2009 Hyundai Sonata surprisingly stylish

“That’s a nice looking car,” said my friend as she gazed out her window at the silver sedan. “Is it a BMW?”

“Huh, look again,” I replied. “It’s a Hyundai.”

A couple of days later in a parking lot, another friend absent-mindedly started walking toward a silver 7 Series parked across from the Sonata. “Wrong car,” I said. “We came in the silver Hyundai.”

Once upon a time, it seemed inconceivable that any conscious person would mistake a Hyundai for a BMW. That was especially true of the Sonata. The last-generation of Hyundai’s middle child — the Sonata slots above the Accent and Elantra and below the Azera and new Genesis in the Korean automaker’s model line-up — was decidedly homely. But the latest-generation Sonata has contemporary styling that looks not at all out of place beside one of the German wunderwagens.

For 2009, Hyundai’s designers refined the car’s look even further, with new bumpers, headlamps, wheels and grille. And on Limited models such as my test car, they’ve added chrome side and bumper strips to match the chrome grille and door handles.

The designers paid even more attention to the ’09 Sonata’s interior. There’s an entirely new center console and instrument cluster, though the gauges retain Hyundai’s handsome, signature-blue backlighting. The materials in my Limited test car belied the Sonata’s moderate price and included chrome accents, wood trim and leather upholstery. The new Sonata’s interior also has standard auxiliary input jacks (a 3.5 mm mini-jack and a USB input) to accommodate iPods. When an iPod or flash drive is connected through the USB port, located in the center storage compartment, not only does it play music through the vehicle’s six-speaker audio system, but it also charges the iPod and allows the driver to access tracks with the steering wheel audio controls.

Hyundai has given the Sonata the unenviable duty of competing mano-a-mano with the two most popular cars in land, Toyota’s Camry and Honda’s Accord. But the Sonata has a roomier interior than the Camry (though it’s a bit less roomy than the Accord) and a larger trunk than either the Camry or Accord. Indeed, the cabin is spacious — even in the rear seat.

The Sonata’s 2.4-liter, 175-horsepower four-cylinder engine is reworked for 2009, delivering more power and quicker acceleration, with better fuel economy to boot. That’s quite a trick. The all-aluminum, 16-valve engine now features Continuously Variable Valve Timing on both camshafts and a Variable Induction System for better engine breathing. My test car with an automatic transmission carried EPA ratings of 22 mpg in the city and an impressive 32 mpg on the highway, with a 25-mpg combined rating — not bad for a such a roomy car.

Though I wouldn’t call it neck-snapping, acceleration seemed entirely adequate, whether accelerating up a freeway onramp or passing traffic at highway speeds. The five-speed automatic shifted smoothly and had controls that allowed me to upshift or downshift manually.

Hyundai also offers the Sonata with a 3.3-liter V-6 engine that pumps out 249 horsepower, 15 more than last year. Fuel economy figures for the V-6 are 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway — not a great deal less than those for the four-banger engine.

Hyundai engineers tweaked the Sonata’s handling and steering for ’09. The big change is a new multi-link system for the rear suspension. Sonatas also now have quicker ratio steering. Still, the Sonata is more cruzin’ sedan than sport sedan, though its handling is on par with other cars in its class, including the Camry and Accord as well the Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion. It’s not an exciting car to drive as there is a fair amount of body lean in the corners and the steering feels rather numb, despite the quicker ratio.

But the latest Sonata is comfy. Not only does the suspension smooth out most of the bumps in the road, the car’s low interior noise levels make for a relaxing drive.

In recent years, Hyundai has made a determined effort to earn high safety ratings with all its cars. It’s certainly paid off with the Sonata; 2008 Sonatas have straight five-star ratings in front and side crash tests from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And there’s no reason to think that the ’09 model won’t earn them too when NHTSA completes its tests. All Sonatas come standard with six airbags, anti-lock brakes and an electronic stability control system.

Good as all this stuff is, value is what drives car buyers to Hyundai dealers. And the least expensive Sonata — the GLS with the four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission — is just under $19,000. Hyundai also is offering some hefty rebates. The least expensive Camry is about $1,000 more, while Hyundai undercuts the least expensive Accord by more than $2,000. Air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry and power windows are standard even on the base GLS. My four-cylinder Limited model test car, with all the trimmings, came in close to 25 grand.

No, the Sonata isn’t a BMW. But then, it costs about half the price.

2009 HYUNDAI SONATA

BASE PRICE: $18,795

BASE ENGINE: 2.4-liter, 175-horsepower inline-4

LAYOUT: Front engine/front-wheel drive

BODY/SEATS: Four-door sedan/five

CURB WEIGHT: 3,292 pounds

OVERALL LENGTH: 188.9 inches

FUEL ECONOMY: 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway

By PETER BOHR
The Press-Enterprise

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