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2009 Hyundai Sonata Road Trip


New Sonata improved inside and out

Summer road trip from Toronto to P.E.I. proves the mettle of revamped sedan.

2009 Hyundai Sonata. Photo By Bill Roebuck (c) CarTest.ca 2008.

BY BILL ROEBUCK

Hyundai's refreshed-for-2009 Sonata, which competes directly against the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima, features a new, larger interior, enhanced suspension and revised powertrains that provide improved fuel economy and horsepower over previous models.

Yet there's more than this to the mid-size sedan, much of which was revealed as we began a long-anticipated road trip from Toronto in late July to spend 10 days in Prince Edward Island.

The '09 Sonata's exterior design has been enhanced with new bumpers, bigger lamps, flashier wheels and a new grille. There's also a choice of new colours for the three models in the line-up (GL, GL Sport and Limited), each of which is available with either four- or six-cylinder engines.

We really like the long, distinguished nose of the new design, and were surprised how such a tight butt could yield such a roomy trunk. In a phrase, our tester -- the GL V6 Sport -- is a handsome sedan ... so much so we had no qualms about pulling up to art galleries, the theatre and even a night at the opera in the new Sonata. (Yes, we were travelling around P.E.I. while doing these things. Surprised? This tiny east coast province is a secret cultural hideaway.)

2009 Hyundai Sonata. Photo By Bill Roebuck (c) CarTest.ca 2008.The Sonata was also our transport to some truly fine restaurants on the island, many of which compete successfully with Toronto in menu originality and cooking skills, yet with even fresher, locally grown ingredients. Many P.E.I. restaurants grow their herbs and vegetables in their own back yards, and that's something that very few big city restaurants can boast about.

The great food is another surprise about P.E.I. and makes the tranquil island of gently rolling hills, pristine beaches, swallow-laden cliffs and trademark red-soil sideroads altogether wonderful for a vacation getaway by car.

The drive from Toronto is about 18 hours, including stops. We spent the mid point of the trip in Quebec -- about halfway -- overnighting at the quaint and comfortable Auberge du Manoir Dauth in Sainte Anne de la Perade, just off Highway 40, between Trois Rivieres and Quebec City.

But let's get back to the car under review. Despite the Sonata's handsome appearance, it still has a conventional imported sedan styling that's unlikely to turn anyone's head.

During our two-week test drive, nobody commented on -- or even noticed -- the fact they were looking at an '09 model. Certainly it's distinctive from previous Sonatas, but just not that different from many of the other mid-size sedans against which it competes. Most impressed will be those who take a few moments to look closely at the details of the new design, both inside and out.

For example, the new front end appears similar to larger, more status-garnering sedans. The Sonata's overall look is smooth and solid.

Even if you're averse to the nameplate, as a many drivers remain, we believe you'd be certain to take pride in having this car in your driveway or garage. Some might prefer to cover up the Hyundai badge, though, and that's still the problem with Hyundai.

Despite many years of improving its build quality and enhancing its designs, a surprisingly large number of potential owners still have a negative perception of the brand. These are people who remember the cheap-to-buy -- and cheaply built -- Stellar and Pony models from two decades ago when Hyundai first entered the Canadian market. (We at CarTest! wonder if this stigma is one of the reasons the company did not place its italicized 'H' logo on the grille -- or anywhere on the front -- of its all-new, high-end luxury sedan, the forthcoming 2010 Genesis?)

Although that aged perception of quality continues to affect the resale value of used and end-of-lease Hyundai models, I cannot see any reason for it to continue. Doubters only need to drive a new Hyundai -- the Sonata in particular -- back-to-back against a comparable Japanese brand -- Honda or Toyota or Nissan or Mazda -- to see there is no significant drawback to driving the South Korean marque. (Note also that this Sonata is built in Alabama in the United States.)

Hyundai, as a result of its ongoing stigma, still tries to capture new customers with bargain pricing. In August 2008, the advertised price for the base GL with the inline four-cylinder (I4) engine (the only model with a manual transmission) was $19,995 cash (with leasing or financing, it was $21,995).

Other models in the 2009 Sonata line-up have a new five-speed automatic transmission. These include the GL with the I4 engine at $23,395; GL V6 at $27,795,GL Sport I4 at $25,695; GL V6 Sport at $29,595; Limited I4 at $27,995, and Limited V6 at $31,495.

Hyundai's new 2.4-litre DOHC I4 engine provides more horsepower and quicker acceleration than its predecessor, while also improving on fuel economy. The all-aluminum, 16-valve engine is rated at 175 hp and 168 lb.-ft. of torque and features Continuously Variable Valve Timing (CVVT) on both camshafts and a Variable Induction System (VIS) for better engine breathing.

The optional 3.3-litre V6 engine also has been improved over the 2008 model, providing more performance and efficiency. It now pumps out 15 more horsepower and three more pound-feet of torque (249 hp and 229 lb.-ft.). It features all-aluminum construction, dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, CVVT and stiffer hydraulic engine mounts.

It's got all the power you need in a family sedan, and runs smoothly and quietly. The Sonata doesn't leap away from a start, but once it's moving and you curl your toes down, it scoots off with surprising speed. The fact that it accelerates quietly may account for our sense of surprise. We think this engine sets a new benchmark of quality and performance for Hyundai.

Now you might expect the exhaust note would give a signal of the unleashing power within (after all, it's almost 250 hp), but it's not so. The one thing Hyundai didn't do was give a sporty sound to the exhaust of the Sport model we tested. It's too quiet to reveal its subtle power curve to the ears.

However, a hard press of the gas pedal from a stop requires holding the steering wheel firmly as strong torque steer is evident.

2009 Hyundai Sonata.Hyundai notes that the engine's variable intake system is fed with a direct flow air intake system, which broadens the power curve and improves off-the-line acceleration and passing performance. On our 4,000-km journey to P.E.I., we never had a concern over any passing manoeuvre. It's probably worth mentioning here that we cruised nicely at 125-135 km/h for much of the trip, keeping up with the local traffic flow. Note that we carefully obeyed the proper speed limits when off the Trans-Canada Highway and in populated areas.

Mileage figures for V6-powered Sonatas are 10.8 L/100 km city and 6.9 L/100 km highway. We observed (keep in the mind the higher travel speeds for much of the trip) an average fuel economy of 9.0 L/100 km, better than we expected.

All V6-powered Sonatas use Hyundai's five-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission as standard equipment. It's fairly smooth, as shifting of the gears is noticeable only under aggressive acceleration.

The Sonata's four-wheel independent suspension system encompasses a double-wishbone system at the front end, with coil springs, revalved twin-tube, gas-filled hydraulic shock absorbers, and a larger 26 mm stabilizer bar. Hyundai says the system's lower control arms increase handling precision while reducing vibration, and bushing size has been increased to better absorb the shock from road impacts.

The rear suspension is a multi-link system where rear spring rates have been increased by five per cent, shocks have been revalved and the sway bar thickened from 15 mm to 16 mm. These changes are designed to improve control of ride motions and proved effective.

Our road tests on various surfaces showed that, as in previous models, potholes would create quite a thump in the steering wheel. On the good side, there was no noticeable lean in curves, nor swaying or pulling on uneven road surfaces. We found steering feels light on this model at all speeds.

The Sonata GL Sport we tested has its own unique sport-tuned suspension, with a 15 per cent stiffer front spring rate, 10 per cent stiffer rear spring rate, unique strut valving at all four corners and 27 mm front and 17 mm rear stabilizer bars, along with unique 17-inch alloy wheels and tires.

That stiffer suspension is great for twisty roads, but with a car loaded with vacation luggage for a long road trip, you really feel every expansion joint. More casual drivers would likely be happier with the softer ride of models without the other Sonata models, we expect.

No matter what the road conditions, the new Sonata proved quiet, with no noticeable road or wind noise intruding.

INTERIOR IMPROVEMENTS

The interior of this spacious five-passenger sedan has a new, classy, centre console and instrument panel. Overall, the detailing, fit and finish of the Sonata are impressive. There were no squeaks, rattles or buzzes from anywhere.

2009 Hyundai Sonata. Cargo capacity is excellent as well, with 462 litres of trunk space (an eight per cent advantage over the Toyota Camry and a 16 per cent advantage over the Honda Accord). It swallowed our vacation luggage easily. A plus is the fact that the trunklid struts are designed not to intrude into the cargo area. It swallowed our vacation luggage easily.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies the 2009 Sonata as a Large Car, compared to competitors such as the Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu, which are categorized as mid-size cars.

Useful amenities, not found on most competitive models, include standard auxiliary input jacks (3.5 mm mini-jack and USB input) to accommodate and charge Apple iPods. When an iPod or generic flash drive is connected through the USB port, which is located in the centre storage compartment, music can be played through the vehicle's six-speaker audio system. The system also can charge an iPod, permit the driver to access tracks with the steering wheel audio controls, and allow both driver and passengers to view song/artist/title information and control the music from the audio head unit rather than only the iPod itself.

Also uncommon for a standard feature in base models are the two-stage front seat warmers.

Front cupholders, which now have more capacity than before, are actually too deep for small or medium Tim Hortons coffee cups, as the depth of them makes it difficult to lift the cups easily. (We had to stuff napkins underneath to raise the cups.) They also do not have removeable liners for easy cleanup of spills. There are no bottle holders in the door pockets either, even though that useful feature could have been simple to incorporate.

On the safety side, 2009 Sonata's front collision performance has been improved by tweaking the design of the engine subframe. Untested at the time of writing, the Sonata is expected to earn the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) top crash test rating for front and side impacts.

The V6-equipped Sonatas come with ESC (electronic stability control) as standard equipment. This is important because NHTSA has reported that ESC results in 35 per cent fewer single-vehicle crashes and 30 per cent fewer single-vehicle fatalities in passenger cars. (So why don't the I4 models have this important feature, we wonder?)

The Sonata braking technology package includes four-wheel disc brakes and ABS. V6 models also get Brake Assist (BA) and Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD).

Six airbags are standard in all models, along with active front-seat head restraints, which is great to see in a sedan at this price level. Other passive safety features include shingle-style rear-seat head restraints for improved rearward visibility, three-point seatbelts for all seating positions, front-seat seatbelt pretensioners and force limiters, and a rear-seat Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system for child seats.

As noted earlier, the Sonata is available in three trim levels, the GL, GL Sport and Limited, in four- and six-cylinder versions.

The four-cylinder GL comes with a five-speed manual transmission, with the five-speed automatic being optional. Standard features include power windows, door locks and outside heated side mirrors, keyless entry with alarm, an AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 audio system with USB/iPod auxiliary inputs, 60/40 split fold-down rear seatbacks, air conditioning, cruise control and tilt and telescoping adjustable steering column, front heated seats, windshield wiper de-icer, leather wrapped steering wheel and gear shift and trip computer with A and B trip modes.

Those standard-equipment heated seats, wiper de-icer and heated mirrors would be appreciated come wintertime, making this a pretty good car for Canadian drivers to consider. Add some snow tires and you'd be ready for any wicked winter weather.

Sonata GL V6 models come packaged with 16-in. alloy wheels (vs. 16-in. steel wheels on the base model), dual chrome-tipped exhaust, fog lights, solar control glass, power drivers seat and ESC with traction control (TCS) and brake assist (BA).

The GL Sport is available with the I4 or V6 engines. It adds the previously described sport-tuned suspension as standard equipment. Other performance-oriented features include 17-in. alloy wheels with handling-focused 215/55R17 all-season performance tires, rear decklid spoiler, fog lights (they don't help much), power sunroof, steering wheel audio controls and special cloth seats with leather bolsters.

The Sport Package tires feature stiffer sidewalls and a unique tread design for more responsive steering and handling

The Limited model -- also available in I4 or V6 versions -- is very well equipped. The interior features luxurious leather seating surfaces, a standard Infinity AM/FM/XM Satellite/6-CD changer/MP3 audio system with six speakers, subwoofer and component amplifier, an eight-way power driver's seat and power sunroof. Other upgrades include dual-zone automatic temperature control, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror with HomeLink and compass, premium scuff plates, woodgrain interior trim, chrome door handles and bumper moulding inserts, auto-light control and 215/55 R17 tires. Both Limited models include the automatic transmission as standard.

All Hyundai models have a five-year/100,000 km warranty that includes five-year/100,000 km powertrain coverage and three-year/unlimited kilometre 24-hour roadside assistance.

The story about the 2009 Sonata is certainly one that emphasizes value for the money spent. The only drawback we can see for some drivers lies with the shape of the company's logo. But after driving the Sonata, we can't see Hyundai naysayers being able to defend a negative viewpoint any longer.

Bill Roebuck is the editor of CarTest!

Manufacturer's website: www.hyundaicanada.com

Sept. 7, 2008

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