2009 Hyundai Sonata SE

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh
2009 hyundai sonata se

Quick: name a Hyundai sports sedan. Can’t do it, can you? If there’s ever been one, I’m not aware of it. No, the late unlamented Hyundai Elantra GT doesn’t count. Even with a red “GT” on the rump, the suspension tuning decidedly prioritized ride quality over handling. Perhaps “GT” means “standard leather” in Korean? But let’s not count Hyundai out just yet; there’s no Sonata GT in the lineup at the moment. Meanwhile, for 2009, the Korean manufacturer has quietly dipped a toe into the sport sedan pool by adding a “sport suspension” to the Sonata SE. This site has deemed the Sonata—in GLS form—“a great car for people who don’t care all that much about cars.” Do firmer springs and dampers transform the midsize sedan into “a great car for people who do care about cars?”

On the outside, five-spoke alloys distinguish the SE from other Sonatas. A safe but good choice—you can never go wrong with a classic five-spoke wheel. On the other hand, the new “more aggressive” grille looks no more appropriate on this “sportier” Sonata than it does on the others. Advice to auto makers: you can’t transform a clean and tasteful but thoroughly forgettable design simply by stamping a larger hole in the nose. Though often tried, this never works. Instead, we get a car that’s clearly a pretender.

Inside, last year’s Mercedes-inspired instrument panel has been discarded in favor of one inspired by the Lexus RX. Ribbons of faux aluminum frame the ergonomically-correct center stack as it arcs smoothly into the center console. The overall effect is much more upscale and stylish, and almost sporty. Materials remain much the same as before. With a starting price below twenty, you aren’t going to get trim worthy of a Lexus. For the price, though, the materials are generally competitive.

The Sonata remains roomy enough to squeak into the EPA’s “large car” classification. Though not quite as beamy inside as the supersized Honda Accord, headroom and legroom are abundant. Large windows and relatively thin pillars provide good visibility in all directions. (No doubt they’ll “fix” this with the next complete redesign.) Comfort is decent, though the front buckets would have a more premium feel if blessed with additional padding.

Enthusiasts get one concession in the revised SE interior: the seats’ bolsters aren’t any larger, but their center panels are cloth to prevent posterior dislocation in aggressive turns. Shame they didn’t do something similar for the steering wheel. Instead, one of the automotive world’s greatest unsolved mysteries lives on: why is the leather on Hyundai steering wheels so slippery? Note to Hyundai: the point of wrapping a steering wheel with leather is to enhance grip.

As the recent GLS review noted, the four cylinder performs just adequately. If you want anything in the way of thrills, you want the 3.3-liter V6, now good for 249 horsepower. This mill is very smooth, makes refined noises, and pulls strongly. The engines in Japanese competitors are a bit stronger still but, let’s face it, 249 horsepower is beyond sufficient for a midsize family sedan.

More of an issue: the manually-shiftable five-speed automatic remains down a ratio compared to most competitors. Back in ’03 you could (at least theoretically) pair a five-speed manual with an underachieving 2.7-liter V6 in the Sonata. But the 3.3 has been auto-only, and Hyundai isn’t yet serious enough about the enthusiast market to offer a powertrain combination no dealer would be willing to stock.

And now, the main event: the Sonata SE’s “sport suspension.” Is it firmer than the suspension in other Sonatas? Absolutely. The SE leans considerably less in hard turns and never wallows. When pushed, the powertrain-laden nose still drifts wide, but not as early or as often. Yet, while appreciably firmer, the SE suspension is still not firm, and steering feel remains notable in its absence.

You’ll find much more aggressive suspension tuning (if not much more steering feel) in a Toyota Camry SE, and even the one-size-fits-all suspension in the Honda Accord feels more taut. On the other hand, the Sonata SE rides more smoothly than those cars. Compared to other Sonatas, the SE isn’t as pillowy smooth over the little stuff, but manages more serious bumps and divots with more composure. What Hyundai has achieved here: a very good ride-handling balance.

Excited yet? Didn’t think so. Balance and composure might make for a good marriage, but they don’t make for a fun date. There’s no edge here that might lend the Sonata some much-needed personality. The SE’s new suspension would make for a better regular Sonata. They should put it there, then develop another suspension truly suited for enthusiasts. Do that and also toss some steering feel into the package and they might deserve to call the resulting car the Sonata GT.

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2 of 41 comments
  • Mossmiller Mossmiller on Apr 08, 2009

    For those into trivia, there was an SE 5-speed manual with the 4-cylinder engine in '07, but it is rare. The clutch on these cars is very heavy, and the cable shifter mediocre. I chose the GL with automatic for that reason, and enjoy the shiftronic device, good for locking out overdrive, which the car seems to shift into at 20 mph. So far, no problems at nearly 60K miles. Very solid build quality, simple controls, decent stereo. But resale? Forget it. And maintenance gets expensive as these engines rack up the miles, as the timing chain must come off to adjust the semi-mechanical valves. This may be necessary at the 100K mark, costs more on the 6-cylinder models. Timing chain is generally replaced at that time.

  • Aman Aman on Jul 29, 2009

    It’s No Hyundai Quattroporte, but It’s Better Than Before. exbi chao!

  • Jeff S Years ago Kentucky issued a license plate with a horse running with the words "Unbridled Spirit." The religious right objected and did not want the plate because they believed it encouraged people to go to the race track and bet on horses. Anyone who knows anything about Kentucky knows its famous for raising horses and yes there is Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby is run but horses in themselves are not sinful. It got so bad that the state issued a blank sticker to put over the horse and the logo. Kentucky also issued a plate for those who were offended stating "In God We Trust." The latest KY plate has no logo and nothing. I always picked the horse because I thought horses were something to be proud of and associated with Kentucky.
  • Old Scold As a Marylander, I got those plates assigned to me when I purchased my car in 2016, 4 years after the so-called anniversary. I figured they were using up NOS, and it never occurred to me to check out the URL. I still don't care. It's a stupid issue, but I have my tag number memorized should I need it.
  • Hpycamper I drive a car with automatic braking and have nothing good to say about it. It has activated going around corners on mountain roads when the hillside is close to the road, when lawn sprinklers turned on and sprayed the car, and driving past cars on the shoulder that are making right turns. Luckily these phantom brake activations have not caused a wreck. The systems are just too dumb.
  • SCE to AUX How long until that $90k yields a profit for my grandchildren?
  • Ajla I do wonder what the legacy of the Alpha Camaro will be. It was higher performing than the Zeta but lacks the pop culture imprinting of that gen or the earlier F-body. And somehow it managed to be less comfortable than the Zeta. I guess it depends if this is really the last traditional Camaro.