Thursday, May 01, 2008
First Drive: 2009 Hyundai Sonata - Korean bred, redesigned in America
In recent months, Hyundai has made a big splash with the introductions of the Genesis sedan and coupe. While those two models will likely do wonders for Hyundai's street cred, they will definitely be niche players when it comes to volume. Among passenger cars in the US market, the midsize segment has been the highest volume category for nearly two decades. Since the mid-nineties, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord have been the primary players with everyone else having been an also-ran. In recent years, however, Hyundai's entrant in the segment, the Sonata, has put up an increasingly aggressive challenge to the big dogs. The current generation Hyundai Sonata debuted for the 2006 model year and the company unwrapped its mid-cycle refresh back in February at the Chicago Auto Show.
The 2009 Sonatas have been in production since before the Chicago debut and they should be in stock at Hyundai stores around the country now. We went out to the Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center (HATCI) outside of Ann Arbor, MI for a tour of the facility where the new Sonata was created and then set out for a couple of hours to see how it behaves in the real world. Find out if the new Sonata is for you after the jump.
HATCI opened up in Superior Township, MI in late 2005 and the first major assignment for the engineers and technicians at the facility was the '09 Sonata refresh. About 150 engineers, designers and technicians occupy the 200,000 sq. ft building with more being added on a regular basis. The 2006 Sonata was designed and developed primarily at headquarters in Korea. The update was handled almost entirely at HATCI and focused primarily on taking what was fundamentally a pretty decent car and making it more desirable all around. They wanted to go from a car that people bought mainly because it was a good value to one that customers actually wanted to be in.
As a mid-cycle refresh, major styling changes were obviously well beyond the budget. Hyundai National Product Planning manager Scott Margason explained that in this segment, styling changes have relatively little impact on the buying decision. Other functional changes are far more important. To that end, Hyundai's designers created a new nose with a more prominent grille and reworked headlights. The taillights and bumper covers also got some revisions. Aside from the grille, though, observers would have a hard time distinguishing a 2009 Sonata from a 2008 based on outward appearance.
Moving to the inside is a whole different story. Here, it's immediately clear where HATCI spent its money. And they certainly seemed to spend it wisely. In an unusual move for mid-cycle facelift, the interior of the Sonata was gutted and completely redesigned, drawing many cues from last year's Veracruz CUV. The previous, rather lumpy and disjointed design has been replaced by a modern and coherent look.
The center stack is all new with satin-finish metallic trim along the sides and clean simple controls for the radio and climate controls. The lower portion of the stack features two decent sized storage cubbies. Smooth-opening doors close off both compartments. Hyundai also developed a new in-dash navigation system that includes a touchscreen display and voice operation. The nav unit includes a gyroscope to sense vehicle motion and also reads wheel speed data, allowing it to continue dead reckoning the vehicle position even when driving in urban environments where tall buildings can interfere with the line of sight to GPS satellites. In keeping with Hyundai's value orientation, the nav system costs $1,250 compared to the $2,000 charged by most manufacturers.
According to Margason, one of the complaints about the previous Sonata iteration concerned its seats, specifically the lower cushion feeling both too narrow and too short. After a lot of benchmarking and customer evaluation, Hyundai determined that it needed to change the angle of the bottom cushion. Lengthening the cushion by about 18mm and tilting it up by just over 2 degrees was enough to dramatically change the way it felt.
Both the four-cylinder and V6 engines were upgraded by the HATCI engineers. The 2.4L four-pot picked up 13hp and 4lb-ft, putting it at 175hp and 168lb-ft. The engine now has variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams, a new intake system for better airflow and what Hyundai calls an "enhanced performance sound". It's also rated as a partial zero emissions vehicle (PZEV) in California. The four can be had with either a five-speed stick or five-speed automatic, although only about four percent of buyers opt for the three-pedal setup. Hyundai is currently ramping up production of the fours at its plant in Alabama and by the end of the year all engines for the Sonata should be locally built.
The 3.3L V6 also got some intake upgrades and new calibrations that bump power up 249hp (from 234) and torque to 229lb-ft. The six is only available with the automatic.
After we got the rundown on the new model from Margason, we paired off and set out on our journey of discovery. All the available test cars had automatics and Gary Witzenburg and I set off in a four-cylinder Limited model. It was immediately apparent that the front seats did feel better than most competing Asian brands. I've often complained about the short seat cushions on many vehicles -- particularly Toyotas -- but the Sonata definitely came through here. The new front seats aren't quite as good as those in the Accord, which I personally find to be exceptional, but they are very good.
The new dashboard layout is much easier on the eyes than the previous iteration. It looks more modern and stylish, and the Limited model, as expected of a "luxury" trim level, had "wood" trim that flowed from the doors into the dash. There's plenty of room inside the Sonata in all directions. Like the new Accord, the Sonata's 121.7 cu.ft. interior causes the EPA to rank it as a large car.
Unlike the Honda, which is over 5 inches longer, the Sonata manages to stay relatively compact on the outside. The current Mazda6 is the only car in the class to come in under the Sonata's 188.9 inch overall length. The Hyundai is among the widest, though, at 72.1 inches. That means there's plenty of space in the back seat as well as the front.
On the road, no one is going to mistake the Sonata for a sports car. The suspension does a good job of absorbing the worst that Michigan roads can provide, and even crossing railroad tracks at an angle doesn't upset the car. The ride's not floaty, but it does feel a bit isolated. Some might find the rim of the steering wheel to be a bit on the skinny side, and feedback is essentially nonexistent.
The four-banger operates smoothly under all conditions, but even the extra power of the 2009 model won't have you mistaking this for anything but a mainstream mid-size sedan. Flooring the go pedal demonstrates the so-called "enhanced performance sound", but the accompanying thrust is merely adequate. That said, "adequate" is more than enough for most drivers, and the 2.4L Sonata does just fine merging onto a highway. As with other aspects of the car, transmission shifts were uneventful. That is, they were generally smooth enough to be unnoticeable unless you were listening to the engine or watching the tach.
After our stopover at the Chelsea Teddy Bear factory, we swapped the four-cylinder Limited for a V6 SE model. The SE gets stiffer spring rates, improved damping and more roll stiffness than its counterparts. On the inside, the faux lumber is replaced with satin-finish metallic trim that should probably be standard across the board. On the road, the V6 SE was composed through the curves and generally felt a little more tied down than the other versions. As expected, the V6 felt a lot stronger than the four and was as refined as anything from the Japanese brands.
Overall, there's nothing about the Sonata to get the enthusiast's blood boiling, but this segment isn't about that. The changes to the '09 make this car a vastly more pleasing place to spend time. It's more attractive, the seats are more comfortable and the car will get you where you're going with minimal commotion. The Sonata has significantly more room than the Camry and the styling inside and out is less controversial than the latest Accord. We'll be waiting for our chance to spend a little more time with the new Sonata.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.