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Nashville Scene Asian Equations

Asian mid-size sedans steer toward value

By Marc Stengel

MARCH 15, 1999:  The middle class, in automobiles as in society at large, is the great engine of the economy. It is also the segment most easily overlooked, most often misunderstood, most frequently disparaged. Despite their smaller numbers, various fringe groups always seem best able to make headlines disproportionate to their real stature: Stories about screaming yellow sports cars, selling in the mere tens of thousands each year, always outnumber accounts of the gray-flannel midsize sedans that accomplish the lion's share of real-world commuting.

As much as the go-go boys in the sports car departments contend tooth-and-nail with each other for zero-to-60 honors, the most Darwinian fight for survival is the contest for the middle class. While the triumvirate of Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Ford Taurus gloat like superpowers over their combined sales of 1.2 million per year, backbenchers like Mitsubishi Galant, Hyundai Sonata, and Mazda 626 are struggling just to stay alive in a zero-sum universe where every sale they lose is one their rival gains.

Hyundai Sonata

For '99, Hyundai acts like an automaker with its back on the ropes and an Evander Holyfield in its face. This upstart Korean Tiger has stayed miraculously afloat so far amidst the financial washout that has swamped rivals like Kia Motors. The flagship of the Hyundai line, the Sonata, took a pretty good hit in '98, however, with a sales plunge of 36 percent from the year before. But this figure reflects the model's dated design, which the new-for-'99 Sonata has both replaced and totally outclassed.

Time was when you shopped a Hyundai on the basis of price alone. No longer. The new Sonata, while retaining its bargain luster, has matured into a full-fledged midsize with a genuine allure of its own. The resculpted silhouette is stretched, widened, and softened to convey a sense of roomy substance and distinctive style. It's hard to swallow the company line that this is the new Euro sedan from Asia. The funky egg-crate grille, for example, still "reads" out of place. But the Sonata is no longer so odd-looking as to scare off prospects.

And when that prospect slips inside, he or she will find a very wholesome, grown-up, five-passenger sedan with roomy, comfy seats and a plethora of perks. For a total of $17,052, the base-model Sonata I tested included standard power everything along with an optional moonroof and upgraded stereo. The motor was a so-so 2.4-liter four-banger making 149 horsepower, mated to a standard four-speed auto. The engine's no rocket, and it protests noisily under too-eager acceleration, but I never felt especially hobbled in traffic. A 2.5-liter V6 making 170 HP is an option, adding $2,000 to the sticker. But a Sonata that crowds the magical $20-grand threshold is one that surrenders much of its value message and treads unwisely on the hallowed turf of Camry and Accord.

Some features are Sonata's alone, however, like the unique, standard Passenger Presence Detection circuitry, which disables the front-passenger airbag when a child's weight is detected in the seat. Hyundai's warranty is the industry leader as well: five years/60,000 miles overall with 10 years/100,000 miles for powertrain. Sonata's best new feature by far, however, is the fresh-faced optimism it represents in Hyundai's determination to work its way out of the morass of Korea's economy and into the good graces of American car buyers.

Mitsubishi Galant

When I reported the debut of Mitsubishi's '99 Galant last July, the big news was, of course, the first-time availability of a V6 engine option for this perennial also-ran. In large part, this news is what Mitsubishi is emphasizing in its reinvigorated bid to crack the midsize market.

There's no denying the importance of V6 availability in a category where so many buyers take this choice for granted. It won't do, however, to overlook the genuine bargain represented by the Galant's 2.4-liter inline-four making 145 horsepower. Starting at $17,990, the sticker on my tester climbed to $18,899 after adding a CD player. A comparable V6 would be $2,000 more--tickling, once again, the underbelly of the $20,000 dragon that likes to give ambitious upstarts a hard time.

The entry-level Galant is ambitious, after all. Its new, edgy styling for '99 bespeaks an aggressive and upbeat attitude. Trendy cat's-eye fog lamps, for example, are standard. Inside, the car is loaded with power conveniences, and it's functionally roomy and comfortable for five. Best of all, it's a sporty and competent handler, with precise steering feel and a well-mannered four-wheel independent suspension. Brakes are disks up front, drums rear--a clear concession to cost management.

I very much like the way the Galant feels on the road. Despite only moderate engine power, it's spry beyond one's expectations, yet its road feel is stable and secure. As I've suggested before, the '99 Galant will win converts on sheer merit alone--if only it can find its way onto more shopping lists.

Mazda 626

Mazda's shapely 626 is a tested veteran in the midsize maelstrom, but the car insists on standing mysteriously aloof. Blessed with a silhouette that is at once attractive and distinctive, the 626 strikes a conservative, fashionable pose amongst trend-addicted rivals. The car is a spirited handler, with four-wheel independent suspension. Steering feel is just right with its speed-sensitive assist, and four-wheel disk brakes on the V6 models are real racer-boy stuff.

What's curious is the engine room. My tester for '99 was a V6 LX model boasting Mazda's spirited, 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter twin-cam. The availability of a sporty five-speed manual adds a welcome dash of zest that transforms a banal commute into an entertaining daily road trip. As tested, the 626's $19,065 base price climbed to $22,560 after adding a cassette player ($250), traction control/ABS ($700), and a power convenience and moonroof package ($2,035). That's the kind of price that chases a lot of prospects into other pastures, especially when the engine alternative is a punky 2.0-liter inline-four making only 125 horsepower--and still costing $17,665 base price!

Mazda has successfully promoted itself in general and this car in particular as the honorable iconoclast--the car for the driver who yearns to go his or her own way. Although '98 sales of 91,147 are a far cry from champ Camry's 429,575, the 20-percent growth spurt in 626 sales last year suggests the car is striking a nerve somewhere. The biggest challenge for Mazda in this cutthroat midsize category is to keep its dedicated and growing clientele satisfied while hungrier rivals like Mitsubishi and Hyundai bait their snares with come-hither pricing.

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