On the same day General Motors Corp. announces first-quarter losses of $1.1 billion, an up-and-coming Hyundai Motor America, riding a 5-year, 364% U.S. sales growth wave, rolls out its new Sonata midsize sedan to the automotive media for test drives in San Francisco.

The paradox doesn't go unnoticed. GM's freefall in the U.S. market began in the 1960s with the emergence of the Japanese.

But with the arrival of the new Sonata, it might be Toyota Motor Corp.'s, Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s turn to worry — if they aren't already.

After all, it is Toyota's Camry and Honda's Accord that dominate the U.S. midsize car market, accounting for 813,760 unit sales, combined, last year. And Nissan largely has been leaning heavily on sales of its successful Altima sedan, which competes in the same segment, for its U.S. resurgence.

For less than $18,000, buyers will get an '06 Sonata with electronic stability control, traction control, antilock brakes and front, side and curtain airbags.

And, yes, all of those features are standard.

Hyundai officials at the media event, who call the debut of the new Sonata their “most important” launch ever, aren't shy about pointing out the significant price advantage — in some cases very significant — that the new Sonata will have over its competition.

For instance, an '05 Camry LE with a V-6 costs $2,935 more than a Sonata GLS V-6, which Hyundai expects to be its top-seller at 35% of overall Sonata sales. A 3.5SE Altima with a V-6 is $3,805 more, and a V-6 Accord LX is priced a whopping $4,468 higher — and the Accord doesn't have half the standard features, with electronic stability control unavailable.

The new Sonata is better in every way than the moribund sedan it replaces. It is tailor-made to suit U.S. tastes and meant to appeal specifically to those Americans who currently can't picture themselves driving a vehicle from a Korean auto maker.

Styling is the most visible change for the new-generation model. While the previous Sonata resembled Hyundai's take on an early '90s Buick, jeweled projector headlights and fog lights, a short rear-deck and dual chrome-tipped exhaust on V-6 models are nice touches for a vehicle that is expected to sell 150,000 units in 2006, its first full sales year.

The Sonata's two all-aluminum engines, a 2.4L DOHC I-4 making 162 hp at 5,800 rpm and 164 lb.-ft. of torque (222 Nm) at 4,250 rpm and a 3.3L DOHC V-6 cranking out 235 hp at 6,000 rpm and 226 lb.-ft. (306 Nm) of torque at 3,500 rpm, are both new and boast continuously variable valve timing.

Hyundai expects the V-6 engine to be its volume leader, accounting for 60% of sales. In fact, until the second shift comes online this summer, Hyundai's new U.S. plant in Montgomery, AL, will produce only V-6 models. Until then, all 4-cyl. Sonatas will be imported from South Korea.

A test of the V-6 unveils impressive responsiveness, particularly when a burst of mid-range urge is required. Top speed is 137 mph (223 km/h) with the V-6, making the Sonata the fastest Hyundai ever. The engine launches the vehicle from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 7.5 seconds.

On the twisty mountain roads overlooking San Francisco Bay, the Sonata handles the curves like a snake, gripping the pavement and exhibiting minimal body roll. Its new 5-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly between gears.

Hyundai worked hard to achieve world-class noise, vibration and harshness levels in the new Sonata, and it pays off, with very little engine or wind noise detected with the windows up.

The interior reflects the hours Hyundai engineers say they spent pouring over Audis, with materials and craftsmanship almost on a par with the German luxury brand.

Controls and door panels feature “soft-touch” materials, and the steering wheel has an especially attractive matte leather that feels as good under hand as it looks.

Radio and climate-control knobs have an unexpectedly robust heft and operate with oiled accuracy.

In addition to its segment-leading pricing, Hyundai plans to emphasize in advertisements the vehicle's “class-above” interior volume of 121.7 cu.-ft. (3.45 cu.-m). That compares with 116.7 cu.-ft. (3.30 cu.-m) for the Accord, 118.4 cu.-ft. (3.35 cu.-m) for the Altima and 118.5 cu.-ft. (3.36 cu.-m) for the Camry.

The Sonata rides on an independent double-wishbone suspension up front and an independent multi-link setup at the rear.

It is some 2 ins. (5 cm) taller than the outgoing model and 0.4 ins. wider (1 cm).

The Sonata is offered in three trim levels, with only 10 combinations available for order.

Pricing for the base GL trim begins at $17,895. The GLS starts at $19,395 with a 4-cyl. and bases at $20,895 with the V-6. The top-of-the-line LX begins at $22,895. Destination and handling adds $600.

Unlike the GM earnings, Hyundai believes these numbers are worth crowing about.

'06 Hyundai Sonata GLS (V-6)

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door sedan

Engine: 3.3L (3,342 cc) DOHC V-6, aluminum block/aluminum heads

Power (SAE net): 235 hp @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 226 lb.-ft. (306 Nm) @ 3,500 rpm

Compression ratio: 10.4:1

Bore × stroke (mm): 92 × 83.8

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 107.4 ins. (273 cm)

Overall length: 188.9 ins. (480 cm)

Overall width: 72.1 ins. (183 cm)

Overall height: 58 ins. (147 cm)

Curb weight: 3,458 lbs. (1,569 kg)

EPA fuel economy, city/highway (mpg): 20/30

Market competition: Chevrolet Impala; Ford Five Hundred; Honda Accord; Kia Amanti; Nissan Altima; Toyota Camry