Our view: 2010 Hyundai Sonata

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Senior Editor Mike Hanley is a father of three boys; he reviews new cars, admires classic cars and has embraced the minivan lifestyle. Email Mike Hanley

Editor’s note: This review was written in August 2008 about the 2009 Hyundai Sonata. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2010, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.

Sometimes a car doesn’t require a complete overhaul to bring it where it needs to be in the market, and that was the case with Hyundai’s Sonata. Already competitively equipped in terms of safety and convenience features, the 2008 Sonata’s main shortcoming was its interior styling, which was behind the times. With the Sonata’s redesign for 2009, Hyundai solidly addresses this issue, delivering a sleekly styled cabin that features top-notch materials. Hyundai didn’t stop there, though, as the new sedan is also more fuel-efficient and comes with more standard features.

The Sonata is one of the most conservatively styled family sedans available. While the appearance of the car has been tweaked here and there for 2009 — there’s a new grille, bumpers and headlights — its appearance is much like before and rather anonymous-looking (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2008 model).

If there’s a silver lining in the Sonata’s bland styling it’s that a family sedan doesn’t need radical looks to sell well; Toyota sells nearly half a million Camrys each year, and it’s long been criticized for being boring-looking. As long as boring comes along with few, if any, sudden trips to the dealership for repairs (which it has for the Camry), boring is good.

Ride & Handling
The Sonata offers a firmer ride than the Camry, which, along with the Chrysler Sebring, has among the most comfort-oriented suspension tuning in the family sedan category. Rougher road surfaces, like grooved concrete highways, are acutely felt when driving the Sonata. The sedan cruises easily at highway speeds, but the car can wallow a bit when changing directions quickly. With a full load of passengers onboard — including three across in back — the ride becomes smoother.

The Sonata’s suspension is loud when traveling on rough roads; from the driver’s seat, it sounds as if the suspension has more than 100,000 miles on it thanks to all its rattling. In reality, my test car only had about 6,000 miles on the odometer. While road noise is common in many cars, significant suspension noise isn’t. Besides the noisy suspension, the cabin is otherwise quiet.

The Sonata steers easily thanks to generous power assistance, and while it’s reasonably responsive, steering feedback is practically nonexistent, which distances you from the driving experience.

Going & Stopping
Like many of its competitors, the Sonata gives shoppers the choice of four-cylinder or V-6 power, and both engines offer competitive gas mileage estimates.

Family Sedan Gas Mileage (city/highway, mpg)*
  4-cyl. manual 4-cyl. automatic V-6 automatic
2009 Chevrolet Malibu 22/33** 17/26
2009 Hyundai Sonata 21/32 22/32 19/29
2008 Nissan Altima 23/32 23/31 19/26
2008 Honda Accord 22/31 21/31 19/29
2009 Toyota Camry 21/31 21/31 19/28
2008 Chrysler Sebring FWD 21/30 19/27†
2009 Ford Fusion FWD 20/29 20/28 18/26
*Sorted by gas mileage estimates for four-cylinder automatic models.
**When equipped with available six-speed automatic transmission; 22/30 mpg with standard four-speed automatic.
†Estimate for 2.7-liter V-6; available 3.5-liter V-6 gets 16/26 mpg.

I tested four-cylinder and V-6 versions of the Sonata Limited. The base 175-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder (a cleaner version of the engine sold in California and the Northeast makes 168 hp) is an adequate engine, and its lower price and good gas mileage — 22/32 mpg city/highway with the automatic transmission — will likely heighten its appeal among new-car shoppers. The four-cylinder doesn’t offer the low-end torque of the V-6, but it does provide acceptable acceleration, and it didn’t feel labored when all the Sonata’s seats were filled for a cruise from Chicago’s western suburbs back into the city. During this drive, however, the automatic transmission was more prone to be in a lower gear to maximize the engine’s available power.

That automatic transmission is a five-speed unit that works well with the four-cylinder (a five-speed manual is standard). It shifts with welcome smoothness and can kick down quickly with a prod of the gas pedal. Choosing the 249-hp, 3.3-liter V-6 gives you noticeably stronger acceleration and more refinement than the four-cylinder.

Antilock brakes are standard, and V-6 models get slightly larger front and rear brake discs than the ones four-cylinder models have. Regardless of which model you choose, the brake pedal provides very natural progression.

The Inside
I mentioned above that one of my chief complaints with the previous Sonata was its interior, specifically its odd-looking dashboard that didn’t offer the best control layout. That’s been addressed with the 2009 model, which receives a completely updated dash that’s a significant improvement over the one in the previous Sonata.

For starters, the audio and air conditioning controls are within easy reach and feature familiar interfaces that don’t require you to learn how they work. The dash itself features nice build quality and high-quality materials, including optional simulated wood inserts that do a good impersonation of the real thing.

The Sonata’s seats are finished in one of three ways depending on the trim level. The base GLS sedan has cloth seats, the midlevel SE has cloth seats with leather accents, and the top-of-the-line Limited has leather seats. The front bucket seats in Limited models are some of the softer seats I’ve tested. They let you sink into them, but despite the seeming lack of support, they proved comfortable.

The Sonata’s cabin is pretty spacious and has a passenger volume of 105.4 cubic feet, which is at the large end of the spectrum for a family sedan. When you add that figure to the 16.3-cubic-foot trunk, the Sonata is technically a full-size car even though it competes with midsize cars based on its pricing and positioning in the market. The Sonata puts its extra interior room to good use in part by giving backseat passengers spacious accommodations. As three staffers found out, however, it’s a little tight when all of the rear seats are filled with adults.

The Sonata’s large 16.3-cubic-foot trunk pairs with a standard split-folding backseat when more cargo room is needed. The backrests fold flat, but there’s a significant ledge between the folded backrests and cargo floor that would prevent long items from lying completely flat.

Hyundai has packed the Sonata with standard safety features in the past few years, and competitors are only now beginning to do the same. The 2009 Sonata comes standard with side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags, an electronic stability system, and active head restraints for the front seats.

Sonata in the Market
There’s no shortage of good family sedans out there from which to choose, like the Honda Accord and Chevrolet Malibu. So, you may be wondering, what does the Sonata offer that these models don’t? The most compelling reasons to consider the Sonata (and they’re even more relevant today with more people concerned about their family’s finances) are its starting price and its lengthy warranty. The $18,300 base price is significantly lower than those of the two cars mentioned above, and the warranty should help keep costs down long-term, too. For sensible transportation at a good price, the Sonata ranks high in my book.

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