Hyundai aces quality, style in the new 2009 Sonata

The Sonata is a worthy competitor, in the mid-sized sedan class, to the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

Considering how far Hyundai has come, it’s hard to imagine that the Korean company has only been selling cars in the United States since 1986, starting out with just one model: The cheap little Excel, based on an already out-of-date design the company bought from Mitsubishi.

In 1989, Hyundai added a larger model to the mix, the Sonata, which had a base price of $9,695. Those of us who have been in this business long enough can remember how Hyundai tried, and failed, to get some details right with that car: I recall writing that, for whatever reason, the optional leather interior smelled a lot more like fish than cowhide.

Twenty years later, we get a new Hyundai Sonata, and it is — and has been for some time now — an entirely worthy competitor for the twin powerhouses in the mid-sized sedan category, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The price has gone up from that original $9,695: The base 2009 Sonata, the GLS model, starts at a still-reasonable $18,120, and the model we tested, the loaded, top-of-the-line Limited, starts at $25,670, and with shipping and options that included a navigation system, the total list price was $27,685.

And this must be said: The leather interior smells like leather.

The 2009 Sonata has been mildly restyled on the outside, with a major makeover inside. The interior, not a strong point with previous Sonatas, is now on par with anything in the class. Instruments and controls look and feel right, front and rear seats are roomy and comfortable.

The base engine on the Sonata remains a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, but now has 175 horsepower, 13 more than the 2008 model. Transmission is a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. The 3.3-liter V-6, standard in the Limited, now has 249 horsepower, up from 234, and comes only with a five-speed automatic transmission. Even so, mileage is pretty good at an EPA-rated 19 mpg city, 29 mpg highway on regular gasoline. The four-cylinder with the automatic transmission is rated at an impressive 22 mpg city, 32 mpg highway. Before gas topped $4 a gallon, I would have suggested the V-6, but there’s nothing wrong with the Sonata’s four-cylinder.

On the road, the Sonata Limited has a very soft ride, a bit plush for my taste, but it still manages to corner with some authority. Steering feel is very light, to the point of being numb — Hyundai could take a lesson from Honda here.

Otherwise, it seems Hyundai has taken a lot of lessons from both Honda and Toyota, matching them in styling and build quality. The 2009 Sonata was designed in the United States, manufactured in Hyundai’s Alabama plant, and is clearly targeted at the American consumer. And it’s a bulls-eye.

Steven Cole Smith | Automotive Editor

OrlandoSentinel.com/gasgauge

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