Hyundai took America by storm when its Excel hit our shores in 1987, mostly because of the vehicle's meager price tag (under $5,000). The following year, the South Korean automaker followed up that success with the Sonata, proving it was a force to reckon with in the midsize sedan category by offering superior value and contemporary design.
Hyundai's recipe for success was basically borrowed from Toyota: Give the public vehicles that are reliable, well made, comfortable and conservative yet modern in style and they'll welcome you with open arms. The move paid off in spades, providing the U.S. market with a solid alternative to the segment's top players, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
For 2009 Hyundai gave the Sonata a complete interior makeover, refreshed exterior and more power, all the while managing to improve the car's fuel economy. Although there was an attempt to improve the Sonata's cornering capability, to call this four-door sporty would be a misnomer.
Hyundai's competitive advantage is value for the dollar, and the Sonata is no exception. All versions are well equipped. The GLS comes with cloth upholstery; air conditioning; cruise control; power windows, door locks and mirrors; an AM/FM/CD stereo; XM Satellite Radio; an auxiliary input jack; a USB port; an iPod interface and P215/60R16 tires on steel wheels with wheel covers.
The sport-oriented SE adds a cloth and leather upholstery, a power driver's seat, automatic headlights, fog lights, a rear spoiler, sport suspension and P215/55VR17 tires on alloy wheels.
The top-line Limited has all the aforementioned goodies, including automatic climate control, leather upholstery, heated front seats, a sunroof, a universal garage door opener and an Infinity sound system with a 6-disc CD changer. Much of the Limited's equipment is available for lower-line trims, and other notable options consist of a Bluetooth wireless cell phone link and a navigation system with voice control.
Standard safety features include dual front airbags, torso-protecting front-side airbags, head-protecting curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, traction control, electronic stability control and active front head restraints.
Under the Hood
All Sonatas are offered with four-cylinder or V6 power. The four is Hyundai's Theta II 2.4-liter dual-overhead cam engine. The addition of dual camshaft continuously variable valve timing (CVVT) and a new intake resonator design raises horsepower from 162 to 175 and torque from 164 to 168 lb-ft. This engine is offered with a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability. EPA fuel economy estimates are 21/32 mpg (city/highway) with the manual and 22/32 with the automatic.
The six cylinder is Hyundai's Lambda 3.3-liter V6, which also gets a new intake resonator design that bumps horsepower from 234 to 249 and torque from 226 to 229 lb-ft. The V6 is offered only with a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability, and the EPA fuel economy numbers are 19/29 city/highway.
The Sonata's cabin is a pleasant place to be. The look is attractive and modern, and the materials well chosen. The dash, door armrests and center console have soft-touch surfaces, and the controls are easy to reach and simple to operate. The decor in the SE trim is a bit off-putting. The carpeted door inserts and leather and cloth upholstery aren't particularly sporty, nor are they luxurious; the attractive leather in the Limited model gets the nod.
All versions have plenty of front- and rear-seat room. During our test, we drove four guys 300 miles to attend a football game and didn't hear a single complaint about comfort or legroom. Even our 6-foot- 7-inch friend had enough room. Aided by a standard fold-down center armrest with two integrated cupholders, the rear-seat occupants were comfortable too, which is no surprise since the Sonata's interior space classifies it as a large car according to the EPA, even though it competes in the midsize car category.
The center stack is cleverly designed with a large covered cubby at the bottom. Team that with the center console, standard door pockets and two cupholders behind the shifter and there is plenty of storage for small items. The standard iPod interface comes with a cable to plug in an iPod, as well as an auxiliary input jack and a USB port to accommodate other types of MP3 players. The iPod can be controlled through the radio and the system charges it. It's convenient and safer than looking down at a small iPod while driving.
The Sonata also has a generous trunk with 16.3 cubic feet of cargo space. Like most modern cars, the opening is short so large boxes won't fit, but long items can be carried, thanks to a standard 60/40 split-folding rear seat.
Bottom line, this makeover has led to an overall design that is more user-friendly and better looking. Very impressive.
On the Road
Take a turn behind the wheel and you'll notice the Sonata's ride is similar to the Toyota Camry — smooth and comfortable — but not quite up to the same standards, especially the SE trim. With its stiffer shocks and larger stabilizer bars, the SE pounded over tar strips, especially at city speeds. Given this annoyance, I'd recommend the smoother-riding GLS or Limited.
Road and engine noise didn't affect conversation, but the Sonata still isn't as well isolated as the Camry or Accord. The steering is also bit slow and numb, but that's the way many drivers like it. The brakes are easy to modulate, with good pedal feel.
Thanks to changes made for 2009, the power output of Sonata's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is right in line with the competition. The 3.3-liter V6 now has 249 horsepower; that's about 20 horses less than the outstanding V6s offered by Honda, Nissan and Toyota, and torque is down by as many as 30 lb-ft versus those formidable foes. Still, the V6 has enough punch to get the car moving quickly from a stop and provides worry-free highway passing response. The transmission can sometimes dawdle on downshifts, but drivers can overcome that with the standard manual shiftgate.
Right for You?
The Sonata is priced $1,000 to $3,000 below the midsize leaders. So if you're looking for a roomy midsize sedan that aims for comfort over sportiness and want to save a few bucks, the Sonata is right for you.
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.