Monday, July 14, 2008

Hyundai gives 2009 edition substantial boost, but driving fun is limited

Market is those seeking an affordable, feature-packed car

The 2009 mid-size Hyundai Sonata has been improved, inside and out, and seems perfect for Mr. and Mrs. Middle America.

The new five-seat Sonata is pretty much a competent "transportation special" -- not a car bought for much driving enjoyment. It has slightly freshened front/rear styling that gives it an upscale, if slightly generic, Asian car look -- besides a redesigned interior and revised suspension.

South Korea's Hyundai also significantly increased power of the front-wheel-drive Sonata's sophisticated four-cylinder and V-6 engines while increasing fuel economy.

Horsepower of the 2.4-liter four-cylinder jumps from 162 to 175 while estimated city mpg goes up 1-2 mpg to 22 city and 32 highway with either the five-speed manual or five-speed (up from a four-speed) automatic transmission with manual-shift capability.

Horsepower of the 3.3-liter V-6 -- sold only with the automatic -- is increased from 234 to 249. Estimated city fuel economy stays the same at 19 mpg but rises from 28 to 29 on highways.

The Sonata comes as the base GS, sportier SE and top-line Limited. Prices range from $18,120 to $25,670, with the SE starting at $20,520 and the Limited beginning at $23,970. All models come with either the four-cylinder or V-6.

As is the case with most of its vehicles, Hyundai packs the Sonata with standard features. Even the entry GLS has air conditioning, AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 audio system, cruise control, tilt wheel, split-folding rear seat and power heated mirrors, windows and door locks with remote keyless entry.

Safety items include front-side and curtain-side air bags, anti-skid and traction control and anti-lock disc brakes with brake assist for surer stops.

The SE has a sport-tuned suspension with a modified five-speed manual transmission, 17-inch (up from 16-inch) alloy wheels with all-season performance tires, rear spoiler and special seats with leather bolsters, power driver's seat and telescoping wheel with audio controls. The SE V-6 version adds dual chrome exhaust tips.

The Limited adds a power sunroof, leather seats, automatic climate control, heated front seats and an upscale sound system. It also has chrome-insert body moldings and door handles for a extra flash. A $1,250 navigation system is the only option, besides the V-6. I tested the Limited with the smooth V-6, which ups the price from $23,970 to $25,670.

The more "mature" Limited deletes the SE's rather worthless rear spoiler, but also the firmer sport suspension -- and that leaves the car with a rather mushy ride that average car buyers probably would call "comfortable," although it allowed sharp bumps to be felt on area expressways.

Steering was quick but had a rather rubbery feel. General handling was good, thanks partly to the all-independent suspension, but this isn't a car you'd want to push too hard. The brake pedal has a nice linear action.

The SE no doubt feels more athletic, if only because of its sport suspension. But most Sonata buyers probably won't opt for that model because the Sonata doesn't attract sporty minded buyers. Rather, it's designed to mostly draw those who want an affordable, feature-packed car with a smooth, quiet ride and good fuel economy.

And the Sonata has Hyundai's warranty, which is one of the best in the business, with 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty protection.

The V-6 provides good merging and 65-75 mph passing, and the automatic transmission is responsive. It's called "Shifttronic," which sounds like something an American automaker would call an automatic in the 1950s. The four-cylinder won't make the Sonata as spirited as the V-6, but it has enough power and (also increased) torque to provide decent acceleration.

It's never a struggle to get in or out, with easily grasped door handles and wide door openings. The redone interior shines, with such things as blue backlit gauges in a refined instrument panel and large, supportive front seats. The new front center console has nicely placed cupholders and lots of storage areas. However, sound system and climate controls should be larger.

Rear-seat room is especially good, although the center of the backseat is too stiff for long trips and is best left to the fold-down center armrest with two cupholders. Rear windows roll down all the way.

The trunk is large but has a rather high opening. The lid is lined and raises smoothly on struts, as does the hood. Folding rear seatbacks enlarge the cargo area.

The Sonata offers lots of value for the money, especially when compared to its more costly Japanese rivals.


* Prices: $18,120-$25,670

* Likes: Higher fuel economy. More power. Revised styling and interior refinements. Well-equipped.

* Dislikes: Average ride and handling for most models. Small sound system and climate controls. High trunk opening.

July 5, 2008
BY DAN JEDLICKA Chicago Sun-Times Auto Editor

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