2009 Hyundai Sonata gets more powerful engines and upgraded interiors

One of the toughest segments of the automotive business is the mid-size family sedan market, a segment in which most manufacturers have an entry and Japanese manufacturers Toyota and Honda have been the leaders for a long time.

Hyundai’s entry is the Sonata. For 2009, the Sonata has been given a rather comprehensive freshening of its fourth generation front-wheel-drive sedan that was introduced as a 2006 model.

But don’t think you’ll be able to notice the difference when you see one pass by. That’s because exterior changes are minor, consisting mainly of a new front grille, revised bumpers, headlights, taillights and moldings. If you’re really into the Sonata, you may notice that seven new colors and alloy wheels have been added to the mix.

The serious work was done under the hood and in the passenger cabin, two areas that were in need of upgrading for Hyundai to keep its nose on the tail of the Japanese front-runners. The base 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine gets variable valve timing and a power boost from 162 to 175 horsepower. Torque increases from 164 pound-feet to 168. In addition, the automatic transmission is upgraded to five speeds, from four, and accounts for a one-mile-a-gallon increase in fuel mileage to an EPA-rated 22 city/ 32 highway. A five-speed manual shifter is still available for the do-it-yourself types.

The 3.3-liter V-6 engine is rated at 249 horsepower, up from 234. Torque is up three pound-feet, to 229. The engine of choice for about 30 percent of Sonata buyers, it falls 19 horsepower short of the leaders, but is about equal in fuel efficiency with a rating of 19 mpg city/29 highway. A five-speed automatic is the only transmission available with this engine.

Upgrades to the independent suspension improve handling in the entry-level GSL and Limited models, but they still don’t move the Sonata into sporty territory. A third model, the SE, gets even more serious suspension tuning, but I did not have an opportunity to sample it.

Inside, where 121.7 cubic feet of space make it the roomiest sedan in its class, the Sonata has been given a complete makeover. Trim and fabric materials have been significantly upgraded, the front bucket seats have been improved for additional support and comfort, the center console has been modernized to make room for a touch-screen navigation system and the instrument panel has been revised. In addition, there is Ipod and USB connectivity.

I spent limited time in a V-6-powered Sonata and a whole week with a four-cylinder model. In both cases, the extra power was much appreciated, and made both cars more enjoyable to drive. In the four-cylinder car, I averaged between 18 and 28 miles per gallon of regular unleaded gasoline.

Still, despite the suspension and engine improvements, the mainstream Sonatas have a workman-like demeanor that is devoid of any sporting pretensions. Family and friends will enjoy the comfortable and compliant ride, but the pilot will find nothing to encourage spirited driving.

More important to the family-transportation mission, all Sonatas come with a comprehensive list of standard safety equipment that includes electronic stability control, active front head restraints, side-curtain airbags and four-wheel disc brakes with emergency-stop assist and electronic brake force distribution.

Perhaps the Sonata’s biggest attraction is its value quotient, which puts it several thousand dollars below much of the competition. Prices start at $19,395 for a base GLS with manual transmission, cruise control, air conditioning, six-speaker am/fm/cd/MP3 sound system and power windows, locks and heated mirrors.

The top-of-the-line Limited with four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission carries a $25,245 sticker price and adds luxury touches such as leather upholstery, trip computer, upgraded sound system, sunroof and 17-inch wheels. The V-6 Limited has a suggested price of $27,745. A navigation system, available only on the Limited, costs an extra $1,250.

The Hyundai Sonata may not have the sporty attributes of a Honda Accord or a Nissan Altima, but it is a solid sedan at an attractive price. In these days of economic uncertainty and high gas prices, that’s a pretty powerful combination.

by Nick Yost
NY Autos Examiner

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