It’s actually kind of exciting, or maybe intriguing, to watch Hyundai’s progress through the world of auto sales in the United States.
The company’s been here barely 20 years. It stumbled at first (remember the execrable Excel?), but learned its lessons and is now producing a raft of cars that, so far, seem able to play strongly in the same sandbox as such Japanese successes as Toyota, Honda and Nissan.
The case in point the 2009 Sonata, Hyundai’s dead-on competitor to the Camry, Accord and Altima. This is the biggest market in U.S. sedan sales — Toyota regularly sells more than 400,000 Camrys a year and Honda and Nissan are not far behind — and Hyundai, made in Korea, clearly thought this was the place to be for the Sonata.
Before we get too far along, however, there’s a peculiar cultural or sociological angle to the selling of Korean cars in America. There are only three of them — Hyundai, Kia and the late, not-so-lamented Daewoo — and they suffer, when compared to Toyota/Honda/Nissan, simply because (and here’s the irony) they’re not as American as the big three. (Big Three no longer automatically means GM, Ford and Chrysler.)
No, the point here is that many potential car buyers may feel a little leery about buying a Korean car, not for any rational reason but simply because it’s not as familiar as other brands.(For what it’s worth, the Sonata is made at a Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Ala.)
Listen up. These cars are good. They’re well made. They are modern. And they’re less expensive than their Japanese peers and have longer warranties. In a sense, they’re a deal, at least for now. Wait a few years and their prices will be up with everyone else’s.
So, consider the Sonata. The car comes in three trim levels — GLS, SE and Limited — and with two different engines, the 2.4-liter four cylinder, 175 horsepower, and 3.5-liter V6 with 249 horses.
Prices range from about $18,000 to a bit more than $25,000. Our tester had the optional $1,250 navigation system (new this year for the Sonata) and had a sticker price of $27,685.
The clearest comparison, to me, was with the Accord, and I thought it interesting that Hyundai seems to have intentionally built a car that mimics the Accord and, in some ways, out-Hondas the Accord. The tail light treatment, for example, has a ring of familiarity with the previous generation Accords (ending in model year 2006).
Inside, Hyundai has spruced up the interior with wood accents and all the farkles (that’s a motorcycle term for added goodies) that consumers think are almost standard — Bluetooth capability, Homelink garage door opening gizmos, USB/iPod inputs, steering wheel redundant controls, and the like.
The plush leather seats were pretty soft, but once you sink into them (power driver’s seat; manual front passenger), they were comfortable for the long haul.
All the controls fall readily to hand and the steering wheel is coated with a stitched leather covering — Hyundai pays particular attention to interiors, viz. their Veracruz SUV hauler, which strives for (and, to my mind, mostly achieves) a kind of Lexus RX series ambience.
For that matter, Hyundai’s new, near-luxury Genesis is another example of what they can do when they put the company puts its collective mind to it. (Do you think they have a smidgen of latent guilt from the Excel days? The feeling that, hey, we have to build great cars to atone for that long-ago sin?)
So, yes, the Sonata’s V6 is smooth, quiet and unobtrusive, and the five-speed automatic holds each gear long enough and will hold it even longer if you take advantage of the manumatic shifting, which allows you to choose when to shift. Everything was swimming along quite well, Sonata-wise, when I encountered a few rough patches of road.
By this, I don’t mean Rough Road, just your normal city streets, a block or three that had not seen city work crews for years. When the Sonata’s wheels encountered Pothole No. 1, not to mention No.’s 2-5, the suspension jarred noisily.
It sounded, frankly, like an old and worn automobile. Strange, given that this car had less than 6,500 miles on the odometer and, stranger still, given the fit and finish on the rest of the Sonata. Anyway, it was out of character for the rest of the car.
But it does do well on gas. Even the V6 gets EPA fuel economy figures of 19 and 29 mpg; the four-banger gets 21 and 32, respectively. And as long as we’re talking numbers, the Sonata’s trunk capacity, at 16.3 cubic feet, is larger than Camry/Accord/Altima, and, yes, there’s a 60/40 split and folding rear seat.
Given that the mid-size four-door sedan is the most popular segment (aside from those millions of Ford F150 pickup trucks that still sell, if not as well as before the gas crisis), Hyundai has a tough row to hoe, but if the new Sonata is any example of what they can do, the other guys better check their rear view mirrors. Often.
2009 Hyundai Sonata four-door sedan.
Price: test model, $27,685(including $675 destination charge; base price: $25,670)
Powertrain: 3.3-liter, V6 249-horsepower; five-speed automatic transmission.
Curb weight: 3,494 pounds. Seating capacity: five. Fuel consumption: 19 mpg, city; 29 mpg, highway.
Fuel tank capacity:17.7 gallons.
Length: 188.9 inches; width, 72.1 inches; height: 58 inches; wheelbase: 107.4 inches.
Warranty: bumper to bumper, 5 years/50,000 miles; power train, 10 years/100,000 miles.
Dependability: Hyundai ranks 13th out of 37 brands on the J.D. Power and Associates 2008 Vehicle Dependability Study.
Safety: for vehicle safety ratings, visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.