Hyundai is a company whose reputation undergone a considerable renaissance in the American marketplace. Once synonymous with cheap and unreliable transportation, the Hyundai brand has evolved to encompass reliability and style, while holding the line on the bargain prices for which it is well known.
Sonata is Hyundai’s mid-size offering in the United States and the nameplate has served the company here since 1989. While the first Sonata offered here was priced really well, its indifferent build quality did more harm to the nameplate than good. Over the years however, Hyundai has worked steadily to improve the quality of the Sonata.
Today, the model is one of the most competitive offerings in its segment.
There have been five generations of the Sonata offered in the U.S. since the introduction of that ill-fated 1989 model.
While it was the first generation of the car to be offered in the U.S. the 1989 Sonata was actually the second generation of the car for Hyundai. While it was sold primarily in Hyundai’s South Korean home market, versions of that first Sonata (designated Y1 for Hyundai’s internal purposes) did make their way to Canada (and were built in Bromont, Quebec until 1992). The Y2 Sonata was introduced to the U.S. in 1988, as a 1989 model. Interestingly, while it is considered a mid-size car today, Sonata was originally the large-car offering from Hyundai.
The ’89 Sonata promised much, with its crisp styling by legendary Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro (George-jetto Jew-Jar-O). The 1989 Sonata also featured engineering by Mitsubishi, which is why Sonata’s 2.4-liter, 110-horsepower inline four cylinder engine could also be found in the Mitsubishi Galant of the day. A 146-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6, also a Mitsubishi design, was offered in 1990. In 1992, the 2.4 was replaced with a 131-horsepower, 2.0-liter four. Transmission choices were a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic with the four-cylinder engines. The only choice for the V6 was the four-speed automatic.Hyundai Sonata: 1995 – 1998
Making its debut in 1994, as a 1995 model, the Y3 Sonata was really more of a restyle than it was re-engineered. The engines carried over from the Y2 models, as did the transmissions. The build quality was somewhat improved, but the first cars were so bad, saying the build quality improved in the Y3 cars frankly, isn’t saying a great deal.
There was a restyle of the front and rear ends for the ’97 model year, and the four-cylinder engine got a power upgrade to 123 horsepower. Four-speed automatics and five-speed manuals continued as the transmission choices. All in all though, the Y3 Sonata really isn’t something worth expending a lot of words upon, so let’s move on to the EF car.Hyundai Sonata: 1999 - 2005
Despite its frumpy appearance, the EF Sonata was a vast improvement over its predecessors. Hyundai built its own V6 engine for the car, and claimed 170 horsepower for the all-aluminum, 2.5-liter powerplant. It was later admitted the horsepower rating had been overstated and the actual pony count finally settled at 159 in 2002. The 2.4-liter 138-horsepower four serving as the base engine was carried over from the Y3 car. Also in 2002, the styling was mildly updated for an arguably more handsome appearance — although to many eyes the 2002 Sonata was also styled on the dowdy side.Hyundai Sonata: 2006 – 2010
Hyundai finally got serious about making the Sonata a real contender with the NF version of the car. Showcasing Hyundai’s first all-aluminum inline four-cylinder engine, the 2006 Sonata enjoyed 162 horsepower from 2.4-liters of displacement. A five-speed manual was employed to manage the engine’s out put and a four-speed automatic was offered as an option.
A five-speed automatic transmission came with the 235-horsepower, 3.3-liter V6. Hyundai made the V6 standard equipment for the upper trim levels of the Sonata (LX, SE and Limited). Base GL and GLS models got the four-cylinder engine. Recognizing the market’s desire for the amenities of the upper market cars, without incurring the fuel economy penalties of the V6, Hyundai made it an option and offered the four as standard equipment across the board in 2008.
In 2009, the four was bumped to 175 horsepower and the six was enhanced to produce 249. Reflecting the advancements in the marketplace, Hyundai made a touchscreen nav system an option that year as well. An auxiliary audio jack was installed as standard equipment to enable buyers to enjoy their by then ubiquitous MP3 audio players.
Interior-wise, the NF Sonatas stand head and shoulders above the cars wearing the Sonata nameplate before them. Soft touch materials and carefully considered placement of the secondary controls were yet more evidence of Hyundai’s effort to be taken seriously as a competitor.Hyundai Sonata: 2011 – Current
Introduced late in 2010 as a 2011 model, the current Hyundai Sonata enjoys fluid styling, exceptional fuel economy, an aggressive range of engine choices, (including a hybrid) and outstanding interior fit and finish. Nicely equipped, the cars are every bit the equivalent of — and in some cases even surpass — their rivals in the mid-size sedan marketplace.Hyundai Sonata: Summary
While it’s clear Hyundai saw the faults in their mid-size offering and worked very diligently to exorcise them, the fact remains you’re going to run across some amazingly reasonably-priced pre-2006 Sonatas on the secondary market.
And, in all honesty, we have a difficult time recommending them. They were pretty bad cars. Still, if you choose to not take our word for it, make absolutely sure you subject whichever one you choose to an exceedingly thorough pre-purchase inspection by a trusted professional mechanic.