The Good: Low price, many standard features, improved interior and fuel economy
The Bad: Anonymous exterior styling, lack of sportiness
The Bottom Line: Much improved, but still mainly a value purchase
Quick, name the No. 4 imported car brand in the U.S., after Toyota (TM), Honda (HMC), and Nissan (NSANY). Kudos if you guessed Hyundai (HYMTF), the Korean company that displaced Volkswagen (VOWG) for the No. 4 spot back in 2002, and that has been gradually raising its U.S. market share (currently about 3%) ever since.
Now, quick, what's arguably Hyundai's biggest problem in the U.S. market? A cigar to those who fingered the Sonata sedan, the company's top-selling model. Despite an excellent price, the Sonata's sales fell 2.6%, to 145,568, last year, and then fell 12.4%, to 35,432, in the first four months of this year. The Sonata's main competitors are all doing far better as consumers downsize from SUVs to more fuel-efficient family cars:
• Toyota Camry: sales up 5.2%, to 473,108, last year, and up 1.3%, to 147,018, in the first four months of this year.
• Honda Accord: sales up 10.3%, to 392,231, last year and about flat at 122,430 through April of this year.
• Nissan Altima: sales up 22.5%, to 284,762, last year, and up 8.6%, to 99,037, through April of this year.
• Ford Fusion: sales of Ford's (F) midsize sedan up 4.9%, to 149,552, last year, and up 6%, to 55,109, through April of this year.
• Chevy Malibu: sales were down 21.7%, to 128,312, last year but have soared as the redesigned and much improved 2008 Malibu has caught on with consumers. General Motors (GM) reported Malibu sales were up 22.5%, to 59,133, through April of this year.
Little wonder Hyundai has given the Sonata a major facelift for 2009, even though the model was fully redesigned only two years ago. The question now is whether the improvements will be enough to lure shoppers away from the car's many attractive rivals.
Certainly the 2009 Sonata's price is competitive—all the more impressive because the car is, too. Pricing starts at $18,795 for a basic GLS with the four-cylinder engine and a stick shift, rising to $26,335 for a Limited with a V6 and a five-speed automatic. Plus, Hyundai is offering $1,500 cash rebates on the new model through June 2, and an additional $500 off for buyers who already own a Hyundai.
At that low price, the 2009 Sonata comes crammed with standard features. Even the base model comes with front, side, and side curtain air bags, antilock brakes, tire-pressure monitors, remote keyless entry, heated power outside mirrors, power windows, doors and door locks, a CD player, a satellite radio antenna and iPod connection, and a tilting steering wheel.
The SE, the Sonata I test-drove at a Hyundai press conference, is the sporty version. It has 17-in. alloy wheels and performance tires, as well as upgraded cloth and leather upholstery and a tilting and telescoping steering wheel. The fancy Limited has 17-in. alloy wheels with all-season tires, plus extra chrome exterior trim, leather upholstery, a premium sound system, wood-grain trim, and two-level heated front seats.
The Sonata's two available engines are also peppier.
The four-cylinder in the 2009 Sonata is rated at 175 horsepower, 13 more than before, and the 3.3-liter V6 at 249 hp, 15 more than before. A five-speed stick shift is standard; a five-speed automatic is standard on the Limited and optional on the less fancy SE and GLS.
Even so, the Sonata now leads its main competitors in fuel economy. Powered by the smaller engine, the Sonata is rated to get 22 miles per gallon in the city and 32 on the highway—a tad better than its major rivals equipped with a comparable engine. The V6-powered Sonata is rated to get 19/29, which matches the comparable Accord, beats the Camry by a smidgeon, and the other rivals by more than a smidgeon.
The 2009 Sonata also has excellent safety ratings. It scored the top Five Star rating in both front and side crashes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It earned the top "Good" rating in frontal offset crash tests and an "Acceptable" rating in side impact tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The big negative about the Sonata, at least for me, is its bland and forgettable exterior styling. Designers gave the model a more aggressive-looking grille and larger headlights, but that's about it. Don't expect the 2009 Sonata to be easy to find in a crowded parking lot, or to turn heads when you're tooling around the neighborhood.
Also, if you want a car with a youthful image, the Sonata isn't the model for you. The average age of Sonata buyers is 53, six years older than the average for midsize family sedans generally, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). The youth vote goes to the Nissan Altima, whose average buyer is only 43.
Behind the Wheel
The big improvements in the Sonata are in its interior. The Honda Accord still has the nicest cabin in the segment, in my opinion, but Hyundai has done a lot to further adapt the Sonata to American tastes (and plus-size rear ends). In the 2009 model, the front seats are wider and have longer cushions than before. The center stack is much more elegant-looking and flows nicely into the dash. The blue instrument lighting is attractive. The textured and matte finish on the aluminum interior trim is upscale looking, and wood-grain trim and leather upholstery add a touch of elegance to the Limited.
The Sonata's total interior volume of 121.7 cu. ft. is greater than that of the Accord, Camry, Altima, and Malibu, Hyundai says. There's a ton of headroom in both the front and rear seats. Legroom is excellent in the front seat and adequate in back. The Sonata's 16.3-cu.-ft. trunk is the biggest in its class, and the rear seatbacks fold down in a 60/40 pattern to create extra hauling space.
In the V6-powered Sonata, acceleration from a dead stop is good, and there's plenty of oomph at highway speed. Punch the gas at, say, 55 miles per hour, and the car jumps. However, the Sonata doesn't handle especially well. The steering feels too light and a little wobbly. There's too much play.
Also, the supposedly sporty SE isn't very sporty. The manual shifting function isn't fast or tight. My test SE also had a smooth, Detroit-style ride. If anything, like the ride in Hyundai's Santa Fe SUV, it felt a little boatlike. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because a smooth, soft ride is what many shoppers want. But if sportiness is important to you, the Sonata SE is no match for rivals such as the V6-powered Malibu, which has steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, emits a dull throb when you push the engine, and which Edmunds.com has clocked in 6.6 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60 mph. The two-door coupe versions of the Accord and Altima are also much sportier than the Sonata.
Buy it or Bag It?
Hyundai's pitch for the 2009 Sonata is that it's an alternative to compact cars for consumers looking for excellent fuel economy at a low price. The 2009 Sonata's average selling price is just $19,985, according to PIN. Among its major competitors, only the 2008 Ford Fusion, at an average of $19,566, is cheaper. However, the Sonata has a fuel economy advantage over the Fusion: The four-cylinder Sonata is rated to average 25 mpg (vs. 23 for the equivalent Fusion), and the six-cylinder version gets 22 (vs. 21 for the Fusion).
The Sonata's other main rivals all average at least $2,000 more. The 2009 Camry goes for an average of $22,106, according to PIN, the 2008 Chevy Malibu for $22,101, and the 2008 Altima for $22,697. By far the most expensive model in the group is the 2008 Honda Accord at $24,280.
The bottom line is that if a low price is your main concern, test-drive the Sonata against the Fusion. If you can afford to pay a bit more, test-drive the Accord, Camry, Malibu, or Altima before buying a Sonata. For one reason or another, I prefer all four of those models to the Hyundai. The new Accord is my favorite of the bunch. But the 2009 Sonata is a heck of a bargain, especially at its current price.
Click here to see more of the 2009 Hyundai Sonata.