Monday, October 20, 2008

Hyundai Sonata: Sometimes vanilla hits the spot

The 2009 Hyundai Sonata arrived at the office at an inopportune time. Having just spent a week and a half with the new Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, a rally-bred screamer of a sedan, my driving synapses felt as if they had been on a bender at Starbucks. My first reaction to driving the Sonata? Well, the phrase "vanilla-coated tedium" popped into my head.

But that's unfair. An Evo buyer is not a Sonata buyer and vice versa.

The Sonata is built to be safely stylish, reliable, comfortable and inexpensive to own and operate.

For 2009, the Sonata has been transformed into a seriously good mainstream sedan, equal to the best midsize sedans in its class - the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and Chevrolet Malibu - thanks to some major upgrades.

You wouldn't guess it from the outside. The overall shape is similar to last year's model, with small changes to the headlights, taillights, fog-lights and grille.

This car's personality has been changed by an instrument panel worthy of an entry-level luxury car. Gone is the 2008 model's discordant dashboard and uncomfortable seats. In their place is a cabin filled with flowing lines and harmonious design reminiscent of a Lexus.

Controls are easy to reach and understand. Pleasing textures lend the car a high-quality feel, although some controls are a bit light to the touch.

Twist the key and you'll find the Sonata's changes are more than skin deep.

In the engine room, Hyundai has pulled a neat trick: increasing horsepower and fuel economy.

Hyundai's revised 2.4-liter double-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine produces 175 horsepower, an increase of 13. Yet the EPA rates the car at 22 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway, up 1 mpg in the city and 2 on the highway, with the 5-speed automatic transmission.

EPA ratings are identical for the 5-speed manual. When equipped with the 3.3-liter double-overhead-cam V6, the Sonata produces 249 horsepower, up 15 horses from the previous year, while returning 19 mpg in the city - the same as 2008. However, highway mileage jumps from 28 to 29 mpg.

Driving the uncivilized roads of suburbia, the Sonata's initial acceleration seems tepid with the four but quickly builds power. Most drivers will find it adequate.

Mileage ranged from a low of 19 mpg around town to 35 mpg on the highway. Overall mileage came in at 25 mpg.

While Evo drivers may sneer at the Sonata, most buyers will find this one comfy ride.

Its demeanor is closer to that of a Toyota Camry or Lexus ES 350 than a Honda Accord. Handling is oriented toward ride comfort, with significant body lean in turns and squirmy tires. But it's always very controllable. Road noise is reduced to a tomb-like silence. The only sound you'll hear, aside from occasional suspension patter, is your inner voice whispering, "nice car."

All Sonata models - including the base GLS, sporty SE and luxury-oriented Limited - come with standard stability control, antilock four-wheel-disc brakes and tire-pressure monitoring.

Seat comfort is dramatically improved. The seats are wider and deeper, with soft cushions that provide good support despite wimpy side bolsters. Cabin space is impressive with roomy accommodations front and rear. And the trunk is surprisingly large.

And the audio system? Although perfectly fine, audiophiles might think otherwise.

Still, there were enough options on this machine that I was perfectly satisfied with its equipment, despite the lack of a GPS navigation system.

By the end of my time with the 2009 Sonata, I greatly appreciated its soft, quiet ways.

Vanilla? Yes.

But vanilla is America's favorite flavor and pretty tasty. Those who prefer chocolate need not apply.

What we say: Vanilla, but darn tasty

Pro: Comfy, fuel-efficient cruiser

Con: Soggy handling in corners


Engine: 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder

Wheelbase: 107.4 inches

Length: 188.9 inches

Weight: 3,327 pounds

Cargo space: 16.3 cubic feet

Towing capacity: 1,000 pounds

EPA rating (city/highway) : 22/32 mpg

Fuel economy: 25.2 mpg

Fuel type: Regular unleaded

Base price: $23,970

As tested: $24,995

By Larry Printz
The Virginian-Pilot

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