Daily Archives: July 7, 2008

G. Chambers Williams III: 2009 Sonata is classy competition

If you’re looking for a less expensive alternative to the popular Japanese midsize sedans, Hyundai has a suggestion: How about the redesigned 2009 Sonata?

Priced generally about $3,000 less than a comparably equipped Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, the newest Sonata offers the same kind of comfort, convenience, fuel economy and performance as those more expensive sedans, yet a price that seems more in line with what consumers need in an economic downturn: more value for the money.

And choosing a Sonata over one of those Japanese models doesn’t mean you have to give up anything just to save money. The Sonata is every bit as nice as an Accord or Camry, and maybe even better, in some critics’ estimation.

For instance, Ward’s Auto World magazine gave the new Sonata its 2009 “Interior of the Year” award in the category of “Best Redesign,” quite an honor for the South Korean automaker.

“This award is particularly gratifying for our team, who started with a world-class car, listened to customer feedback telling us they wanted an improved interior, and went to work to make the 2009 Hyundai Sonata stand up and stand out against every other car in its class,” Dan Vivian, Hyundai Motor America’s director of design engineering, said in an announcement about the award.

It’s an all-American redesign: The work was done at Hyundai America Technical Center Inc. in Michigan. The 2009 Sonata was the Hyundai product program led by the North American design team, the company said.

The car is built here, too — at Hyundai’s plant near Montgomery, Ala.

While this is not a complete redesign of the Sonata — the exterior remains much as it was for 2008 — the interior is entirely new.

“The focus of the redesign of the 2009 Sonata was on the interior, where Hyundai’s designers re-crafted the cabin area to create an upscale ambience for the driver and passengers,” the company said in its description of the work that led to the Ward’s honor.

The new instrument panel “borrows design cues and rich materials from the premium Hyundai Veracruz crossover utility vehicle,” the automaker said. The Veracruz was an all-new vehicle for 2008.

“We were inspired by the beautiful forms of the interior in the Veracruz and challenged to deliver comparable design execution in the mainstream Sonata,” said Chris Zarlenga, chief of the Michigan design studio. “Great design does not have to cost a great deal of money to the company or the customer.”

The interior is quite elegant, and it’s functional, as well. My only real complaint was with the driver’s side seat cushion, which was too short for my thighs, and as a result was a bit uncomfortable for me. I never rode on the passenger side, but it’s the same bucket seat, so the problem would be duplicated there. Some cars now have adjustable seat-cushion lengths, a perfect fix for this nuisance.

Rear-seat passengers who rode with me in the new Sonata said they were comfortable, and they had sufficient legroom as long as the front seats weren’t all the way back on their tracks.

The Sonata’s roomy interior is on par with large sedans such as the Toyota Avalon. Hyundai notes that the car’s interior volume actually qualifies it as a “large car” under the EPA’s classification system.

There is a large trunk, as well. Its 16.3 cubic feet is more space than in the trunks of key competitors, including the Accord, Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu.

The audio system is ready for your iPod or other MP3 player, with an auxiliary input jack. But it also has a USB port in the center console storage compartment, which allows for playing of MP3 music files directly from a jump drive and for charging the iPod and other devices that can recharge via a computer’s USB port. I found this helpful in recharging the battery in my mini-HD camcorder.

When an iPod or other MP3 device is attached to the USB port, tracks can be selected using the controls on the Sonata’s steering wheel. The information that shows up on the iPod’s screen is shown on the car’s audio-system screen. This will keep you from looking down at and fumbling with the iPod while you’re trying to drive.

Also new are automatic climate control zones for the driver and front-seat passenger, as well as separate front-seat heaters.

My test vehicle came with the new touch-screen navigation system ($1,250), which has voice-recognition capability that allows the operator to set the destination or even change audio selections, by voice command.

The front cup holders were redesigned, making them larger. Gauges and switches have a cool blue backlighting.

Fuel economy is one of the Sonata’s greatest attributes. Our top-of-the-line Limited V-6 test vehicle (base price $25,670 plus $675 freight), with a 3.3-liter V-6 rated at 249 horsepower and 229 foot-pounds of torque, had EPA mileage of 19 miles per gallon city/29 highway — nearly as high as the four-cylinder ratings of some of the Sonata’s competitors. This engine is linked to a five-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift feature.

The Limited also is available with the base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, with 175 horsepower and 168 foot-pounds of torque. Its EPA ratings are 21 city/32 highway with the base five-speed manual gearbox and 22/32 with a five-speed automatic. The five-speed automatic replaced the four-speed from the 2008 model.

Hyundai added the four-cylinder Limited model to the lineup for 2008 to appeal to consumers who want the luxury of the Limited, but don’t particularly want the slightly thirstier V-6 engine.

The big draw of the Limited model for most consumers is the leather interior, which includes seating surfaces and steering wheel. They are as nice as the seats in many entry premium sedans.

Electronic stability control is standard on all models, an important safety feature that some competitors still offer only as an option. It’s designed to help the driver keep the car from leaving the highway and rolling over in a panic situation.

As for including it as standard equipment — along with front seat-mounted side air bags and side-curtain air bags front and back — Hyundai’s policy is that “Safety is not an option.”

Four-wheel disc brakes with computerized antilock system and traction control are standard on all models.

Standard convenience items include air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and cruise control.

The Limited adds even more, including the automatic climate control, Infinity six-speaker audio system with CD changer and XM satellite radio, heated front seats, fog lights, 17-inch alloy wheels, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, tilt and telescopic steering column, and universal garage/gate opener.

The only significant extra on our car was the navigation system. Total sticker, with options and freight, was $27,685.

It doesn’t cost that much to buy a Sonata, though, as prices begin at just $18,795 (including freight) for the base GLS model with a four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual gearbox. With the five-speed automatic, prices begin at $19,995.

2009 Hyundai Sonata

The package: Midsize, four-door, front-drive, four-cylinder or V-6 powered, five-passenger sedan

Highlights: Hyundai’s popular family sedan gets an update for 2009 that brings a completely new interior and some other engineering and performance tweaks. This is a great value in the midsize segment with lots of standard amenities and decent fuel economy, especially with the four-cylinder engine.

Negatives: Short-term ownership can be costly because of worse-than-average depreciation.

Engine: 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder; 3.3-liter V-6

Transmission: Five-speed manual; five-speed automatic; five-speed Shiftronic automatic

Power/torque: 175 HP/168 foot-pounds (I-4); 249 HP/229 foot-pounds (V-6)

Length: 188.9 inches

Curb weight: 3,253-3,458 pounds

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock

Cargo volume: 16.3 cubic feet

Fuel capacity/type: 17.7 gallons/unleaded regular

EPA fuel economy: 21 city/32 highway (I-4 manual); 22 city/32 highway (I-4 automatic); 19 city/29 highway (V-6 automatic)

Base price range: $18,795-$26,345, including freight

Price as tested: $27,685, including freight and options (Limited V-6 model with navigation)

On the Road rating: 8.7 (of a possible 10)

Prices shown are manufacturer’s suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.

G. Chambers Williams III – San Antonio Express-News