Thank goodness there's a sizable Hyundai badge on the front grille of the 2006 Sonata.

Otherwise, it might be difficult to pick out this pleasantly styled, roomy, four-door car from the pack of popular midsize sedans such as Toyota Camry that are already on the market.



BASE PRICE: $17,895 for GL with manual transmission; $18,795 for GL with automatic; $19,395 for GLS with four-cylinder engine; $20,895 for GLS with V6.
AS TESTED: $22,995.
TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, large sedan.
ENGINE: 3.3-liter, dual overhead cam V6 with CVVT.
MILEAGE: 20 (city), 30 (highway).
TOP SPEED: 137 mph.
LENGTH: 188.9 inches.
WHEELBASE: 107.4 inches.
CURB WEIGHT: 3,458 pounds.
BUILT AT: Montgomery, Ala.
OPTIONS: Accessory group 5 (includes power driver's seat height adjustment, garage door opener and power moonroof) $1,500.
This isn't to say the newly engineered and freshly styled Sonata, which went on sale in May as an early 2006 model, is a carbon copy of these other cars. It's just that the new Sonata is such a major step up from its predecessor that it now readily draws comparisons with the likes of the Camry.

In addition to the new, upscale appearance, inside and out, the 2006 Sonata has two new, more-powerful engines, more features than ever before and a full complement of standard safety equipment, including curtain airbags, stability control and traction control.

The first vehicle built at Hyundai's first U.S. assembly plant in Montgomery, Ala., the new Sonata also comes with a 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty and five years/unlimited mileage of roadside assistance.

Yet starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, remains below $19,000. Specifically, the base, 2006 Sonata with four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission starts at $18,495.

Hyundai officials, though, expect 60 percent of Sonatas to be sold with the uplevel V6, and starting MSRP, including destination charge, for a 2006 model with V6 is $21,495. All V6 Sonatas come standard with automatic transmission.

Note the V6 Sonata has a lower starting price than that of major competitors such as the 2005 Toyota Camry V6, which starts at $23,070 for an LE V6 model with automatic transmission, and the 2005 Nissan Altima, which starts at $23,880 for an SE V6 model with manual transmission.

Three versions of Sonata are offered: GL, GLS and LX.

All offer a good number of features. For example, the GL, which comes only with the base, 162-horsepower, 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine, includes anti-whiplash front-seat head restraints that aren't found in many other cars.

It has standard 16-inch tires, not the 15-inchers found on the base Camry. In addition, the Camry's powertrain warranty runs only for five years/60,000 miles.

The new Sonata is bigger than its predecessors. Compared with the 2005 Sonata, the new sedan is 2 inches longer from bumper to bumper and 2 inches taller.

Indeed, because interior and trunk space have grown so much - up 7.6 cubic feet to 121.7 cubic feet total - the Sonata now can be classified as a large car by the federal government, even though it's designed to compete with midsize sedans.

Lanky passengers will appreciate the changes. Front legroom now is 43.7 inches in the front seat, just 0.2 inch shy of the 43.9 inches in Nissan's Altima and more than the 41.5 inches in the Camry's front seat. Why, this is more front-seat legroom than a Cadillac Escalade has.

In addition, the Sonata's 37.4 inches of back-seat legroom is an inch more than the 36.4 inches in the Altima and is 0.4 inch less than the Camry's 37.8 inches.

Because the Sonata is wider than either competitor, it also offers a bit more shoulder and hip room in the back seat.

Trunk space has grown from 14.1 cubic feet in the previous Sonata to 16.3 cubic feet. This compares with the Camry's 16.7 cubic feet and the Altima's 15.6-cubic-foot trunk. I especially liked how wide the trunk opening is in the new Sonata.

The test car, a midlevel GLS, had the 3.3-liter, double overhead cam V6 with continuously variable valve timing (CVVT).

While the engine's 235 horsepower compares favorably with 210 horses in the base 3-liter V6 in the Camry and 225 horsepower in a second Camry V6 with 3.3 liters, it was the torque - or low-end "oomph" - that was clearly noticeable in the Sonata.

Starting up the first few times, I experienced such an instant power response that my head and back were pushed into the seatback. I easily merged into traffic.

During these accelerations was about the only time I heard the pleasing sounds of the V6.

Much of the rest of the time, the Sonata's interior was quiet. Even wind noise didn't intrude to any noticeable degree during highway drives.

The Sonata's V6 is rated at 226 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. This is a lower rpm for peak torque than found in many competitors and helps give the Sonata its zippy, responsive feel at lower speeds.

For example, the Altima's 250-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 generates 249 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm.

This is the first Sonata with a five-speed automatic transmission, and it's the only tranny for the V6.

I liked that it included a Shiftronic mode where a driver can shift from gear to gear for sportier performance, without needing a clutch pedal. In the test car, this Shiftronic really held the gears, even as the revs climbed.

The increased number of transmission gears - up from four in last year's automatic - helps boost engine responsiveness and fuel economy.

Last year's Sonata V6 was rated at 19 miles a gallon in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway. The larger, 2006 Sonata is rated at 20/30 mpg.

But the power rack-and-pinion steering had a very light feel in the test car. I sometimes felt that I was yanking the wheel, because it took such a light touch to move the wheel.

The ride in the GLS wasn't as cushioned as I had recalled from the earlier Sonatas. I especially felt the impacts from sizable potholes. But overall, on less-strenuous roads, the ride was satisfying, because the car felt stable, even in off-camber, downhill curves where it did well to hold its line.

The new Sonata's interior is nicely done, from the tasteful fabric on the seats and doors to the easy-to-use radio and ventilation controls.

Finally, consumers may recall that the Sonata ranked No. 1 among entry, midsize sedans in automotive researcher J.D. Power and Associates' 2004 Initial Quality Study last year. The study tallies owner problems with their new cars in the first three months of ownership.

This year, the 2005 Sonata ranked second in Power's study, released in May. Official results for the new, 2006 Sonata won't be known until 2006.

There has already been one safety recall involving 2,017 of the new Sonatas. Early in July, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported the cars were recalled so dealers could reprogram the stability control system so it doesn't needlessly activate in certain maneuvers.

NHTSA has not yet reported crash test results on the 2006 Sonata.

Because the vehicle is new, Consumer Reports does not provide a reliability rating.