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2003 HYUNDAI SONATA Review - Base Price $15,499

Strong value in a nice mid-size sedan.


2003 hyundai sonata Review

Hyundai Sonata is a roomy and comfortable midsize sedan with a level of quality and refinement that may surprise you the first time you get in and take a good look at it. It costs less than the name-brand sedans, but measures up well against them.

Sonata is packed with features, making it an excellent value. It's easy to operate its well-designed controls and everything is exactly where you expect it to be. The interior is nicely finished and has a general feeling of quality. Front and rear accommodations are comfortable, making this good transportation for four or five. Sonata cruises smoothly down the highway, even at elevated speeds, and does everything you ask of it with responsive steering and responsive performance from the available V6 and automatic.

Hyundai has come a long way in the past few years and now sells more cars in the U.S. than BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Lincoln, Lexus, Acura, Volvo, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Mercury, or Saturn. The Sonata has been part of this success. Hyundai sold more than 62,000 Sonatas here in 2001. Another part of it is the piece of mind Hyundai offers through one of the best warranties in the industry.

The interior gets some minor upgrades for 2003. Hyundai gave the Sonata a major facelift for 2002, and it presents an elegant shape with a bold waterfall grille and headlight treatment.


Climb into a Hyundai Sonata and you do not feel like you're sitting in a second-rate car. It's quite nice. The interior materials are of good quality, and vastly superior to what's found in the new Saturn L-Series sedans. The interior is nicely finished, again better than the Saturn. The interior is conservative in appearance and sitting in a Sonata while parked is a positive experience.

The front seats are broad for maximum comfort, and lightly bolstered, making it easy to slide in and out. A pair of knobs on the driver's seat permits adjusting the seat bottom from cushy to firm for good support to the legs and posterior. Both the leather and cloth upholstery are comfortable and of decent quality.

It's easy to operate the Sonata without taking your eyes off the road. Switchgear is clearly marked and easy to operate. Radio controls are big, clearly marked, and easy to operate. HVAC is straightforward with two rows of big buttons and knobs that are easy to discern and operate. Window switches are conveniently mounted on the doors, but, alas, are not illuminated. Gauges are clearly marked.

The upper and lower portions of the instrument panel are dressed in contrasting shades of vinyl. The plush fabric on the seats is repeated in the door panels. The GLS and LX also have a two-compartment center armrest. The glovebox opens with a firm feel. Only the ashtray feels flimsy. There's a nice rubber-lined spot ahead of shifter for my wallet.

Hyundai has wrapped the Sonata's wheel in a leather-like urethane that's buttery soft and wonderful to hold. It's characteristic of the attention given to detail throughout the Sonata's interior. The ignition switch is on the dash, rather than plugged into the steering column.

A splash of artificial wood around the center stack of the GLS and LX won't fool anyone, but looks somehow appropriate anyway. A frame of burnished aluminum surrounds the automatic shifter quadrant, with the Shiftronic manual-override slot alongside. Illuminated Shiftronic manual shift indicators were added for 2003.

Carpeted floor mats come standard for 2003. LX models now offer a HomeLink remote system and electrochromic inside rear view mirror as options. Hyundai added electric switches for the trunk and fuel door releases for 2002. Placed on the driver's door, the power releases are easy to reach and operate.

The back seat offers good room for two adults, with sufficient legroom and comfort for a long trip. The rear seat folds 60/40, allowing long items to pass through from the trunk. The seat itself is contoured for two passengers, with a folding center armrest between them, but Hyundai has provided three-point seat belts for three people. Map pockets on the backs of the front seats add useful storage space.

Changes made to the rear suspension for 2002 allowed Hyundai engineers to increase the Sonata's trunk volume to 14.1 cubic feet. Articulated trunk lid supports stay out of the trunk itself, so you don't have to worry about groceries or luggage being crushed by conventional trunk hinges.


The Hyundai Sonata is strikingly handsome, expressive without being oppressive, with graceful lines and rich details that one would expect on a far more expensive automobile. The Sonata's overall shape suggests the feline form of a Jaguar; while its sophisticated headlight treatment could have been borrowed from a Mercedes-Benz. It's better looking than the Kia Optima, which shares the Hyundai's architecture.

The waterfall grille is formal but not pretentious. Chrome trim around the grille, over the doors and on the trunk is well placed, and like jewelry tastefully worn, it enhances rather than distracts. The bold headlight design is more than stylish. The small low-beams are halogen projector lamps that produce a uniformly bright pattern, and the complementary high beams are very bright. Good headlamps are extremely important, especially on dark and stormy nights. The Sonata's are excellent.

The Sonata's pull-type door handles feel solid. They don't feel as though they'd break if you needed to force open a door that had frozen shut. The doors close with a solid thunk. Sonata comes standard with a keyless remote fob.


The Hyundai Sonata cruises nicely, with a smooth ride and good stability at high speeds. Steering is sharp and the available V6 and automatic are a responsive team, delivering good acceleration performance for passing or merging onto freeways.

Hyundai 's 2.7-liter V6 provides quick acceleration from a standstill. The Sonata accelerates smoothly and without great drama. It doesn't have the most powerful V6 among mid-size sedans, so the Hyundai would probably lose a drag race against a Toyota Camry V6. But it's stronger than the four-cylinder engines that come in the Camry and Accord and other sedans that cost more than a Sonata GLS with a V6. The Hyundai V6 idles quietly, but not silently.

The Sonata's automatic transmission is responsive and sophisticated. Shifts are smooth, almost unnoticeable. Using fuzzy logic, the transmission's electronic controller adapts to the driver's style and minimizes hunting when climbing hills. It's sometimes helpful to slap the Shiftronic lever to the right and downshift manually, but it isn't necessary as stepping on the gas will induce it to downshift. Using the Shiftronic is fun at times, however, and can give the driver more precise shifting control. Slip the shift lever over to a second slot, and once there row it fore and aft to shift up and down manually. The transmission will hold the selected gear rather than shifting automatically. The Shiftronic override is useful for engine braking on long, steep downgrades.

The four-cylinder engine that comes with the base model works well when paired with the five-speed manual gearbox. It does not, however, offer strong power, especially at higher elevations. It lacks the response of the V6, particularly at lower revs. It delivers 22/30 mpg with the manual, 21/28 with the automatic. The V6 gets 20/27 mpg with the automatic.

Sonata's ride is smooth, soaking up tar strips and potholes. Some popping over seams can be heard, and at speed the Sonata has a tendency to drift within its lane. But our test car glided effortlessly at 75 mph, with only a ruffle of wind noise and the slightest amount of tire noise interfering with our utter tranquility. We enjoyed even the pianissimo passages of classical music on the Sonata's standard CD player. The nose dives a bit under hard braking and the rear suspension squats under hard acceleration, but the Sonata's four-wheel independent suspension works well in the daily grind.

Steering is responsive. It's a bit slower than the new Honda Accord's steering, so you have to turn the wheel more. Drive it very hard on a bumpy, winding road and you can feel some chassis flex. This third-generation Hyundai Sonata was launched for the 1999 model year, so its chassis isn't as rigid as what you get with the newest name-brand sedans. (Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima all benefit from completely re-engineered chassis within the past year.) Also, the tires don't feel as connected to a wet road we'd like. But the Sonata is alright.

Braking in the Sonata GLS is solid with the four-wheel discs, an upgrade over the rear drum brakes in the base model. ABS is optional and we recommend it as it allows the driver to brake and steer at the same time in an emergency stopping situation.


Hyundai Sonata is a handsome family sedan that sells for thousands of dollars less than the name-brand mid-size cars. Drivers will immediately feel comfortable and in control. The interior is finished nicely and all controls are easy to operate.

Sonata rides smoothly and the available V6 and automatic deliver smooth, responsive performance.

Overall, the Hyundai Sonata offers a strong value among mid-size sedans. That's particularly true when you factor in Sonata's impressive warranty, with bumper-to-bumper coverage for 5 years/60,000 miles and 24-hour roadside assistance for five full years; it includes limited powertrain coverage for 10 years/100,000 miles and corrosion coverage for 5 years/100,000 miles. Even if the car is pre-owned, Hyundai still backs the Sonata's powertrain for five years or 60,000 miles.

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