Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels, a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.
I distinctly remember when the Sonata was introduced in the United States in late 1988 as a 1989 model. It had bland styling and, according to Car & Driver, cornered like a mid-sixties American sedan. It was also just as unreliable as the Excel, and a few drives in a friend’s second-generation Excel left me less than impressed with Hyundai overall. However, I was quite impressed with a coral Accent my girlfriend (now wife) and I rented in 1995 that we nicknamed “Harry the Hot Pink Hyundai.” We drove it from D.C. to Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and back with nary a problem, squeak or rattle. I was so impressed that I strongly considered buying one when we moved to Central Virginia, but financing a car would likely have killed our chances of buying a townhouse.
It was because of this experience that I was looking forward to driving this second-generation Sonata, and I wasn’t disappointed. Sure, it wasn’t as refined as the Camry or Accord, but it also cost considerably less. Today, of course, the Sonata stands shoulder-to-shoulder with those two. My sister-in-law is now on her fourth Sonata, and it was the first car out of my mother’s mouth when I told her that I was looking for a new car several years ago.
The below review ran on November 2, 1998.
Question: Why buy a Sonata?
Answer: It costs about $3,000 less than a comparably equipped Camry or Accord, and a buyer could probably get it for less than that as the Sonata is at the end of its product cycle.
Next question: Is it worth it?
The current Sonata is the flagship of Korean automaker Hyundai. What was originally a bland, bargain-basement, mid-size sedan has evolved into a stylish automobile that’s much more distinctive than its benchmarks listed above.
The protruding grill and unique headlamps highlight the crisp, sporty styling. The interior is well thought out, with all of the controls arranged logically and within easy reach. Luxury features not expected for the price include a moonroof, alloy wheels, power antenna, and radio controls mounted on the steering wheel.
Four passengers and their luggage will fit nicely in the Sonata; five in a pinch. The rear seat also folds for serious hauling.
One area that’s clearly improved for Hyundai is quality control. Early Hyundais, including the Sonata, were plagued with squeaks, rattles, and inferior trim pieces that didn’t feel like they’d last a full 48-month payment cycle. During the one week with our 7,000-mile example, nothing squeaked or rattled, and everything felt tight. The overall feel of the materials is not up to the level of most Japanese and American cars, but well ahead of Korean competitors Kia and Daewoo.
Where the Sonata really falls short is in the powertrain department. The 3.0-liter V6, although it pulls strongly from the start, sounds harsh under hard acceleration. Furthermore, the four-speed automatic transmission allows the driver to feel every shift – not exactly a desirable trait. Hopefully, these two shortcomings will be addressed in the 1999 model, which will feature even sportier styling, a new 2.5-liter V6, and a more advanced automatic. Handling and ride were average for the class, but much improved over previous Sonatas.
So, is it worth it? If you don’t mind trading a little refinement for a huge cost savings, you’ll end up with a good looking, Camry-sized sedan for about the price of a Corolla.
For more information contact 1-800-826-CARS
Engine:142-horsepower, 3.0 liter V6
EPA Mileage:17 city/24 highway
There are two cars you almost never ever see anymore, a 1990s Accent and Sonata. They sound like they were decent enough in the 1990s, I wonder what killed them off by the late 2010s?
Whenever I am talking cars I invariably start comparing the car of topic with “cheap” cars like Hyundai and Kia, then quickly correct myself as I remind myself these brands are no longer second tier.
I’m getting old.
When this Sonata arrived was the first time that I looked at Hyundai and thought “now this is serious.” I don’t care for the headlights and grille, but the rest of it was a stunner. There was an ad campaign featuring Charles Barkley (and I was skeptical he ever regularly drove one or even fit in well) and the paint quality looked good when they were new. Around this same time, the first Tiburon debuted, also a looker. Just a couple of years later, a new Elantra debuted that went beyond good looks (and wasn’t a standout looker), but appeared to be a good choice and a nice car for the money. Add in the Hyundai warranty package which started around that time and Hyundai couldn’t be ignored.
The $3,000 cheaper figure you quote is exactly the figure that made my first new car purchase (in 2015) an Elantra instead of a Cruze. I liked the Cruze better, with its quiet cabin and Jetta-like solidity, just not $3,000 better. When that first Elantra was totaled and I was fine, I replaced it with another Elantra. By 2015, though, Hyundai already wasn’t strictly shopped on price anymore, and downright daring styling had made them one of the first to consider rather than the one that’s competing with used cars (which would then and definitely now be Nissan). As someone who now owns two Korean cars (a used 2011 Kia Sedona I bought recently also impresses), there isn’t a category they’re in that I wouldn’t recommend their offering. I’d love to have a V8 G90!
I compared the two as well, but in my case, the Cruze offered the better deal. However, I would have had no problem with an Elantra if it came to that. As for today, give me a G70 or Kia Stinger. They’re both knockouts.
I had 7 Hyundais including, yes, an ’86 Excel and an ’89 Sonata.I frankly always found good value for the money and if you maintained them well, no major problems.In the earlier years , also, they were very willing to make right a bad part or other defect without question.My ’12 Veloster again was a first of the litter and has done very well with now almost 80,000 miles.
I remember the coral, or hot pink, Accents. Seemed like the most common color on these at that time, and to me it looked liked “Pre-Faded Red.” My red 1988 Mazda look mighty similar to that color after ten years in the sun.
When folks started buying Sonatas in decent numbers, I realized that Hyundai was going to succeed in the US market, despite the Excel’s not-so-excellent reputation.
“Pre-Faded Red” Hahaha, spot on!
That is one odd front end, with the scalloped headlights, small grille, and the multiple openings of various shapes and sizes below the bumper.
Not that I am a fan of today’s monstrous gaping maw grilles!
I had a Sonata recently as a rental, and I have to disagree that it was on par with a Camry or Accord. The interior was extremely cheap feeling and it was very loud under normal acceleration. It wasn’t a horrible car, but I could see why bargain hunters would justify it being the same as it competitors.
Yes and that value proposition would be seriously questioned when you factor in depreciation.
I think Toyota copied this Sonata’s front end for the 2003 Aussie-market Avalon.
I realized that you really never see gen 1 or 2 Sonatas anywhere anymore. In fact, it would seem that most Hyundai models pre-2000 are virtually extinct at this point.