The Hyundai Sonata is a four-door, five passenger sedan priced at the low end of the mid-size market, where it competes primarily against the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, Kia Optima, and Ford Fusion.
Yet, the Sonata has enough interior room to meet the EPA's definition of a large car. That means it's roomier in almost every dimension than most of its mid-size competitors, with a full-size edge in creature comfort.
For enhanced safety, the Sonata comes standard with electronic stability control, and it has earned the federal government's top five-star crash-test rating for front and side impacts.
For 2008, the sporty SE has been upgraded with high-performance tires, a decklid spoiler, and an eight-way power driver's seat. The 2008 Sonata Limited model comes standard with the super-deluxe stereo that was optional last year. And XM Satellite Radio comes standard on all 2008 models. Otherwise, Sonata is not significantly changed since it was totally redesigned for 2006.
Hyundai Sonata GLS 5-speed ($17,670); GLS automatic ($18,870); GLS V6 ($21,120); SE 5-speed ($19,570) SE V6 ($22,220); Limited ($22,470); Limited V6 ($24,170)
The side treatment avoids the all too common wedge look with an almost horizontal beltline riding above softly shouldered fenders and door panels. Mirrored Z-seams where the end corners of the bumpers meet the quarter panels add interest, while blacked-out window surrounds play down the tall side glass.
Extended C-pillars shorten the deck lid, which itself presents a rounded, gently sculpted profile vaguely reminiscent of the much maligned posterior of today's BMW sedans. The flat-flanged rims on the up-level 17-inch wheels suggest a high-end European import more than an affordable Asian nameplate.
The taillight outlines repeat the headlight shapes and bookend a broad, trapezoidal license plate inset. Again, there's a hint of other cars' architecture, most notably current Camry and Accord models. Sporty, California hot rod-idiom dual exhausts mark the V6-equipped versions.
The Hyundai Sonata hasn't yet found its signature design cues, but its designers are looking in the right places.
The overall look is clearly competitive with most in the class and better than some. Some rough edges on a few plastic molds and a less-than-lustrous finish on some dash panels are the only shortcomings we noticed.
A polished, hard-surfaced applique underlined with a thin slice of chrome divides the upper and lower halves of the dash. The upper is a glare-absorbing dark color, the lower a space-enhancing light tone. The passenger airbag enclosure is seamless, a trend in high-end midsize sedans.
As with many modern cars, the stereo head is fully integrated into the dash, making difficult any aftermarket customizing of the sound system but adding an upscale touch. Air conditioner controls are mounted beneath the stereo, within the accent trim centered in the lower portion of the center stack. Stereo and air conditioner controls are substantial, finger-friendly, intuitive knobs and buttons, with status and selections clearly displayed in their respective LCDs.
Three round dials in the hooded instrument cluster communicate the bare necessities of operational data to the driver. The largest is the speedometer, nestled inside a polished circle. To its left is the tachometer, to its right conjoined water temperature and fuel gauges. In the lower dash to the left of the steering column is a bank of five switch plugs, only two of which are employed in the U.S. version; one is an on/off for the ESC, the other the dash-light rheostat. Beyond that is a flip-down storage bin. The ignition key slides into a slot placed where it should be, in the dash to the right of the steering column instead of on the steering column itself, easier and more elegant when starting or shutting off the car.
All models get a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Redundant controls for the audio (optional on GLS, standard on SE and Limited) are appended to the lower left-side of the hub. On the other side of the hub are the standard cruise controls, with a helpful Cancel function. Hyundai says the audio controls will be improved by the end of the 2008 model year.
Outward visibility is good, although the wide C-pillars constrict quick, over-the-shoulder traffic checks for lane changing. Rear side windows roll all the way down, thanks to small, fixed, rear quarter windows that move the windows' rear tracks forward in the door, ahead of the wheel well. There's a roof-mounted, hinged assist handle inside every door.
Seats are comfortable, with adequate bolstering for the style of driving to which the Sonata aspires. The Limited model's leather adds a touch of class without pretending to be luxurious. The height adjustment on the driver's seat, both manual and power, pivots on the seat's front mounts, which effectively moves the seat forward as it rises. This compels taller drivers to choose between rearward seat travel and forward sightline, not always a happy compromise. On the upside, this adds inches to rear-seat legroom behind the driver, one of the multitude of measures in which the Sonata generally bests its competition. Sonata comes in second to the new Honda Accord in front and rear headroom, and to the Toyota Camry in rear-seat headroom, and by a mere one- to three-tenths of an inch. And of the second-tier competitors, the Kia Optima alone betters the new Sonata and then only by three-tenths of an inch in front seat hip room. In short, the Sonata is among the roomier cars in its class.
Rear seats are accommodating, with the bottom cushion in the center position only minimally higher than and nearly as well padded as the outboard positions. Both rear outboard seating positions have adjustable head restraints, as do the front seats. The rear seatback is split 60/40 and folds to allow the transport of long objects, such as skis and snowboards or gardening tools.
Storage bins and cubbies are
Fuel economy for the four-cylinder GLS with manual transmission, as estimated by the EPA's new test procedures designed to offer more realistic measurements, is 21 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. City mileage with the automatic is the same, and highway economy slips only slightly, to 30 mpg. V6-powered Sonatas are rated 19/28 mpg City/Highway.
Acceleration is brisk with the four-cylinder and brings a grin to the face with the V6. Hyundai officials say the V6 can accelerate from 0-60 miles per hour in about 7.5 seconds, with a top speed of 130 mph.
Shifts are executed easily with the five-speed manual, and chirping the front tires is easy. The Shiftronic automatic transmission moves between gears smoothly, kicking down for passing with minimal hesitation. The automatic offered responsive performance while tackling the hills of San Francisco. In manual mode, the Shiftronic will upshift automatically when the engine bumps up against redline; it declines to downshift at all, leaving that to the driver's preferences.
Steering is light and direct, with good on-center feel and directional stability.
Brakes are mostly linear, and equipped with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, which improves stability and reduces stopping distances by balancing brake force on the fly between the front and rear tires. ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control under hard braking. Yet we noticed little of the interference we've found with some more complex EBD-equipped systems, and then only in the final stages of a stop.
In terms of ride quality, the 17-inch wheel/tire combination makes its presence known on rough pavement, where the shorter sidewalls transmit more of the road's imperfections into the cabin. Wind and road noise is decently muted.
The suspension layout looks good on paper, with double wishbones in front, multiple control links in back, and twin-tube gas-pressure shocks and stabilizer bars all around. The V6 boasts a larger front bar to handle the larger engine's weight. But how it all works together needs work. Against the competition, which has been refining its suspension technology for much longer than Hyundai, the Sonata feels less polished, less of a whole. Not that there's anything wrong or necessarily lacking in the ride and handling. It's just that some of the transitions, in direction and between types and qualities of pavement, aren't as smooth as the look and feel of the Sonata promises. The front end tucks in nicely as steering is cranked in, but the car doesn't track as surely as expected. Hyundai says the new tires on the 2008 SE improve steering response, but we haven't tried that combination.
There's also the impression of poorly managed unsprung mass when the rear suspension crosses rough or broken pavement, which suggests the hard parts are a generation or two behind in the alloys used and how they're formed. Highway travel, even at high speeds, is smooth and unruffled, which is no small achievement.
The 2008 Hyundai Sonata delivers full-size, family-style room and comfort with an EPA-estimated 30 mpg fuel economy from the available four-cylinder engine. Sonata comes close to the refinement of competitive models from Toyota, Nissan, and Ford, while offering more room for less money.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Francisco; with nctd.com staff reports.