2009 Hyundai Sonata
 2009 Hyundai Sonata
 instrument panel
 lots of room in the back
 easy like hyundai-sunday morning

Before Hyundai launched their new luxury level Genesis sedan, they gave their entry in the midsize sedan market a bit of a boost, inside and out. The 2009 Sonata, which debuted in February, has been carefully tweaked to deliver even more value and performance for the money.

The target, of course, is the ever popular midsize Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. The first thing Hyundai did was stretch the car just enough to put it into the Large Car class, giving buyers what they call "class above" differentiation. Then, they made changes to the interior, exterior and driving dynamics.

Inside, they redid the center console and instrument panel to make it look more like a Lexus, and it really jumps ahead of everything Hyundai has offered before. While you wouldn't mistake it for a true luxury model upon close inspection, the materials and fit-and-finish are about as good as you'll get in a reasonably priced car these days. And, of course, there were no squeaks, rattles or buzzes and very little of the outside world permeated to the comfortable space within.

Outside, Hyundai's stylists nipped and tucked the nose and tail with new headlights, taillights and foglights, revised bumper fascias, and chrome inserts. The alloy wheels are new and the color palette got reshuffled.

It's not just looks here, though. The four-cylinder engine received a 13-horsepower boost to 175, torque nudged up from 164 to 168, and fuel economy actually improved by one mile per gallon to 22 city 32 freeway.

The V6 gained 15 horses, moving from 234 to 249 horsepower, with a 3 lb.-ft. gain in torque, while mileage ratings picked up one mpg highway to a 19 city 29 freeway mpg rating. My Ebony Black V6-equipped tester averaged 20.7 mpg.

Hyundai's V6 is a smooth, modern all-aluminum engine that whispers its way down the road with no fuss. The EPA Green Vehicle Guide gives the new Sonata grades of 7 for Air Pollution and 6 for Greenhouse Gas, just enough to get Smartway certification. Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV) versions with the four-cylinder that earn 9.5 for the Air Pollution number should be available in California and other states that follow those more stringent smog guidelines.

You can order up your Sonata in the typical three levels, GLS, SE and Limited. The entry level GLS is well equipped. The SE is sportier, while the limited gets the plush extras. You can request the inline 4 or V6 engine with any level, but the V6 comes only with the automatic shifter.

The GLS offers the ubiquitous power windows, locks and mirrors. You also get keyless entry with alarm and a nice audio system with AM FM XM CD and MP3 ability. Much appreciated was the standard USB iPod auxiliary input. The list includes air conditioning, cruise control and a tilt wheel too. Not bad.

The SE model features a sport-tuned suspension, which stiffens the standard double wishbone system up front by 15 percent and gives a 10-percent tightening to the rear multi-link setup while increasing the thickness of the sway bars slightly. My test car was a Limited, so I didn't experience this sportier package. The SE also gets a B&M Racing five-speed manual transmission with the four-cylinder or a five-speed SHIFTRONIC automatic if you insist. Alloy wheels get bumped up to 17s wearing tires with stiffer sidewalls and a unique tread pattern. A rear deck spoiler lets other drivers know you just might be cooler than they are.

The Limited is packed with luxury extras, such as leather seats, automatic climate control, upgraded audio with subwoofer, heated front seats and power sunroof. The only option available for a Limited is a navigation system.

All Sonatas have electronic stability control (ECS), a high tech monitoring and control system that helps cars stay out of trouble with no driver intervention. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is calling this the most effective lifesaving technology since the seatbelt. It's optional on Camrys.

My tester, a top level Limited with the navigation system, came to $27,685. Without laboriously comparing feature for feature, know that the unoptioned GLS with four-cylinder engine and five speed starts at $19,395, including destination charges. The cheapest Camry you can get comes to $19,865 and a base Honda Accord will run you $21,425. Sonatas equipped with a V6 run a couple thousand dollars more, depending on model.

You'll find that you get a bit more content in the Sonata , that's the deal Hyundai has offered for years to entice buyers, along with an excellent warranty program called the Hyundai Advantage, with a range of long-term coverage and emergency road service. Today's Hyundais have erased the differences that used to separate Japanese and Korean brands, and are definitely worth consideration.

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