Elegant and roomy interior, luxurious ride, considerable trunk space, plenty of standard features without a hefty price tag, extensive warranty.
Vague steering feel, anemic and buzzy engine.
When the current-generation Hyundai Sonata debuted in 2006, we were duly impressed with its attractive exterior styling, exceptional build quality and roomy cabin. In the time since, the Sonata has undergone a series of updates and upgrades to bring it closer to challenging its well-established competitors from Japan. All the while, accolades for its dependability and quality have been rolling in, further bolstering the Sonata's reputation as a quality sedan.
For 2009, the Hyundai Sonata Limited's exterior has changed little from the previous year. The big change lies inside with a revamped cabin. Ignoring the warped "H" logo, the interior looks and feels more like a Japanese premium brand rather than a bargain South Korean marque. A bump in horsepower and improved handling also round out the '09 upgrades.
At a very minimum, the 2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited meets expectations for midsize sedans. Surprisingly, it often exceeds expectations — by a long shot. Among $25,000 cars, this Hyundai is hard to dismiss with its long list of standard equipment, excellent build quality and comprehensive warranty. Toyota and Honda should take note — this Hyundai has raised the bar and is poised to challenge for the crown.
Our 2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited test vehicle came equipped with the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine (a V6 is optional). For 2009, the engine produces 175 horsepower and 168 pound-feet of torque — compared to the previous year's 162 hp and 164 lb-ft. Power is routed to the front wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission, which is the only choice available.
In testing, we only managed to accelerate to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds — definitely not a pavement scorcher, but not that much slower than other four-cylinder sedans like the Chevy Malibu, Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Likewise, the Sonata's fuel economy is comparable at an EPA-estimated 22/32 mpg on the city/highway and 25 mpg in combined driving — though under our enthusiastic right feet, we only managed to squeeze 20 mpg out of our test car.
Like most four-cylinder sedans in this segment, available power is adequate, but certainly not plentiful. With barely enough power to chirp the front tires from a standstill, the lack of oomph makes itself readily apparent when attempting to merge onto highways or when the road points skyward. When pushed any harder than moderate throttle, the motor emits an appliancelike buzz that is far from confidence-inspiring. However, on the flat, straight highway, the little engine (that almost could) is quiet and smooth. If your goal is to squeeze every last drop of gas and stretch every dollar, go with the four-cylinder. If not, we suggest opting for the much more powerful V6 engine, with gas mileage just a few ticks below that of the inline-4.
Obviously, Hyundai doesn't intend for the Sonata to be used for much high-performance driving, but this sedan still manages to obey aggressive driver commands without drama or surprises. Body roll is pronounced enough to make nautical references, and under heavy braking, nosedive is so exaggerated, it's almost cartoonlike. Brake feel is soft throughout a long pedal arc, but reasonable in normal conditions. Braking distance from 60 mph is about average for the class at 127 feet with noticeable fade after several runs — though it's doubtful drivers would ever flog the Sonata hard enough to experience this.
The Sonata's steering is feather-light at parking lot speeds — almost too light — making parallel parking in tight spots effortless. At highway speeds, steering effort builds to acceptable levels, but when rapid inputs are called for, the car's responses feels a bit delayed and disconnected. Overall, the Sonata gets the job done, but it lacks the sporting tendencies found in some of its competitors like the Mazda 6 and Nissan Altima.
Despite our 2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited's modest pricing, it delivered comfort that is normally expected of much more expensive and renowned luxury cars. Nearly all road imperfections were shrugged off, transmitting very little proof of their existence to the spine or ear — all without the Sonata feeling floaty at highway speeds.
As with all Sonatas, our Limited's interior space is generous, allowing for easy ingress and egress. Front seat comfort is exceptional, with plenty of power-adjustable features that are found across all Sonata trim levels as either standard or optional equipment. Rear seating is equally comfortable — even for three adults — though some may find the seat bottoms on the short side. If we were to find fault anywhere, it would be the stiff, plasticky feel of the leather seats.
From the driver seat, visibility is outstanding thanks to the Sonata's low beltline and narrow pillars. A comfortable driving position should be easily found by almost any sized pilot, with controls in easy reach. The gauges are easy on the eyes, with a soothing blue glow.
Switchgear for the Limited model's dual-zone climate control is easily deciphered thanks to large buttons that can be operated without a glance. The Sonata's steering wheel controls are equally easy to use, with small levers for volume control and voice activation tucked in between the spokes. Initially, these tiny controls seem fussy, but the tactile markers on the back of the switches quickly make operation second nature.
Our 2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited was equipped with the optional navigation system with a high-resolution touchscreen. The screen itself is exceptionally legible despite its relatively small 6.5-inch size, and it can be also used to control the audio functions. Operation is fairly simple and intuitive, even without opening the owner's manual. Also noteworthy is the standard (yet premium) Infinity sound system that provides enough clarity and bass to satisfy any taste in music.
In the Sonata Limited's spirit of overdelivering, storage space is generous and plentiful. The capacious trunk maxes out at a substantial 16.3 cubic feet — more than enough room for non-SUV loads. Cabin storage is functional and well thought out, with large bins in the center stack. The cord pass-through notch for iPods/MP3 players in the armrest bin (where the USB/auxiliary audio jacks live) is another nice touch.
Design/Fit and Finish
From the outside, the 2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited is about as exciting as vanilla ice cream, but most of us around the offices find the look to be tasteful. The design is simple and clean, with chrome accents that aren't overdone. Inside, however, the Sonata goes decidedly upscale — still vanilla, but maybe French Vanilla Bean gelato in a port reduction topped with a mint sprig — not just tasteful, but tasty.
Soft-to-the-touch plastics are top-notch, as are almost all the materials from the headliner to the floor mats. Switches and buttons all have the appearance of being specifically made for each purpose, rather than pulled from a central parts bin and relabeled. Interior gripes are minimal, including the woodlike trim and the minor squeak or rattle from which our test car suffered. Overall, build quality exceeds our expectations of sedans in this segment, and even for some well past the Sonata Limited's $25K price tag.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited should be on the top of your list, if you're in the market for any sedan in the $25K range. You'd be hard-pressed to find one that matches its upscale amenities and luxurious interior. As capable as our four-cylinder was, we'd suggest opting for the more proficient V6 engine with the navigation package.