Early Days: Y2 Hyundai Sonata

In these days of the Genesis G90, the early days of Hyundai feel very, very distant, but 30 years ago this month Hyundai USA expanded beyond basic economy cars for the very first time with the original Hyundai Sonata.

At the time, Nissan and Toyota were launching Infiniti and Lexus. While the original Sonata was nothing like the products sold under those rooftops, it was a big step beyond the Excel, which competed mainly with used cars, Yugos, or real bottom-feeder base models on price.

The first Sonata to debut in the U.S. was actually the second Sonata overall – the first had been a short-lived, modified, South Korea-only version of the Hyundai Stellar, an older model based on the Ford Cortina MkV.

The Stellar had been on sale in Canada (which the Korean company chose as a test run for marketing its wares in the USA) for a few years by that point, so Hyundai were pretty sure they could sell an affordable mid-size, but the new car was not a straight replacement for the Stellar – it was designed to be more mass-market car.

The Y2 Sonata Arrives

The U.S. introduction of the new “Y2” generation Sonata, styled (as with the Excel) by ItalDesign, happened in September, 1988.

Since they were from the same pen, the Sonata unsurprisingly looked a lot like the Excel, just scaled up. It was larger in almost every respect – 16 inches longer, 6 inches wider, with a foot more wheelbase.

1989 Hyundai Sonata

Though the two shared relatively little mechanically, both had origins in tech licensed from Mitsubishi.

The Y2 Sonata used the platform of the outgoing 5th-gen Mitsubishi Galant Sigma, and the engines were Mitsubishi also – the 2.4L 4G64 and, added in 1990, the 3.0, 142-hp, 6G72 V6.

The Sonata hid the Mitsubishi connections well and, more importantly, felt and looked nothing like its Mitsu cousins.

Guigiaro’s clean styling didn’t exactly radiate “character,” but mainstream family sedans rarely do. Just three years earlier Americans had no idea how to say “Hyundai” and the cars sold mainly on price – now the company offered a Camry/Taurus sized car and it had to compete on merit.

A Rocky Start

Despite being a very good value, the public was justifiably skeptical of Hyundai’s quality (early Excels were often, er, lacking) and without the Excel’s price edge the first Sonata got a lukewarm reception.

Hyundai also gambled on a $400M North American factory in Quebec to build the Sonata – and lost. The plant closed in 1993 for a variety of reasons (exchange rates, local content rules, sales short of expectations, etc.). That experience would later change the way Hyundai approached factories abroad, particularly its newer locations in the Southern United States.

The Sonata didn’t become a big seller until its 4th generation in 1999 – after major changes at Hyundai following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, but the Y2 was a first step towards a full lineup.

Early Sonatas (facelifted ’91-’93 cars lost the semi-skirted rear fender), never common new, are almost extinct today.

Special thanks to Ritt Jones Auto Parts, the custodian of this old Sonata.

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