stages. The similarities between the two are so apparent that one could even go so far as to say the 2006 Sonata looks like a blend between the sixth and seventh generation Accord. If you swapped their badges, and told an automotive layman that your Hyundai is an Accord, they probably wouldn’t second guess you.
When comparing the Japanese and Korean sedans, its a bit surprising Honda chose to design triangular shaped headlights for the front end, since anything other than vaguely rectangular shaped lenses tend to derail exterior design in mainstream vehicles. Previous versions of the Sonata suffered for it, but Honda successfully incorporated a front end that looked attractive with the non-traditional layout.
Unfortunately, something got lost in translation with the interior, or perhaps Hyundai wanted to create a cabin not directly influenced by the Japanese. They succeeded, but their effort produced a dash lacking any sort of aesthetic quality. The most noticeable issue is the vast distance between the audio controls and the HVAC system, which is made worse by the contrasting strip of silver (and wood applique in other trims). Visually, the strip bisects the entire dash, which breaks up the natural flow of the design and makes the entire area look like two different interiors were mixed together to create it. Saying this is not the most attractive car interior in automotive history is an understatement.
Where did Hyundai get the inspiration for such an audaciously designed cabin? Hard to say, since visually it does not resemble the competition nearly as well as the exterior matches that of the Honda Accord. But there are similarities between the Sonata’s cabin and the interior found in the 2002 Toyota Camry. Most notably the audio control layout, with the buttons on the Sonata residing in positions that mirror those on the Toyota.
|Make/Model||4 cyl. (hp)||6 cyl (hp)|
|Hyundai Sonata||164 ||237|
|Toyota Camry (XV40)||158||268|
As for the sections less visible to the consumer, Hyundai proved it could do its homework in those areas as well. Hyundai’s first all-aluminum engine, the 2.0 liter four cylinder dubbed “Theta,” boasted competitive horsepower figures, and the new 3.3 liter “Lambda” V6 was no different.
The fifth generation Sonata proved Hyundai could compete in the big leagues. That doesn’t mean the car was perfect. In an early 2006 comparison test that featured the Accord, Camry, Fusion, and Sonata, Motor Trend had this to say about the differences between the Korean and Japanese products:
The doors slam with a thinner thud. Inside, the waterline of cheaper hard plastics along the dash and door panels is an inch or so higher, so your eyes notice them more. Over micro-bumps, which the Toyota’s suspension absorbs without a ripple in your latte, the Sonata’s chassis quivers; on worse surfaces, its suspension skips and patters. But its steering and braking are crisper.
It seems the Sonata couldn’t compete in certain areas but did well in others. In December 2005, Car and Driver wrote about their experience testing the same cars, and generally liked the Sonata, even if it wasn’t groundbreaking:
The suspension lacks the muscular control that gives the Honda such a sporting feel, and it lacks the plush-carpet smoothness that eases the Camry over Michigan’s broken roads. Hey, benchmarks are very hard to beat. That said, the Sonata certainly behaves within the envelope of contemporary expectations.
Did Car and Driver damn the Sonata with faint praise? Sort of. But they also acknowledged the progress Hyundai achieved in just a few short years. This is also evident in the Sonata’s third place finish in the comparison test. It marked one of the first times a Korean car beat out one of the class leaders. But were the Accord and Camry true competitors to the Sonata?
The numbers shown above illustrate the importance of reputation and brand recognition. The Accord and Camry each had decades of positive buzz to build upon, while Hyundai still needed to win customers over to its side. That being said, the Korean nameplate fared well, as did the Fusion, and these four sedans roughly follow similar sales trajectories, even if the numbers between each differ. The Altima, which doesn’t appear in the chart, performed similarly and maintained third place for most of the past decade. Fluctuating numbers between 2008 and 2010 were likely due to the recession, and the second decline in 2016 probably highlights the growing popularity of crossovers. If anything, the sales numbers provide proof that automakers competing in mature segments are fighting for marketshare at the margins.
In this light its entirely plausible to view the two comparison tests as evaluations of the newcomers rather than a contest to determine a winner among the group. Of course the opposite argument can also be made. While the Sonata and Fusion never threatened to topple the best sellers, they each carved out their own niche in a segment large enough to sustain a diverse group of vehicles. But they were also able to compete on the merits for shoppers not entirely on board with a Camry, Accord, or Altima.
As one of the primary competitors to the Sonata, the first generation Fusion may have indeed represented a bolder choice than the Hyundai, at least when it came to driving dynamics and exterior design. But the interior definitely played it safe, sticking to a fairly basic formula. In this way the Ford also follows the Hyundai in resembling the first season of a television show, only this time that show is 2017’s Star Trek: Discovery. Like the Fusion, the show made some risky choices that ultimately paid off; the result is a refreshing take on a thoroughly established franchise.
The Sonata may have not been as exciting, but the fifth generation significantly elevated Hyundai’s reputation in the American market. By emulating the characteristics that made the Japanese heavyweights segment leaders, Hyundai developed a vehicle fully capable of succeeding on something more than just price. Fans of workplace comedies didn’t need to make excuses for liking The Office from day one even if it wasn’t perfect. With the fifth generation Sonata, owners could similarly feel confident about their vehicle in spite of the fact that it owed its existence to the cars that preceded it.