HYUNDAI'S ENGINEERS and designers are right now working to bring to market what promises to be a revolutionary leap forward for the Korean giant-killer, in the form of the sleek upcoming 2010 Hyundai Sonata.
But for the moment, the current fourth generation Sonata, first released back in 2006, is Hyundai's offering in the mid-size sedan segment - and the 2009 model is likely to be the last before the more aggressively-styled fifth generation arrives. Reason enough, we thought, to take one last look.
It may not be the most stunning sedan on the road, but the question for those seeking reliability and value in a family car is this: is the Sonata the one for me?
If the 2010 Sonata has the balance and style that the images that have spilled onto the interwebs suggest, the new model will likely be a stunner, with a coupe-like roofline, long bonnet and short rear deck. But, if we're calling a spade a spade here, the current model is fairly ordinary to look at.
It's not that the current Sonata is ugly though. There's no specific feature of the car that jumps out as a horrible piece of design, but it can't be called creative. This leads me to the only words that best describe Hyundai's family sedan: bland and derivative.
Despite a facelift with this model, the headlights still say VZ Commodore, the rear-end says 2007 Honda Accord, and the rest of the car says very little at all.
It's simply? there.
Style-wise, the Sonata is a safe choice. Not every buyer chooses a car on the strength of its styling - take the strong-selling Corolla for example. In the carpark, the Sonata's pitch is to those looking for a medium to large car, conservatively styled and for just the right price.
On the plus side, it is a well put-together unit. Panel gaps are tight and even, as are the shut lines. The bonnet, doors and boot all offer a weighty and solid 'clunk' when you close them.
Thankfully, this same attention to build quality is also found inside the Sonata.
As the old adage goes, beauty is only skin deep. A car doesn't need to be a looker for it to be a good unit, and once you plant yourself in the Sonata, the visual side of the story changes: while somewhat spartan, the inside of the 2009 Sonata SLX is a nice place to be.
Style-wise, the lines of the dash, centre console and door trims flow nicely - there is a nice cohesiveness to the design here - and while it is perhaps also derivative, it doesn't feel blatantly so. There are just the right amount of silver highlights and the plastics feel solid and sturdy.
To touch, the leather wrap of the steering wheel feels a class above its price point, while the position and appearance of the steering-mounted controls are both comfortable and stylish.
Under the bum, the driver's seat feels flat and shapeless - a characteristic I suspect would become irritating on a long haul, as would the higher seating position. To be fair though, the appealing steering wheel, both tilt and reach-adjustable, makes up for these failings.
Oddly, the rear seats seem more comfortable than the front (momentarily evoking a thought of Police Academy's Hightower character ripping out the front seat and driving from the back. If only I were tall enough to do the same...)
Speaking of Hightower, he'd be rapt to know that headroom and legroom is excellent, not only in the front but in the back as well.
Equipment and Features
With cruise control, a trip computer, and those steering-mounted controls, the only thing the SLX is really missing is climate control. Overall however, the feature set is well integrated and sensibly placed.
As with most of the Hyundai range, iPod, Aux and USB connectivity remain a pleasing sight in the cabin; features not universally found with many of the Sonata's higher-priced peers.
On the safety front, the updated Sonata offers six airbags, but also adds 'anti-whiplash' active front head restraints, supporting the occupant's head and back and minimising movement in the event of an impact, as well as softening the blow of a rear impact.
Electronic stability control and ABS brakes are standard across the Sonata range, while rear-parking sensors are standard on the Elite spec and optional for the SLX.
The 2009 Hyundai Sonata can be had with either a 2.4 litre four-cylinder petrol engine, or Hyundai's new 2.0 litre Common Rail Direct injection turbo-diesel.
The petrol engines are available with either a five-speed manual or a five-speed Selectronic automatic, with Hyundai Intelligent Vehicle electronic control, while the diesel mill can be paired with either a six-speed manual or a four-speed Selectronic automatic transmission with HiVec.
We tested the six-speed manual Sonata SLX CRDi, and the manual transmission was a delight to use, with smooth changes and a light but strong clutch feel.
While the Sonata offers the requisite punch to comfortably overtake, the small 2.0 litre diesel, developing 110kW at 3800rpm and 305Nm at between 1800-2500rpm, while feeling strong low down (low-end torque), ran out of puff toward the higher middle part of the rev range. But that's diesels in general really.
It's a nice unit though and with long legs for country touring. It's certainly worth a close look by buyers who may have otherwise been considering a "six".
On the fuel economy side, sixth gear and the small diesel ensured that any 100km/h freeway cruising would see the factory quoted 6.0 l/100km consumption achieved without breaking a sweat. (Of course, breaking a sweat wouldn't really help on that score?)
Still, for the extra $2500 to get yourself into the diesel, and the higher cost of diesel fuel these days, you'd want to spend a lot of time on the freeway to make it worthwhile.
According to the boffins at Hyundai, the Australian-delivered 2009 Sonata benefits from suspension tuned specifically for our roads. It works well and goes about things without jarring, soaking up most secondary surfaces without complaint. For a family car where comfort is valued more highly by the majority of buyers, I'd say Hyundai has got the equation balanced about right.
For the money, and for its purpose, the Sonata glides along both freeways and mottled suburban streets as well as many of its mid-size peers, bettering some carrying ten grand (or so) more on their stickers.
Still, a hot handler it aint, with the steering feeling somewhat remote and the front end a little too eager to understeer, the Sonata - for now, at least - remains the slow and steady family hauler and less the "let's go the back way home" pleasure-seeker.
At idle, the diesel drone of the CRDi is evident inside, though it's pleasingly quiet at cruising speeds. For wind and road noise though, another tick - the Sonata does an admirable job of ensuring the radio is the most obvious sound in the cabin.
Perhaps I've been a little tough on the Sonata. With this car, you need to remind yourself of the value of the package. For a smidge over $30,000, you get a lot of car: one with the space and versatility of a traditional Aussie family 'six', and, in the diesel, with the fuel economy of a small 'four'.
At that price, its only real competitor is the Holden Epica - itself a rebadged Korean car. Of the two, I'd lean towards the Sonata without hesitation.
It's a plenty decent drive if you're looking for a mid-size sedan that will move you from A to B in comfort and without fuss - and let's face it, that will satisfy a lot of family buyers. With pleasing-enough but somewhat anonymous lines, good economy and low maintenance costs, it's a 'win/win' choice.
It might not have 'aspirational' written on it, but Hyundai's Sonata has been improving with each model and represents solid buying value. If the factors I've mentioned above tick the boxes for you, you've found a winner in the Sonata.
- Smooth transmission
- Stylish dash
- Low-end torque
- Reach-adjustable steering wheel
- iPod/Aux/USB Integration
- Styling: not ugly, but not appealing
- Front seats
- Mid-range torque
- Absence of climate control