Hyundai Sonata – now playing with the big boys

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Hyundai has a reputation for mimicking the best of the competition. The South Korean auto company has unabashedly over the years purloined the best designs of competitor’s cars and incorporated them into its products.

It has done such a good copycat job over the past couple of decades that some of its newest entries are now leapfrogging the competition and have become better in many respects than comparable models from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Ford and Chevrolet.

Hyundai products may soon be among those benchmarked when industry competing manufacturers design new cars.

That’s an amazing turnaround from the mid-to-late 1980s when Hyundai was struggling with quality and reliability and was forced to put a long-term warranty on its vehicles to entice people into the showroom. But its 10/100,000 warranty wasn’t just a scheme it was the beginning of the reality that something had changed in the Hyundai culture.

That leads us to believe the refreshed 2009 mid-size Sonata sedan is as good as anything in the highly competitive family sedan ranks and better in many aspects than cars from the aforementioned manufacturers.

The current generation Sonata is in its fourth year and Hyundai officials decided a mid-cycle refreshening was necessary to keep up with the newer Accord and Altima and the top-selling Camry.

After spending a week with a 2009 Sonata V-6 and a few hours in a 4-cylinder model near Hyundai’s manufacturing plant in Montgomery, Ala., we can attest that Hyundai has hit its target.

Hyundai said its customers wanted more performance ‘and’ better gas mileage. The company has delivered.

And customers said they wanted a more upscale interior. And again the company delivered.

In fact the new Lexus-like layout was named an “Interior of the Year” award winner in the category of “Best Redesign” at the annual interior awards program conducted by Ward’s magazine in June.

“We were inspired by the beautiful forms of the interior in the (Hyundai) Veracruz and challenged to deliver comparable design execution in the mainstream Sonata,” said Chris Zarlenga, who heads Hyundai’s design studio in Michigan.

“Great design does not have to cost a great deal of money to the company or the customer. This new Sonata proves that point,” Zarlenga notes.

The upgrades include more contrast to the camel and gray interiors. The front cupholders were improved for more capacity and holding power. Hyundai’s signature blue backlighting for interior gauges, switches and buttons highlight the vehicle’s upscale interior design.

As for the revised engines, Hyundai engineers achieved the near miraculous results of boosting horsepower in both engines while increasing gas mileage.

Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

Engineers reached an acceptable compromise with the 3.3-liter V-6 raising horsepower from 234 ponies to 249. Although the new rating still trails the competition, behind the Accord V-6 and the Camry V-6 that put out 271 and 268 horses respectively the Sonata feels energetic even though it is mated to the carry-over five-speed automatic.

We found the power smooth, and the transmission provided relatively quick kick-downs when called for.

Despite the 15-horsepower gain, Hyundai managed to push gas mileage from 19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway to 19 and 29. That’s the same as the Accord and slightly better than the Camry’s 19/28.

But the astounding numbers come with the 4-cylinder where horsepower has grown from 162 to 175 and torque from 164 pound-feet to 168. The new-found power gives the 4-cylinder Sonata a confident feel and we recommend it as a great compromise between performance and gas mileage.

A major automobile publication has clocked the four-banger from 0 to 60 in a very respectable time of 8.7 seconds.

And here’s the really good part considering 3 to 4-bucks-a-gallon gas; mileage has been increased from 21 city/30 highway to 22/32 with the five-speed automatic.

Measuring the competition, the Toyota Camry puts out 158 horsepower with 21/31 mileage, the Honda Accord makes 190 horsepower with 21/31 mileage and the Nissan Altima produces 175 horsepower with EPA gas mileage through a continuously variable transmission of 23/31.

If we argue that the new Sonata is as good, not better, but just as good as the competition then Hyundai has a big selling point because it ties or beats the Japanese entries in both price and warranty.

Comparably equipped base 4-cylinder cars with automatic transmissions start at: $20,595 for the Sonata; $20,915 for the Camry; $20,595 for the Altima; and $22,225 for the Accord.

Likewise, the V-6 editions begin at $23,145 for the Sonata, $24,935 for the Camry, $25,875 for the Altima and $27,125 for the Accord.

The new Sonata has a more upscale persona inside with soft, high-quality plastics, an eye-pleasing center stack, easy-to-use switchgear and attractive gauges that look particularly good at night bathed in blue backlighting.

For the most upscale look of wood and chrome accents invest in the Limited trim level for under 26 grand. Am I sitting in a Lexus?

We found the front seats soft, but firm enough to afford long-distance comfort.  Finding a desirable driving position was not a problem.

Back-seat passengers are rewarded with considerable leg room. And Hyundai did not compromise trunk space to gain passenger comfort. The trunk compartment will hold 16.3 cubic feet of stuff, on a par with the competition.

The Sonata is not a sports sedan, and for potential buyers of this car more important than a stiff cornering suspension is a supple ride that soaks up bumps and other road imperfections. While fast-speed cornering may not be its strong suit, the handling is very predictable and confidence-inspiring.

Safety has not been overlooked. Standard on all three trim levels (GLS, SE and Limited) are antilock brakes, traction control, stability control, side-impact airbags, full-length side-curtain airbags and active front head restraints. The Sonata has scored a maximum five stars on government front and side impact tests.

Our automatic SE mid-trim level V-6 came with only one option, carpeted floor mats for $90, bringing the bottom line to $24,745. All prices noted include destination charges.

Standard equipment included all the usual power features, cruise control, 17-inch wheels and XM satellite radio.

When the Sonata was originally introduced in 2006, navigation was not available. But for 2009 it is an option on the Limited model.

We believe that Sonata, still backed by its now famous five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, has caught up with its vaunted competition as a comfortable and fuel-efficient mid-sized sedan with enough snazzy looks and an attractive price that should attract a buyer’s attention.


Base price: $22,245; as driven, $23,935
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6
Horsepower: 249 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 229 pound-feet @ 4,500 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 107.4 inches
Length: 188.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,549 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 16.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 16.7 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 29 mpg highway, 19 mpg city
0-60: 6.9 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu, Toyota Camry or Ford Fusion

The Good
* More horsepower, more gas mileage
* Award-winning redesigned interior
* Large passenger space

The Bad
* Navigation only available on top trim level

The Ugly
* V-6 horsepower still lags behind competition