Wheels: Born in Korea, ‘Blessed’ in the Heart of Dixie

Some of the world’s best automobile assembly workers are in Montgomery, Ala. Proof of exceptional craftsmanship is in their product, represented by the subject of this column, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata Limited sedan.

The new Hyundai Sonata easily is one of the top “best value” cars offered in America. And “best value,” here, refers to more than the competitive sticker price.

“Best value” also considers care of assembly, vehicle safety and standard equipment. The Sonata Limited sampled for this column had perfect fit and finish, which is substantially more than I can say for the 2014 Mini Cooper hardtop coupe driven a week earlier. The Mini, assembled in Oxford, England, came with several cosmetic flaws, the most glaring of which was a piece of driver-side floor molding that popped out of place every time it was reattached. Other loose fits were apparent in the Mini’s rear-cabin trim and cargo area.

Of course, it is an apples-oranges mismatch to compare a compact, three-cylinder (you read that correctly), front-wheel-drive Mini Cooper coupe with a midsize, four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive Hyundai Sonata sedan. But that is where the matter of “value” arises.

The Mini came with a total price of $33,095, including nearly $5,000 in optionally priced advanced safety technology (parking distance control, light-emitting-diode headlamps) that is offered as standard equipment on the Sonata Limited. The Hyundai, with a total price of $32,510, also had more — and better — advanced safety technology (including blind-side monitoring and lane-departure warning and forward-collision warning).

The Sonata Limited, hands down, represented a measurably better assembly job: no loose trim, squeaks or rattles — absolutely no road noise with all windows up. The Sonata was so quiet on the highway, I had to turn off the air conditioner and lower the windows to get auditory speed cues.

In the Mini Cooper, equipped with miserably hard run-flat tires and unfortunately marred by loose-fitting trim, I could feel and hear every bump, augmented by the endless clatter-r-r-r noise of that loose floor molding.

An aside: I visited Hyundai’s Montgomery plant several years ago to get a firsthand look at the South Korean automobile manufacturer’s U.S. assembly operations. I was concerned that Hyundai and other foreign manufacturers were flocking to the Old South, the region of my birth and youthful rearing, to take advantage of historically low wages and a political power structure long opposed to organized labor.

But I was struck by the excitement of the then newly hired Hyundai workers, and especially by their seemingly religious commitment to doing the best job possible. In fact, in interviews with many of those Hyundai employees, black and white, I was surprised by the number of times I heard the word “blessed” (as in, “Blessed to be here, my brother. … Blessed by the Lord to have this plant in Alabama”) by Hyundai workers.

Cynically, because cynicism is the true faith of most journalists, I figured that all of that “blessed” stuff would wear off after a few years of management demands to do more for less — and all without union representation. Well, it hasn’t. As a result, Hyundai Sonata buyers will be “blessed” to get one of the best-crafted, best-equipped, best-priced midsize sedans available in the United States.

The car comes with a 2-literm gasoline-direct-injection in-line four-cylinder engine (185 horsepower, 178 pound-feet of torque). It has three drive modes — “eco,” normal and sport — that automatically adjust gas-pedal responses and settings in the six-speed automatic transmission. In truth, only two modes — sport and eco — make any sense. There is precious little difference in drive feel between sport and normal.

On long highway trips, you’ll want to keep the Sonata Limited in the sport mode. That setting elicits the best gas-pedal response and handling. It also consumes the most fuel, which isn’t a major concern here. I averaged 33 miles per gallon on the highway, using regular gasoline, in constant sport mode. That isn’t bad at all.

I tried the eco setting in the city, which is where it does the most good in terms of fuel economy. But if you are not much concerned about gasoline prices, you are likely to stay out of eco. That setting discernibly depresses the spirit of the car.

Overall, Hyundai has another winner here, good in every way that makes sense to normal car buyers of normal means who are more likely to comply with legal speed limits than not. I figure that’s most of us. As those good folks of Montgomery, Ala., would say: We’re “blessed” to have this one.