Monday, May 12, 2008

FIRST LOOK: 2009 Hyundai Sonata

Korean car, American style

It's the Americanization of the Sonata.

In the first major program led largely by its U.S. tech center in Michigan, Hyundai gave its midsize sedan a moderate freshening for the 2009 model year, bolstering the engine and refining the interior to adapt to the tastes of U.S. drivers. The car also gets a more aggressive-looking front end, with a deeper grille and larger headlights.

The upgrades are expected to fortify the Sonata in the ultracompetitive midsize segment, which has seen major improvements in a number of entries, including the new Chevrolet Malibu and Nissan Altima, since the current Hyundai launched in 2005. An all-new Sonata is due in 2011.

Chiefly, Hyundai boosted the 3.3-liter V6 powerplant by 15 hp, to 249 hp, pushing it closer to its Toyota Camry and Honda Accord rivals, which pack 268 hp each. A variable intake system was added to improve acceleration.

The 2.4-liter inline-four-cylinder's power grew 13 hp, to 175, and Hyundai is offering a five-speed automatic transmission with its Shiftronic feature on the Sonata's smaller engine for the first time. A five-speed manual is also available.

Fuel economy improves slightly for each engine. The V6 gets 19 mpg city and 29 mpg highway; the four-cylinder is rated at 22 mpg city and 32 mpg highway.

Inside, Hyundai cleaned up the center console, moving controls farther up onto the instrument panel and filling the space with a large storage area, similar to that in the Veracruz sport/utility vehicle.

"We were never really happy with it," Scott Margason, a Hyundai product planner, said of the 2006 model. "Things didn't mesh together quite as well as they could have."

A navigation system, priced at $1,250, also is being offered on the car for the first time. It has a high-resolution touch-screen display and voice-command system.

Mindful of the seemingly ever-increasing girth of U.S. drivers, Hyundai made the seat cushions wider and longer, while increasing the angle 2.2 degrees. The company has pointed to the car's interior as a main selling point, and its 121.7-cubic-foot volume makes it roomier than its rivals--so roomy, in fact, that the EPA now classifies it as a large car.

Hyundai also paid attention to the Sonata's driving dynamics, increasing the spring rates and adding larger antiroll bars to make for sharper steering and turning response. The sporty SE model gets a stiffer suspension, performance tires and unique 17-inch alloy wheels.

Changes to the exterior were fairly subtle. In addition to the front-end modifications, the car receives new bumper and body moldings.

Hyundai hopes the changes will boost Sonata sales, which dipped 18.6 percent to 24,431 in the first quarter of 2008. Prices range from $18,795 to $26,345. Unveiled at the Chicago auto show in February, the car began arriving at dealerships in March.

BASE PRICE: $18,795
DRIVETRAIN: 2.4-liter, 175-hp, 168-lb-ft I4; fwd, five-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3292 lb
0-60 MPH: N/A


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