OAKBROOK TERRACE, Illinois - Competition is tense in the midsize family sedan market. Hyundai has been attempting to capture a healthy share of that segment with its Sonata, ever since 1989. Last redesigned for 2006, the Sonata sedan gets a freshening and a welcome set of improvements for 2009.
Hyundai's midsize sedan has been "transformed from the inside out," said Michael Deitz, manager of product planning. In fact, the interior is said to be all-new, with blue illumination and a cleaner-looking, flowing center stack below the dashboard. Seat cushions and backs are larger.
Outside is a new and deeper grille, along with bigger, more vertical headlights. Front spring rates have increased by 10 percent; rear springs by 15 percent. Larger stabilizer bars also promise improved handling. The SE edition features a tighter sport-tuned suspension.
Both engines have gained power for 2009. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder develops 175 horsepower at 6000 rpm, versus 249 hp (up from 234) and 229 pound-feet of torque for the 3.3-liter V-6. A PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) version of the four-cylinder engine is available. Both engines now drive a five-speed automatic transmission, which was formerly available only with V-6 power. Five-speed manual shift is standard with the four-cylinder engine, but V-6s are automatic-only.
Sonata gets an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 21 mpg city and 32 mpg highway with the four-cylinder engine and manual shift; 22/32 mpg with automatic, which tops the figures for primary competitors. The V-6 manages 19/29 mpg estimate - 1 mpg better on the highway than the 2008 model.
The newly available navigation system, optional for $1,250, accepts voice commands for destination inputs. Hyundai claims it can "learn" the way the driver speaks. If it doesn't understand a request, it shows a list of likely possibilities. As you select one, the system analyzes the situation and is therefore more inclined to offer the correct selection next time. Hyundai also claims that the system will work in tunnels and between tall buildings.
With the Sonata, Hyundai competes against the familiar midsize sedans: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, and Ford Fusion. Additional rivals include the Mazda 6 and Dodge Avenger.
In its 2009 form, the Sonata exhibits a surprising level of all-around excellence. The smooth V-6 engine provides plenty of punch. This sedan is barely bothered by most bumps, practically brushing aside the majority of trouble spots. Even the SE edition, with its tauter suspension, delivers a serene and easygoing ride over most surfaces. There's little discernible loss of ride comfort in exchange for the SE's tautness.
Steering is tight and controlled - a cut above the family-sedan norm. The Sonata tracks neatly, requiring little correction on straightaways. Hyundai's automatic transmission delivers quick and sure response from the V-6 engine. Acceleration in a four-cylinder PZEV model is markedly less swift, but nearly as refined.
Visibility is trouble-free, and front-seat occupants enjoy plenty of space. On the down side, the blue-lit odometer and trip odometer are difficult to read, due to lack of contrast. Gauges are easier to read, though not quite the best of the lot in that respect. The available navigation system generally works well, but occasionally gives an imperfect response. Its electronic voice, too, sometimes mispronounces street names dramatically.
Rear leg room and toe space are fine, but seats are a bit on the hard side. The center spot is hard and short on headroom.
Prices start at $18,795 (including destination charge) for the GLS four-cylinder sedan. A four-cylinder Sonata SE runs $21,195, while the Limited V-6 commands $26,345. Sales of the 2009 model began in March 2008.
Hyundai expects 57 percent of sales to be the value-priced GLS version. Although the company's headquarters is in South Korea, all Sonatas are manufactured in Alabama. An all-new Sonata is scheduled to debut for the 2011 model year.
Four-cylinder update: A longer trial in a regular four-cylinder Limited sedan with automatic demonstrated no shortage of vigor. It's not especially noisier than the V-6, either, which means impressively quiet running. Smoothly responsive, the four-cylinder Sonata qualifies as smooth overall. Few buyers really need V-6 power in this sedan.
Attention Editors: This complete 2009 Hyundai Sonata review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details.