By Malcolm Gunn Wheelbase Communications
Make a good car great . . . and don't wait.
That attitude at Hyundai is what's driving the 2009 Sonata sedan, a car that represents the Korean automaker's determination to match - even surpass - the rest of the pack in delivering a competent product at an uncommon price.
The previous Sonata, introduced for the 2006 model year, was lauded for its cavernous interior volume and generous load of standard features. Still, the car had had to slog it out in the trenches with the likes of the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Honda Accord, to name just some of the biggies in the family-sedan business. Most are well-established players that only grudgingly yield ground to underdogs, and not without a scrap. As a lesson in fast response, Hyundai has quickly revamped the Sonata in mid product cycle by freshening the styling, updating the powertrains and suspension, and giving the interior a more luxurious feel.
Visually, the updated car pretty much mirrors the 2008 version, but it does benefit from a bolder grille, restyled headlights and taillamps, new wheels and available chrome inserts on the front bumper. Inside, an all-new dashboard and control panel has been fitted and the seats have been reshaped for more comfort.
With these changes, the Sonata now looks considerably more refined, especially from the driver's perspective. Apparently Hyundai's stylists used the dash design from the big Veracruz sport utility vehicle as inspiration and it works especially well here. The rest of the cabin remains as spacious as ever and the Sonata easily hangs onto its official "large car" designation, which is the same as the new-for-'08 Accord sedan and ahead of the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima.
The base 2.4-liter four-cylinder now puts out 175 horsepower, a bump of 13, while the output of the optional 3.3-liter V6 has been boosted by 15 ponies to 249 horsepower. Despite these increases, the fuel efficiency rating on both engines has been increased to the point where the Sonata matches, or in some cases actually surpasses the fuel-sipping champ Honda Accord. In fairness, the Accord still beats the Sonata to the punch when it comes to horsepower ratings.
The base five-speed manual transmission is back, while a new five-speed automatic is optional on four-cylinder models (a four-speed auto was the only choice for four-cylinder cars) and standard with the V6.
The car's on-road behavior hasn't been ignored, either. The front suspension has been revised for improved ride and handling, while the rear suspension is all new. In addition, the SE model now gets its own stiffer sport-tuned setup that complements its bigger 17-inch wheels and tires. During our brief road test that included plenty of undulating rural roads, both standard and sport suspensions behaved in a controlled fashion, but our pick would be the SE, which feels more adept when performing rapid turning maneuvers. All models now benefit from a quicker steering ratio.
Unchanged are the Sonata's three models: GLS; SE; and Limited. All are equipped with the basics, including air conditioning, cruise control, tilt steering, keyless remote entry, power windows, mirrors and locks, six-speaker audio system and a complete range of safety gear.
Along with its own suspension settings, the SE adds a B&M-brand sport shifter, fog lights, chrome window moldings, alloy wheels, eight-way power driver's seat, trip computer and a telescopic steering column with steering wheel-mounted audio controls.
The premium Limited is topped out with climate control, leather interior, power sunroof, 360-watt sound system, bodyside moldings plus additional chrome trim. All of the mid-cycle changes bestowed on the 2009 Sonata have made an already competent sedan even more desirable and sets it on course to become an even better value, especially when stacked up against the rest of the sedan-class heavy hitters.
What you should know: 2009 Hyundai Sonata
Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive full-size sedan.
Engines: 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder (175 hp); 3.3-liter DOHC V6 (249 hp).
Transmissions: Five-speed manual (I4 only); five-speed automatic (opt. on I4, standard on V6).
Market position: With the growing popularity of sedans, the updated Sonata stands to gain new ground against a variety of equally new-and-improved category leaders.
: * Updated Sonata should easily hold its own until a 2011 redesign.
* Improvements in horsepower and fuel economy on all versions.
* Passenger, trunk space beats nearly everything in its class.
* Suspension improvements readily noticeable.
* When, if ever, will Hyundai develop a gas/electric hybrid alternative? * One of the best warranties in the business.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
The numbers: MPG (city/hwy): 22/32 (I4, MT); Base price: $18,800 (including destination) By comparison Chevrolet Malibu Base price: $20,000 Plenty of style and space plus improved comfort, handling. Toyota Camry Base price: $19,200 Popular, roomy sedan features attractive styling, hybrid option. Honda Accord Base price: $21,000 New-for-'08 sedan and coupe are stylish and fuel efficient.