Wednesday, November 21, 2007

2008 Hyundai Sonata Limited V6 Road Test

2008 Hyundai Sonata Limited V6 Road Test

What's the best midsize family sedan? I get that question from time to time, and I find it an increasingly difficult one to answer because of cars like this Sonata. After all, the process used to be relatively easy. If they were sport-oriented drivers I'd point them toward a Honda Accord and if biased towards comfort, a Toyota Camry. And while the Accord and Camry are still very good cars, a number of rivals, like Saturn's new Aura and this Sonata are narrowing the gap to a point where it's difficult to see any difference in quality or features.

From outside, the Sonata certainly won't give away its rather hefty price advantage (and it'll save you thousands over the aforementioned cars) with any quality gaffs. Its seams are tight and panel gaps as narrow as anything else in the class, and perfectly aligned. The paint work is top-tier as well, and there's a lot of chrome to brighten things up, giving the car an upscale appearance. Overall the design is attractive to most that see it, with a long, lean shape, distinctive nose and extremely good looking tail end. Two big, fat, chrome-covered ovoid pipes fill the lower rear valance, giving the Sonata Limited V6 a powerful stance few in the segment can rival.

That powerful look translates into strong performance beneath the skin too, thanks to the same 234-horsepower 3.3-liter V6 that the car's been using since its 2006 makeover. It's a velvety smooth engine, and mated to the equally slick five-speed automatic gearbox with manual mode, it's a pairing designed for quick acceleration and no concerns when passing larger vehicles on the highway.

The Sonata comes standard with four-wheel discs and ABS for quick, secure stopping power, although these aren't designed for out and out performance driving, meaning they'll pull down to standstill a few times in a row without problem, but if you're out on a winding canyon highway pushing the car for all its worth, getting hard on the brakes before each corner and using all the power coming out on the other side, well, they're going to fade away on you, leaving less grab after a few minutes of hard braking than when you started. This isn't unusual in the midsize class, mind you. Personally, I'd add an aftermarket performance brake kit and put the problem to rest. It wouldn't cost that much, and after testing two Sonatas last month with performance upgrades I experienced first hand that this car has a great deal more excitement in it than what comes stock.

So what comes standard for 2008? Hyundai made some updates to the 2007 model that continue forward for this new model year, including the addition of a button for changing stations within the steering wheel mounted audio controls, and XM satellite radio is now available. Additionally, every Sonata now includes six airbags, with two up front, two thorax bags at the side for front occupants, and side-curtain airbags for all outside occupants, plus active front head restraints. The Limited also gets a revised grille with a slick strip of chrome running horizontally, and black leather can now be had along with black carpets and dark charcoal plastics.

Its curtain airbags allow for a five star crash test rating and its V6 is now more environmentally friendly with the ability to meet Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (LEV-II ULEV) standards while achieving slightly better fuel economy, with an EPA rating of 19 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway.

Additional 2008 updates include a new black fabric for entry-level models, plus a powered driver's seat, rear center head restraint, and trip computer for all Sonata models but the base GLS five-speed. Moving on to the SE and above, chrome trimmed door handles now come standard, as does the auto headlight control feature, while a new 6-disc CD player with subwoofer and external amp makes for a better auditory experience. Strangely, while the more challenging integration of satellite radio is part of the 2008 package, as mentioned, no auxiliary plug-in has been included, which is ridiculous. All they would have had to do is solder some wires to an audio input behind the dash and run them through the center console, drill a hole in the storage bin under the armrest and clip in a 20-cent connector plug, and they'd have had full connectivity for our beloved external mp3 players and iPods. Hyundai is so behind in this regard it's laughable, and I think they're fooling themselves if they think customers won't walk out of a showroom if they can't plug their music into their new car. Heck, Chrysler and Volkswagen don't only have aux plugs, but they're integrating USB ports as well. Of course, Hyundai's making money while Chrysler, at least, is laying off workers by the tens of thousands. Maybe the Korean brand's conservative approach to business will pay off in the long run.

Similarly to aux plugs, Hyundai has yet to come to the market with a navigation system. This is not only slow to the market, but other than Kia, which is owned by Hyundai, every other brand sold in North America (even Suzuki) offers one. Reliable sources within Hyundai have promised that nav is on the way shortly, so I'm betting on 2009 for the Sonata, when the car will receive an interior upgrade as part of its mid-cycle makeover.

One thing that comes standard in all Sonatas that pleases me to no end is electronic traction and stability control. This engine definitely needs traction control unless you want to have passersby sneering at you as if you're a wayward teen out in daddy's car, and stability control is probably the greatest safety asset since the airbag, and maybe more so because it can keep from having an accident in the first place.

Standard with the Sonata is a well-made interior with plenty of soft touch surfaces and brightwork trim. You have the option of a decent woodgrain replication or, my personal choice, faux carbon fiber trim, while the seats can be covered in the aforementioned black leather with contrasting light gray stitching, beige or gray. The comfortable chairs aren't supportive enough laterally for sport-oriented driving, but there's no need to go back and rehash this car's boons and banes, is there?

No, Hyundai's Sonata wasn't designed to be a sport sedan despite offering exhilarating straight-line performance and reasonable agility when called upon, but rather it's one of the smoothest, most comfortable midsize sedans on the market, with acres of interior space and a trunk, accessible via a 60/40 split in the rear seatbacks as well as through a large opening with a low lift-over height at back, large enough for those impromptu stops at Costco. This is a car you can live with day in and day out, ideal for commuting or toting the kids around on weekdays or long weekends. I know this for a fact, because a 2006 model was our family hauler for the better part of a year, and this car is even better than that one was.

On that note, expect stellar reliability from this four-door, as Hyundai, and the Sonata in particular, is rated highly amongst independent third party surveyors such as J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports.

Lastly, the Sonata is priced thousands lower than the majority of its competitors feature for feature, without giving up refinement or throwing quality standards out the door. Hyundai's midsize sedan is truly a great value, and a very good car.

November 5, 2007
by Trevor Hofmann

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