Tuesday, May 27, 2008

First Drive: 2009 Hyundai Sonata

Hyundai's popular midsize Sonata sedan receives some significant updates for the 2009 model year. The changes are focused on where the car needed them most: the inside. I had a chance to drive the new model recently in the outskirts of Chicago and found that the changes are just what this model needed.

The 2009 Sonata gets an all-new dashboard design that can now go toe-to-toe with the best in the segment, like the Honda Accord, in terms of material quality and fit and finish. It's a vast improvement over the previous design, which was my primary complaint with the 2008 model.

The restyled dash can now accommodate a newly optional navigation system that features a crisp display screen. It's only available on the top-of-the-line Limited trim, though, and goes for $1,250.

Another change to the sedan's interior is that the front bucket seats have been enlarged. I thought the previous seats offered good comfort, and found the leather seats in the 2009 Sonatas I tested -- a four-cylinder Limited and a V-6 Limited -- were also comfortable for the few hours I spent behind the wheel. These seats have very soft cushioning, which surprised me a bit when I first sat in the car. You sink into them, but once you're settled they offer good support.

In terms of the driving experience, the Sonata's suspension skews to the firm side of the spectrum for midsize sedans -- closer to a Honda Accord than a Toyota Camry -- and nicely resists body roll when cornering. This tuning decision lets you feel bumps in the road when the pavement turns rough, but it's tolerable. While the Sonata's steering is fairly responsive and precise, the wheel lacks any kind of road feel.

As mentioned, I drove both a four-cylinder and a V-6 Sonata, and while I like the low-end power and overall refinement of the V-6, the four-cylinder is by no means inadequate; it doesn't have trouble accelerating the Sonata up to highway speeds, though it is noticeably noisier than the V-6. Additionally, the four-cylinder costs less and gets higher gas mileage: 22/32 mpg.

Hyundai got most things right with its new midsize sedan. The Sonata may not be the most exciting model out there, but it doesn't have to be to do well in this class. The Sonata has been a good value for some time, and the improvements for 2009 make it even more of one.

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