First Drive: 2009 Hyundai Sonata
No Crises Involved: More than a midlife (update) for Hyundai's Camry combatant
In 2006, Motor Trend's long-term test fleet made good use of a then-new Hyundai Sonata. It lived a solid year with us, working hard every day, with no problems to speak of, and earned far more praise than complaint. But it was a Wish List car. "Wish the interior were a little better designed and finished." "Wish there were a little less noise and road rumble." And the proverbial "Wish it had a little more power."
We can't claim to have had anything to do with it, but as the Sonata is now halfway through its five-year product cycle, it's been given a substantial freshening that appears to have addressed our issues. The segment has since moved forward, too, but the Sonata is now an even more competitive player than when launched. Power is up, emissions are down, mileage has improved, and the cabin is a place in which you'll be happier to spend time.
Choose between three models: GLS ("base" is an unfair term for such a well-equipped car), upmarket lux Limited, and sporty SE. And although the Sonata looks smaller, visually, than the new Accord, they're the same size where it counts: inside. Hyundai and Honda are the only two in their competitive set classified by the EPA as large-sized cars, as measured by interior volume. The Sonata, in fact, nips the Accord in that critical measurement, 121.7 cubic feet to 120.0 (this measurement includes the cabin and the trunk, added together). Camry, Altima, and Malibu are considered midsize by the same standard, although not by a lot.
The exterior tuneup is minimal; headlights, grille, fascias, wheels, colors, bing-bang-boom. It's inside that voluminous cabin where you'll see a whole new world. The instrument panel, door trim, seats, lighting, center stack, audio systems, HVAC controls, and interior colors are all redone. The look and feel of these components are so much better and more harmonious. Switchgear is more logically located that you can, for the first time, get a nav system. At $1250, it's priced right, but unfortunately only available on the topline Limited.
There's more power underhood. The four-cylinder version goes from 162 horsepower to 175 (green states get a PZEV rated I-4 still good for 168). That'll play just fine with Camry (158), Accord (177), and Malibu (164). Variable valve timing now on both intake and exhaust sides of the combustion process likely accounts for the bump. Yet EPA improves from 21/30 to 22/32 (with automatic trans). Four-bangers make up about 70 percent of Sonata sales volumes, and given ever increasing fuel price levels, that equation may tip further. A five-speed manual transmission is still offered, while the automatic goes from four to five ratios.
The Sonata's V-6 gets more power, too, but at 3.3 liters, is still displacement-challenged against the category. Most players pack 3.5-3.6 liters of engine, good for 250-270 horses. At 249, the Hyundai can come to the party, but not lead it. But this engine loves to rev, and EPA also improves, if only by a hair, from 19/28 to 19/29.
The underpinnings are retuned for better ride and improved handling, the latter especially in the SE model. Hyundai has also put effort into quelling noise levels, an issue, as noted, with the previous car. As before, there are six standard airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and -- this is a big one -- standard electronic stability and traction control. Camry and Altima charge you extra for these safety systems.
What a difference a little midlife-cycle product update can bring. The new interior makes the Sonata so much more inviting. Improvements in ride are noticeable, and along with those a substantial lowering of noise levels, particularly the white noise and engine sounds that used to creep in from the center stack/IP area.
We sampled I-4 and V-6 models, and the performance improvements are for real. The four feels particularly zippy, something you couldn't say about the old one. More power and more closely spaced gear ratios do the job well here, although the rpm drop-off between first and second gears seems a bit high. The V-6 has a velvety feel and, though not as sweet-sounding as the Honda's, has plenty of pull and good response. While we've yet to run acceleration, braking, and handling tests, we have no reason to believe they won't eclipse the prior Sonata's performance.
Value is huge in this high-volume sedan segment, and Hyundai continues to deliver a strong message here. Depending on model and equipment, and with which competitor it's being compared, the Sonata offers a bit more for a bit less. Resale value percentages aren't yet in Camry/Accord territory, but the buy-in is easier, and don't forget that all-important 10-year/100,000-mile warranty. All Sonatas are assembled in the U.S.
A lower price used to be the main reason to buy a Hyundai, but now it's just one of several. This round of updates and improvements is substantial and well placed and make the Sonata class-competitive against the usual suspects. If you're shopping Malibu, Camry, Accord, and the others, put this one on your Wish List, too. And this time, we mean that in a positive way. Stay tuned for a full road test.
By Matt Stone