Overview

Hyundai Sonata gets a host of revisions for the 2009 model year. Already on our list of best commuter cars and many high-value lists, the revisions should solidify its standing. Although you can't see many of them, more than a thousand parts have been changed for the 2009 model year.

The Hyundai Sonata is a four-door, five-passenger sedan priced at the low end of the mid-size market, where it competes primarily against the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, Kia Optima, and Ford Fusion. Despite moderate prices, every Sonata comes with a full slate of safety equipment and none is optional; it has earned the federal government's five-star crash-test rating for front and side impacts, the highest awarded.

Sonata is big inside, with so much interior volume it the EPA classifies it as a large car. It's roomier in almost every dimension than most of its mid-size competitors, many of which are larger outside, and it offers a full-size edge in creature comfort.

For 2009, the Sonata is perhaps one percent heavier and prices have gone up, some by $1500. However, the new models come with more standard equipment such as the sunroof on the Limited model, so the relative value remains high.

Instead of spending a lot outside Hyundai kept all the sheetmetal and merely updated lights and trim.

On the inside, however, they've improved the seats for 2009 and added an entirely new dashboard/console layout and introduced a voice-operated navigation option.

Under the hood each engine remains the same size but makes more power on less fuel, and the four-cylinder has been upgraded from an optional four-speed automatic to a five-speed automatic. Last but not least, the suspension has been retuned to deliver the same good ride with better precision and driver involvement.

The most-expensive Sonata will set you back less than $28,000 with navigation, but you can get a comfortable, efficient commuter like our test car for about $21,000. You'll be hard-pressed to find more room with that economy for anything near the price, and it won't have Hyundai's warranty package.

Model Lineup

The 2009 Hyundai Sonata comes in three trim levels. A 175-horsepower four-cylinder engine comes standard (168 hp in PZEV states at no extra cost), a 249-hp V6 is optional. The four-cylinder is available with a five-speed manual or a five-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission ($1200); the latter is standard on V6s.

Sonata GLS ($18,120) is the base model. It comes with cloth upholstery, air conditioning, cruise control, power heated outside mirrors, power windows, central locking with keyless remote, AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with six speakers, XM Satellite Radio, tilt steering wheel, 60/40 folding rear seat, and 215/60R16 tires on 16-inch steel wheels. The four-cylinder automatic ($19,320) is similarly equipped, while the V6 automatic ($21,570) adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel, solar control glass and chrome dual exhaust tips. The Popular Equipment Package ($650) adds automatic headlights, chrome window belt moldings, upgraded interior accents, power driver seat with adjustable lumbar support, steering wheel audio controls and a trip computer. The same package is available with a power tilt-and-slide sunroof ($1,550).

Sonata SE ($21,720) and SE V6 ($23,170) come with leather-bolster/cloth-center seats, five-speed automatic, larger disc brakes, 17-inch alloy wheels fitted with 215/55VR17 all season performance tires, firmer suspension, eight-way power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, leather-wrapped shift knob, tilt-and-telescope leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, solar control glass, fog lights, automatic headlights, chrome window moldings, rear spoiler, and a trip computer. The Premium Package ($1,650) for SE adds an upgraded AM/FM/XM/6CD/MP3 audio system with six speakers, subwoofer and component amplifier; power tilt-and-slide sunroof; and an electrochromic auto-dimming rear view mirror with HomeLink and a compass.

The Limited ($23,970) adds leather seating surfaces, heated front seats, automatic climate control with filtration, the top-line audio system, electrochromic auto-dimming rear view mirror with HomeLink and compass, door sill trim and a sunroof. A chrome grille, chrome-accented exterior door handles, and bodyside moldings identify Limited from the outside. Wheels and tires are the same size as those on the SE, but use a different tread pattern. The Limited V6 ($25,670) is similarly equipped. A new voice-activated navigation system is available ($1250).

Safety features on all Sonatas include dual-stage front-seat airbags; front-seat side-impact airbags for torso protection; and full-coverage side curtain airbags designed to provide head protection. Antilock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and Electronic Stability Control (ESC) with traction control also come standard, as does a tire-pressure monitor.

Walkaround

Although it's just a couple of years old, the Hyundai Sonata has been given a mild facelift for 2009. The front fascia remains refreshingly clean and spare, with sharply angled headlight housings and a deeper, clean-cut grille topped with a sliver of chrome. Wide and deep openings beneath the front bumper provide a home for tightly focused fog lamps and visually pull the front end closer to the ground, while directing cooling air into the radiator. The striking, concave hood reduces the car's perceived mass without cramping the engine compartment.

The side treatment avoids the all too common wedge look with an almost horizontal beltline riding above softly shouldered fenders and door panels. Mirrored Z-seams where the end corners of the bumpers meet the quarter panels add interest, while blacked-out window surrounds play down the tall side glass. Moldings vary by model and all reflect the Sonata's subtle styling rather than going overboard.

Extended C-pillars shorten the deck lid, which itself presents a rounded, gently sculpted profile vaguely reminiscent of the much maligned posterior of today's BMW sedans. The flat-flanged rims on the up-level 17-inch wheels suggest a high-end European import more than an affordable Asian nameplate.

The taillight outlines repeat the headlight shapes and bookend a broad, trapezoidal license plate inset; the backup light portion of the lens is smaller but output is the same. Again, there's a hint of other cars' architecture, most notably segment heavyweights like the Camry, Accord, and Malibu. Sporty, California hot rod-idiom dual exhausts mark the V6-equipped versions.

The Hyundai Sonata continues to refine its signature design cues, the sculptors looking in the right places without offending conservatism.

Interior Features

The 2009 Sonata interior is a significant step forward from the previous model, although housed in the same cabin space. It is judged a large car by EPA size standards and is the largest among midsize sedans in terms of interior volume.

The cabin feels more integrated, with new flowing lines for 2009. A tapered center stack rolls gently off the dash into the center console, replacing the blocky look of the previous dash. The overall look is competitive with most in the class and reminds us of some Nissan and Acura interiors. Materials seem to have more depth, as even the hard plastic trim common on lower door and console panels looks better.

Lighter materials frame the vents and center stack. The center stack houses the clock, audio and navigation systems, and climate controls. There's also a sizable bin that holds 10 CD jewel cases above the ashtray ahead of the shifter. Splashes of trim grow from the console outward mid-height on the dash and are mirrored on the doors; on cars with woodgrain trim the shifter gets a slice of the same material. The woodgrain trim may not be real like some cars, but it feels, works, and looks just as good. Entire trim pieces change by model, so, for example, cars without seat heaters do not have two blank outlines to remind you of something you wish you'd ordered.

Three round dials in the hooded instrument cluster display the basic operational data. The largest is the speedometer, to its left is the tachometer, to its right conjoined water temperature and fuel gauges. In the lower dash to the left of the steering column is a bank of five switch plugs, only two of which are employed in the U.S. version; one is an on/off for the ESC (electronic stability control), the other the dash-light rheostat. Beyond that is a flip-down storage bin. The ignition key slides into a slot placed where it should be, in the dash to the right of the steering column instead of on the steering column itself, easier and more elegant when starting or shutting off the car.

For 2009, the Limited model is available with a voice-recognition navigation system. We found it easy to use and the screen easy to view, and many will appreciate the option price of $1250 for what typically costs more and sometimes isn't offered until you're into models that cost more than a loaded Sonata Limited.

Most models get a leather-wrapped steering wheel, with adjustment for reach to complement the tilt on all but GLS. Redundant controls for the audio are to the lower left-side of the hub. On the other side of the hub are the standard cruise controls, with a helpful Cancel function. All stalk functions are straightforward and require no adaptation.

Outward visibility is good, although some will find the wide C-pillars constrict quick, over-the-shoulder traffic checks for lane changing. Rear side windows roll all the way down, thanks to small, fixed, rear quarter windows that move the windows' rear tracks forward in the door, ahead of the wheel well. There's a roof-mounted, hinged assist handle inside every door.

Seats are comfortable, with adequate bolstering for the style of driving to which the Sonata aspires. For 2009, the front seats are roughly a half-inch larger in most dimensions, and the position has changed slightly for better long-distance comfort. GLS models use cloth, while SE models get leather bolsters and cloth centers for an excellent compromise between occupant retention and easy sliding in and out. The Limited model's leather adds a touch of class without pretending to be luxurious, and the front seats have seat heaters.

The height adjustment on the driver's seat, both manual and power, pivots on the seat's front mounts, which effectively moves the seat forward as it rises. This compels taller drivers to choose between rearward seat travel and forward sightline, not always a happy compromise. On the upside, this adds inches to rear-seat legroom behind the driver, one of the multitude of measures in which the Sonata generally bests its competition. Sonata comes in second to the new (half-foot longer) Honda Accord in front and rear headroom, and to the Toyota Camry in rear-seat headroom, and by a mere one- to three-tenths of an inch. And of the second-tier competitors, the Kia Optima alone betters the new Sonata and then only by three-tenths of an inch in front seat hip room. The Sonata is among the roomiest cars in its class.

Rear seats are accommodating, with the bottom cushion in the center position only minimally higher than and nearly as well padded as the outboard positions. We loaded a 6-foot, 3-inch gent into the center and still had headroom to spare and some headrest protection; with a sunroof headroom will drop a bit. Both rear outboard seating positions have adjustable head restraints, as do the front seats. The rear seatback is split 60/40 and folds to allow the transport of long objects, such as skis and snowboards or gardening tools.

Storage bins and cubbies are about average for the class. Only the front doors have map pockets, and there's no compartment in the rear of the center console, which is, however, bi-level and fitted with a sliding top cover. The center console and the rear-seat center armrest provide two cupholders each. A small bin in the forward part of the center console is convenient for coins and keys, and the center stack bin has a rubberized bottom to keep contents quiet. A thoughtful addition is a flip-out hook in the footwell on the passenger side of the center stack to restrain bags of groceries or take-out food.

The trunk is the second most capacious in the class, losing out to the Toyota Camry by less than half a cubic foot. Despite the use of gas-pressure struts (which the hood has, too, an upscale touch not all of the competition offer) and articulated linkage on the trunk lid, the Sonata's stubby back end constrains the opening. In other words, the trunk holds a lot of stuff but can't take big boxes.

Driving Impressions

Both of the engines available for the Hyundai Sonata, a four-cylinder and a V6, have been revised for 2009, achieving the dualbenefits of lower emissions and higher fuel efficiency. Both engines are rated LEVII ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) by the Environmental Protection Agency or PZEV in those 13 or so states with stricter standards. Additionally, both engines now use a variable-length intake manifold to fatten the torque curve and make more zip available over a broader range of engine speeds.

Acceleration is brisk with the four-cylinder; with the new five-speed automatic both performance and economy are slightly improved. Fuel economy for the four-cylinder GLS is 21/31 mpg City/Highway; only the Nissan Altima with CVT and 23/31 does better. The four-cylinder gets a 6/13 hp boost over last year in PZEV/37 states.

The V6 brings a grin to the face, benefiting from a 15-hp increase over last year. Hyundai officials say the V6 can accelerate from 0-60 miles per hour in about 7.5 seconds, with a top speed of more than 130 mph. Six-cylinder models are rated 19/29 mpg, matching the best in the class.

Shifts are executed easily with the five-speed manual, and chirping the front tires is easy.

The Shiftronic automatic transmission moves between gears smoothly, unlocking the torque converter or kicking down for passing with minimal hesitation. The automatic offered responsive performance while tackling the hills of San Francisco and the mountain roads of Malibu. In manual mode, the Shiftronic will upshift automatically when the engine bumps up against redline; it declines to downshift at all (unless you stop), leaving that to the driver's preferences.

Brakes are mostly linear, and equipped with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, which improves stability and reduces emergency stopping distances by balancing brake force on the fly between the front and rear tires. ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control under hard braking. Yet we noticed little of the interference we've found with some more complex EBD-equipped systems, and then only in the final stages of a stop. In the same vein, the electronic stability control (that relies a good deal on the braking system) is seldom noticed and comes on progressively when needed.

Steering is light and direct, with good on-center feel, directional stability. Response to turn input is more precise than before because every tunable element in the fully independent suspension, springs, shocks, antiroll bars and bushings, has been tightened up by roughly 10 percent over the 2008 model.

In terms of ride quality, the 17-inch wheel/tire combination makes its presence known on rough pavement, where the shorter sidewalls transmit more of the road's imperfections into the cabin. The GLS four-cylinder, the lightest model and on 16-inch wheels, offers the best ride quality for those who do most driving on marginal roads. Wind and road noise is decently muted, the engine in the background.

The V6 boasts a larger front anti-roll bar to handle the larger engine's weight, and the SE models get larger anti-roll bars for a bit more roll stiffness; the SE spring and shock rates are also 10 percent to 15 percent higher, but there is still no indication anything is too stiff.

That shows how soft and compliant the Sonata was before, tuned more like your father's Buick than a modern mid-sized sedan. As a result the 2009 Sonata won't set any fast times against its competitors (and some will be slower, too), rather it keeps the good ride comfort it had while taking out the sogginess. Take off in a hurry and the nose doesn't rise so much; hammer the brakes and the nose doesn't dive like a dolphin; take a twisty road and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. Long highway ventures are smooth and effortless, just as you'd hope for with decent economy and a long warranty.

Summary

The 2009 Hyundai Sonata delivers full-size, family-style room and comfort with 30 mpg highway fuel economy. The new interior for 2009 and available navigation system take appearance to contemporary standards while retaining Hyundai's strong cost/warranty/features value statement.

NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard reported from San Francisco; with G.R. Whale reporting from Santa Monica.


Copyright © 1994-2008 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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