Hyundai Sonata sleek but budget-friendly

Sedan closing gap on highly sought Camry, Accord.

The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are like the Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, or the Jay Leno and David Letterman, of the sedan world.

Everyone else wants to make a car just like them.

Why?

Toyota and Honda are selling about 95,000 Camrys and Accords combined monthly – in May, that was a new Camry or Accord sale every 28 seconds.

Hyundai is the latest wannabe, with the release of its first credible challenge to the sales leaders. If nothing else, the 2009 Sonata has the Camry beat on styling and maybe the Accord, too, to some eyes.

With the upgrades to the new model, including styling tweaks for a classier look, the Sonata is close to the leaders in comfort, workmanship and utility, but less so in drivability. No one will mistake the Sonata for a sports sedan, though it’s a competent all-around performer.

The Sonata, made at Hyundai’s new Alabama plant, is the least expensive of the three.

My loaded Sonata Limited (V-6, automatic, navigation, stability control, leather, sunroof, premium audio, etc.) had a sticker price of $27,685. A comparable Camry would list around $32,000 and Accord just under $31,000. The Toyota and Honda have earned those prices with long reputations for durability and low depreciation.

The Sonata’s engines (3.3-liter V-6 and 2.4-liter four) are thoroughly modern, with twin overhead cams and variable valve timing. Both were pumped up slightly for 2009, with the V-6 producing 249 horsepower.

It feels responsive and capable, even at lower engine speeds, but without the ample reserve power of the Honda and Toyota 3.5 V-6s.

The Hyundai V-6 is certainly smooth and unobtrusive, with a seamless 5-speed automatic. Mileage ratings are 19 and 29, and I found that only the most conservative driving approaches those numbers.

Like the Japanese competition, the Sonata has fully independent suspension, with the ride tuned for comfort, and stable, fairly sharp handling at typical speeds. Push the Hyundai, and the front wheels begin to squeal with protest, the typical response from a front-wheel drive car.

Design and materials in the cabin were impressive, which has been the case even in lesser Sonatas I’ve been in.

Noise isolation in that pretty cabin was excellent, but the seats were just moderately supportive. Three average adults can use the Sonata’s back seat comfortably with the middle passenger’s feet straddling the center tunnel.

The Sonata’s trunk is humongous, and my Limited model’s rear seatbacks folded down to reveal a large pass through – a nice feature indeed for those downsizing from an SUV.

I was pleased with the simple operation of the touch-screen navigation system and the integration of XM satellite radio and iPod. Sonatas at all price levels, by the way, accept iPod connections, a small but important competitive advantage to many.

In this otherwise smart, practical car, common sense was breached in the instrumentation. The blue odometer and trip computer readout were almost unreadable, and the speedometer needs numbers instead of marks on the dial for common speeds. Buzz from the rear speakers on deep bass notes was a disappointment.

In his 27 years of writing a column for the Austin American-Statesman, Pete Szilagyi has driven more than 1,400 new cars and trucks.

According to Pete …

Target audience: Bottom-line conscious families with a need for space.

Highs: Smooth, efficient drivetrain; comfort; quality of materials; roominess; huge trunk.

Lows: Buzzy speakers.

Bottom line: A lovely machine in search of a personality.

EPA rating for greenhouse gas emissions (10 is best): 6.

By Pete Szilagyi
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN

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