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Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 2004 / 7 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Tom Purcell

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Consumer Reports

My Family’s Public Shame: the Hyundai Sonata | My sisters and I became ashamed when we got the news. My mother and father bought a Hyundai.

My father used to be a General Motors man. Sure, he made the mistake of buying a few Fords over the years, such as the 1976 Pinto that mother wouldn’t ride in for fear it would explode. And both Volkswagens were lemons, especially the Beetle that wouldn’t start unless we covered the motor with a plastic diaper every night.

But father only made such mistakes with our second car. Our main car was usually a GM. I still miss our 1976 Catalina station wagon, a gas hog with a 456 cubic inch motor. Father often said that it drove like a Cadillac, and I marveled at its explosive power when all four barrels were opened full bore.

During the gasoline shortage, father was forced to trade in the Catalina for a more economical Lemans, a move that caused both of us to mist up. Four years later, he traded the Lemans for a Lumina, a solid car that gave him only modest troubles. Four years after that, he traded it for a Malibu, a small, sporty car that he never did like; it was his own fault for letting mother talk him into it.

It took him only a few years to trade the Malibu for a Bonneville, a fine car with a powerful six-cylinder drive train. It had 16-inch wheels and tires that ran safely at 120 mph. It was spacious and stylish, the perfect balance of luxury and performance. Father drove it for four years and loved every minute.

So I was surprised when he started looking at Japanese cars.

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He’s on a fixed income now and cost and reliability are his focus. He talked about the Toyota Camry, a little boring, but it never breaks. He looked at the Honda Accord, a little less boring, but it never breaks either. I pushed him towards the Nissan Maxima, which would run like a Swiss watch if a Swiss Watch had a 265 horsepower motor.

A few weeks later, he blindsided me. He and mother bought a Hyundai Sonata.

My sisters and I worried about them. We were humiliated that father, a highly skilled car buyer — more than one car salesman developed a permanent twitch after the Big Guy pummeled the commission out of him — was snookered by a couple of South Korean hucksters.

But then I saw their car — its design and grace is more “Jaguar” than “Yugo.” Its interior is gorgeous, too — supple leather seats, a beautifully appointed dashboard, buttons and conveniences of every kind. When I drove it, I was shocked by the pep of its six-cylinder engine, and how it handled with confidence and precision.

But what really shocked me was how little my father paid for it. To buy a comparably equipped Camry or Accord would have cost him thousands more — even though J.D. Powers recently scored the Camry and Accord nearly dead even with the Sonata on its initial quality survey.

I share my father’s experience with you now, because it involves the presidential election and free trade. Because America has a liberal trade agreement with South Korea, Hyundai is selling a lot of cars here.

And because Hyundai is working hard to change its image — just five years ago its quality was dismal — the company is giving Honda and Toyota a run for their money. To win market share Hyundai is selling cars at very competitive prices.

Though Kerry has a long record of voting for free trade as a Senator, he now talks about revamping free-trade agreements and incorporating new restrictions into U.S. trade policy. Bush sure isn’t perfect — he did implement steel tariffs for a spell — but of the two, he gets the higher marks on free trade.

All I know is that free trade has greatly boosted my parent’s standard of living, and that’s one thing they’ll be thinking about as they drive off to the polls in affordable style.

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© 2004 Tom Purcell