The Hyundai Sonata is a great car for people who don’t care all that much about cars. That’s not a slam. I have a friend who considers his car a device for moving bicycles around. Another buddy would drive a large teapot if it promised a cheap commute. These are bright, successful guys for whom “driving dynamics” are as valuable as GPS on a squirrel (hunters excluded). These motorists deserve a decent ride. Once again, Hyundai’s stepped up to the pump with an automobile that’s so generic you expect to find it in the paper towel section of your local supermarket.
For ’09, Hyundai squared off the Sonata’s headlights and fitted a deeper, “more aggressive” (irony alert) chrome grille. The result: a subtle shift from vaguely 80’s soap bar rental car invisibility to “what kind of car is that?” anonymity. Presuming, of course, someone actually cared enough to ask. Still, it’s a successful under-the-radar aesthetic transformation; you can no longer say the Sonata is so not a German or Japanese car. The SE sport package adds bigger five-spoke wheels and plastic effects to noticeable improvement. It pushes the car from its core competency, though.
Which is convincing occupants they own/are renting a nice car. Lexus is the name of that game and the Sonata plays it to perfection. In fact, the Hyundai’s interior design is so startlingly upmarket—and derivative—one wonders if there’s a sedan equivalent to buyers who put fake M badges on their Bimmer’s butt and steering wheel.
I repeat: the basic shapes ape the Lexian style with Frank Caliendo-ian aplomb. A chrome-like substance surrounding the center stack and gauges brightens-up the cabin to great effect, while most of the plastic surfaces are cushy and pleasant. All the buttons respond with firm precision. The Sonata offers more cubbies than a Montessori school.
My tester was equipped with the 2.4-liter four cylinder engine (not the 3.3-liter six). The bargain and mileage hunter’s choice is no thoroughbred; it took longer to spool-up than a PS2, straining each of its 175 horses in the process. The Sonata’s five-speed automatic transmission was no help. It contemplated every move like a chess master without a clock. Honda and Toyota have smarter, quicker players.
And? The Sonata’s engine moves the car around with acceptable gas mileage (22/32). It got up ramps. And I can’t say the Sonata handled all that much worse than others in this class. From Altima to Legacy, all of these $20K-ish sedans could do with a weekend at Lotus Engineering. There doesn’t seem much point in ranking them, which should make Hyundai happy.
The Sonata’s brakes lacked the decrescendo I’ve come to expect from, well, every other car I’ve ever driven. They grab too much and too severely. The whole car bows its head as if ashamed of its spastic stopping powers. In my fake emergency brake test, I thought I might flip the thing trunk-over-cabin. I imagine I’d get used to them, but if your plan was to occasionally open this thing up to a bit of serious roadwork, it’s a stupid plan.
Remember: you also have to steer the vehicle. The Sonata’s not going to give you any hints as to how. Road feel is for drivers who want to feel the road, and they’re driving other cars. The easiest thing to do in the Sonata is park. Parking’s good.
As you’d expect, the list of standard equipment is crazy: stability control, traction control, ABS, tire pressure monitoring (three pounds either way), satellite radio, an auxiliary jack and a USB port for the stereo. Five years of roadside assistance. Ten years warranty. My Sonata stickered at $20,862 with an immediate $2k rebate, with more cash on the hood if I’d owned another Hyundai at some point.
Way-hey! Hyundai shows the domestics how it should be done. I don’t know, I guess I’m spoiled. If it was 1972, I’d be raving about the Sonata. But it’s not, so I can’t. But again, this car is no more aimed at me than Barbie’s. Still…
The more time I spent in the Sonata, the more I long for a quirk. Hyundai Motors turns 42 this year. I’d hoped it would’ve begun to distinguish Korean cars the way the Germans, Japanese, French or Italians have done. But there is no Koreaness to the car, to the whole line really.
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if the Hyundai Sonata added some personality to the equation? Even the minority motorists who value neck-snapping acceleration or brain-bash cornering have to buy a real car at some point, putting common sense ownership considerations above pure panache. If the Sonata had something, anything to set it apart from anything else, would it alienate the car’s core clientele? I’d like to think not. But then, nobody asked me.