2011 Hyundai Sonata (© Hyundai Motor America)Click to enlarge picture

2011 Hyundai Sonata

Value is, of course, a relative measure. When you feed a family of four for $5 with a box of spaghetti and jar of tomato sauce, you got a good value, as a practical matter. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when you feed a family of four for $250 at an exclusive restaurant with excellent service and a chef who elevates cooking to an art form, well, that could also be considered a good value. The same is true with automobiles. The price you pay should be inextricably linked to the performance, reliability and satisfaction you get from owning your vehicle, and not just how much it costs.

For the sake of perspective, let's do a little comparison shopping in a sector of the car market where there is considerable overlap in form and function from vehicle to vehicle — the 4-door family sedan. Specifically, we'll take a look at two vehicles that appear similar on paper, but that few people would ever cross-shop: the well-equipped Hyundai Sonata Limited 2.0T, priced at $27,245; and the base trim Mercedes-Benz E350, at $49,400. Auto shoppers would never put these two vehicles on the same list, with one costing almost twice as much as the other.

Bing Images: 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350

Why compare an optioned-out vehicle to a base trim? To be fair, it's because the entry-level, $19,395 Hyundai is a bit Spartan to go toe-to-toe with the Mercedes, but only a few thousand dollars in options spruces it up quite a bit. Now, we know, true Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts would scoff at the comparison here. The three-pointed-star is a badge that connotes a 100-plus-year tradition of craftsmanship, quality and elegance that goes beyond a mere listing of features. That may be true, but a detailed look at the numbers and specs is nonetheless quite revealing.

The E-Class is definitely the larger car, but not by much. It measures 191.7 inches long to the Sonata's 189.8 inches, and the E-Class is 81.5 inches wide, while the Sonata is only 72.2 inches wide. So surely the E-Class must have more room inside, right? Not really. The E-Class has 37.9 inches of headroom, 57.8 inches of shoulder room and 41.3 inches of legroom for front passengers, while the Sonata gives 40 inches of headroom, 57.9 inches of shoulder room and 45.5 inches of front-seat legroom. The Mercedes gives a little of the volume back to the rear-seat passengers, however, delivering 38.2 inches of headroom, 56.9 inches of shoulder room and 35.8 inches of legroom. The Sonata is a bit more cramped with 37.8 inches of headroom, 56.7 inches of shoulder room and only 34.6 inches of legroom.

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Here's where the top-tier 2.0T engine option on the Sonata makes a difference when compared with the Mercedes engine. By volume, the E350's 3.5-liter V6 engine should blow the Sonata's tiny 2-liter inline 4-cylinder engine away. But, thanks to some creative turbocharging, the Hyundai actually delivers 274 horsepower compared with the E-Class' 268. In practice, it hardly matters, as both vehicles post zero-to-60 mph times at around 6.5 seconds. But the fuel economy numbers definitely tilt in the Sonata's favor. EPA estimates put the Mercedes at 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway, while the Hyundai posts 22/33 mpg. What's more, the Hyundai takes regular 87-octane fuel, while the Mercedes sips a pricier vintage — premium unleaded fuel only, please.

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Mercedes has a well-deserved reputation for safety, and the E-Class is certainly packed with safety features. Standard are anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist — which can automatically boost braking during emergency stops — as well as stability control. The E-Class also comes with Mercedes Pre-Safe, which tightens seatbelts, closes windows and optimizes seating positions for maximum safety when the system senses a potential crash. There's even a drowsiness monitor that checks how the driver is performing, and gives audible and visual warnings if the car thinks you're dozing off. Plus, the E-Class comes with airbags from every direction and 4- and 5-star crash ratings for front and side passengers, respectively (at least for the 2010 model, the last one that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tested).

As it turns out, the Hyundai Sonata gets the exact same crash-test ratings as the E-Class. (Actually, the Sonata may even prove to have more impressive ratings, since its 4- and 5-star results come from NHTSA's revised and tougher 2011 tests, which the E-Class has not yet undergone.) The Sonata also has ABS, stability control, a full complement of front and side airbags and Hyundai's own version of brake assist. The truth is that both cars are safe enough to keep all but the most inattentive drivers from killing themselves in traffic. If we had to give the award for safety zealotry, Mercedes would win because of the advanced built-in nanny tech.

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