Wednesday, July 18, 2007

2007 Hyundai Sonata Limited XM Road Test

2007 Hyundai Sonata Limited XM Road Test

Climbing into the Sonata was like coming home to an old friend, afterspending more than ten months with a long-term Limited last year, and being part of countless log entries and what resulted in a mind-numbing 20 updates (once every two weeks). As you may remember we clocked up 6,472 completely trouble-free miles on the odo (except for me killing the battery) and only really complained about the audio steering wheel controls not featuring a button for changing radio stations, the lack of satellite radio and somewhere to plug in our various iPods.

Well, with the slightly updated 2007 model there's still nowhere to plug in an external audio device of any kind and dealers aren't offering a quick fix (at least not officially), although the addition of XM satellite radio on all automatic transmission equipped models currently being built (more clarity on this below) certainly does a decent job of making me forget about this shortcoming when on the road. There have been other changes too, and I might as well get them out of the way right off the bat. First, other than saying that all Sonatas now boast six airbags standard, including two up front, two side-impact bags and side-curtain airbags for all outsideoccupants, plus active front head restraints, I'm only going to comment on the Limited XM model, as we've already covered the four and its various upgrades in a previous review. Most noticeable with the Limited XM is a revised front grille that now features a stylish strip of chrome running side to side, giving the car a more upscale appearance. This particular example looks rich in its Dark Cherry Red paint, a new color for 2007. Bright Silver has also been added to the palette, a good thing being that silver remains the number one seller across the industry, making up about 30-percent of purchases. This example also features a tan interior, which contrasts the deep red nicely and looks superb with the environmentally friendly (read: faux) wood grain and metal-like trim, but we're pretty sure it will wear similarly to the light gray we had last year. The seats will be fine, but it'll probably be hard to keep the carpets clean (although tan matches ground in soil much better than gray). Fortunately, Black leather can now be ordered, along with black carpets and dark charcoal plastics. After a quick drive Jennifer immediately noticed the improved steering wheel audio controls that now allow her to scroll through radio stations and more via intuitive controls on the front and side of the left-side spoke, plus all of us like the fact that, with the new side-curtain airbags it gets a five star crash safety rating, and that its V6 is greener, now meeting Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (LEV-II ULEV) standards and boasting slightly better fuel economy, with an EPA rating of 20 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway. This improvement helps it to edge out the Accord EX-L V6 in the city while matching the Japanese brand's highway rating, but falling a bit behind the Camry XLE V6 on both counts.

Standard features (some over those of the SE XM) include leather seating surfaces, leather door trim inserts, heated front seats, an eight-way power driver's seat, 17-inch, 5-spoke alloy rims (that I'm not particularly fond of) wrapped in 50-aspect ratio Michelin all-season tires, a sliding center armrest that's really comfortable, a power glass sunroof with a sun shade(that strangely would slip back about an inch under hard acceleration), chrome exterior highlights with that chrome-accented grille I just mentioned, and an electronic five-speed automatic transmission with manual mode ... I'll discuss some of these items in more detail in a moment.

Our test example featured the upgraded Ultimate package ($1,750), addressing something that caused yours truly to regularly grumble when updating our long-term 2006 Limited, that didn't include this enhancement. The package features a power glass sunroof and an AM/FM/XM/MP3/6-CD changer stereo system with Infinity speakers and subwoofer/external amplifier. Add $550 more and you can upgrade to the Platinum Edition package, which will give you everything the Ultimate has plus a rear spoiler, aluminum bodyside molding, "platinum" floor mats and "platinum" badging. Automatic climate control is nice, and well worth the extra money of the Limited XM on its own, and the real deal maker with all Sonatas alike is the standard electronic traction (TCS) and stability control (ESC), the latter inarguably the most important automotive safety feature since airbags.

While base Sonata GLS> XM's sell for a surprisingly low $17,345, a well appointed Limited XM will set you back $23,445 or $22,995 for the Limited without XM radio. Yes, while standard now, some dealers still have 2007 cars without XM(it was a mid-year upgrade), so if music and talk radio variety isn't important to you, save the $450 while you still can. And something else, while impressive in its own right you will probably notice that the price of the Limited XM has increased somewhat from 2006 to 2007, but before you think that Hyundai is merely cashing in on the car's popularity, remember the many upgrades I've just itemized. Also, the Limited XM has always been and continues to be a serious bargain, selling for thousands less than its Japanese, German and most of its American competition. Even with a rather hefty freight and dealer prep charge of $620, a top-line Sonata won't break $26,000. Actually a 2007 model sells for only $25,295 without XM and $25,745 with.

There's an additional reason for the higher price, mind you, and one most will be willing to pay for: more zip under the hood. Power is always good, as long as fuel economy and emissions don't suffer. Well, after reading the last paragraph you should already know that it's even better from an environmental standpoint, so the 3.3-liter engine's added output is welcome news, now up to 234 horsepower (adjusted for SAE specifications) while torque remains the same at 226 lb-ft. I can't say I noticed any dramatic improvement off the line, because the 2006 car was always fast, even besting a first-generation Audi S4 in a streetlight sprint (he was trying to get in front of me from the right lane ... heh) that brought great shame to its cowering owner.

The five-speed automatic was once state of the art equipment, but even compared to its sibling Veracruz crossover it's one cog short of a full load. Still, it's buttery smooth and sports a manual mode feature that works very well, again making the car feel a lot quicker than some competitors that tout much higher output figures. And on this point, I don't think anyone will feel any great need for quicker acceleration, other than thosealready paying much more for top-line premium sport sedans. Even these will be shocked at how energetic the V6-powered Sonata is (like my friend in the S4).

Of course, quick as it is the Sonata wasn't really designed to beat any of Audi's cars, or Mercedes-Benz's E350 or BMW's 528i, although with regards to the latter it will quite handily, but rather it was created to transport its occupants wherever they may want to go in grand style and comfort, even if they're large in stature. Oh yes it's roomy, even enough that it's rated as a large car, despite its midsize exterior dimensions and price. Most will find enough legroom to stretch out, especially rear passengers, and if only four are aboard its ample width makes for a great deal of hip and shoulder room. Headroom too is impressive, although at 5'8” I'm hardly the best to ask. Rather, the tilt and telescoping steering wheel column makes setting up the optimal driving environment a quick and easy process. It's just a shame other markets get power adjustable pedals and we don't.

The 8-way power adjustable driver's seat is large, well cushioned andcomfortable, not in a sporty, heavily bolstered way but rather in a traditional American sedan style, and the lumbar support is especially nice on longer drives. It comes with heated cushions too, and they turn on quickly and don't stop heating after reaching full roast like so many others do. Just the same, more than one setting would be appreciated. It's either on or off, when so many competitors offer three, four or even six settings for mild to wild lower back therapy.

As for the drive, the Sonata is smooth ... extremely smooth. It rides smoothly, shifts its velvety smooth V6 smoothly and even reacts to steering and braking input smoothly. Most are shocked by its utter refinement, so much so that they, like me, wonder why this isn't the best selling sedan in North America. OK, the Camry is very good too, as is the Accord, but I think if more people drove the Sonata, many of these loyal to one of the two top-selling Japanese midsize benchmarks might be singing the praises of Hyundai all the way to the bank.

This in mind, I pulled into an Audi retailer to see a friend that works there, and he immediately came over to the Sonata and started looking it over ... very carefully. He was impressed, I could tell. "Nice paint," he said after rubbing his hand down the rear quarter panel. "Amazingly tight and even panel gaps," he added. "This is a big car," came his next point as one of his colleagues backed an A6 into the adjacent spot. "Can I see inside?" ... to which I opened the door. "Hmmm ... this is a lot better than any Hyundai I've ever seen," he continued, and then kept on lauding it for other attributes, strictly off the record, of course.

I can't help but admit that it's kind of fun showing the uninitiated what I have already come to appreciate, that Hyundai has changed its colors for good. It no longer sells cars on price and warranty alone, but rather, while continuing to offer low pricing and one of the industry's best warranties, can now tout styling, refinement and performance as reasons for entering one of its showrooms, not to mention impressive quality ratings by the industry's top market research studies, and awards galore from various journalist associations and publications.

Yes, the Sonata is priced much lower than its Asian competitors ... well, all but Kia's Optima. It's a very different car than the Optima, mind you, the Kia taking a cue from BMW and attempting to pull in more sport-oriented drivers with its MacPherson strut front suspension, while the Hyundai is trying to woo entry-level luxury fans with its front multi-link setup. Both are good, but the Sonata is smoother and therefore more comfortable.

This is probably as good a time as any to mention a number of changes that go along with a price increase for the 2008 Limited V6 that's already showing up in showrooms. Now starting at $24,045, it includes somevery nice additional benefits, such as a trip computer, a rear center headrest and an engine immobilizer. But wait, there's more. How about chrome exterior door handles and chrome surrounding the side window cutout to go along with that nice chrome grille insert, standard automatic air conditioning, automatic headlights, a six-disc CD player, something we've been calling for since our long-term car, plus a 240-watt external amplifier and subwoofer that are also available on the Limited four-cylinder but for some reason skip the regular Limited ... go figure? An electrochromic rearview mirror with a Homelink garage door opener and compass is also standard as part of the Limited V6. Standard as usual on all Sonatas is the electronic traction and stability control, as mentioned above.

Even comparing the more expensive 2008 Sonata Limited V6 to the Accord EX-L V6 and Camry XLE V6, it really makes you shake yourhead and wonder why you should pay so much for the Japanese cars. Load up the Hyundai with everything it comes with and you'll still save more than $3,600 over the Honda and, are you sitting down, more than $5,000 when compared to the equivalent Toyota. Of course both the Accord and Camry deliver more power and the latter gets a slick-shifting six-speed automatic and a few other items, but then again the Sonata offers some features these don't have. What Honda and Toyota have over Hyundai is resale value, which, while the Korean brand has improved immeasurably in recent years and will continue to thanks to the desirability of its new products and their superb quality ratings, might help the Japanese cars to even out when it comes to overall, long-term value. It's really tough to say, as we're speculating on resale values three or four years from now, and cars like the Sonata, Azera, Santa Fe and the new Veracruz, not to mention the upcoming rear-drive, V8-powered full-size luxury sedan based on the Genesis concept or its other, very well executed entry-level models, will definitely sway overall brand residuals in the near future. What's for certain is the immediate difference thousands of dollars off the window sticker makes to your monthly payment.

To sum up, depending on your needs, desires and availability, of course, at the time of writing you have the option of 2007 models without XM satellite radio, 2007 models with this upgrade, and 2008 models with all of the upgrades just mentioned. All I can say is move fast if you still want a 2007 Sonata.

Weather you decide on a 2007 or 2008 Sonata, you'll be getting a car that represents one of the best values, if not the best value in the entry-level midsize sedan segment. And like me, you'll probably have fun showing it off to neighbors and friends who, while impressed with how good it looks from front to back and inside, will be shocked that something so well built and refined dawns from this same South Korean company that once built its midsize reputation on the much maligned Stellar (dark memories indeed). Yes, Hyundai certainly has changed its colors.

July 12, 2007
by Trevor Hofmann / American Auto Press

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