Hyundai got high marks from many auto reviewers for the last generation of its Sonata sedan, but it fell short on the car tech front. But now the 2009 Hyundai Sonata is here, and it looks good for catching up with and surpassing its nearest competitors. We weren't surprised to find a navigation system in a Toyota Corolla we reviewed recently, but when we saw the LCD in the Sonata's dashboard, we only kept our feet because we had a little advance warning. It was the iPod integration and the voice command system that really floored us. We had the top-of-the line Limited V6 model, which comes with an engine offering more than adequate power for the little sedan. We were only troubled by the transmission's gear hunting, the soft ride, and the overly powered steering.
Test the tech: Talking to a car
Voice command systems can be troublesome. Many times while testing cars we've found ourselves yelling at the dashboard, repeating the same phrase over and over again, only to have the car reply "Sorry?" or "Audio off" when we were trying to cancel route guidance, as one example. And thinking it was audacious of the 2009 Hyundai Sonata, as a newcomer to modern car tech, to offer a voice command system, we put it to the test.
While driving down the freeway, we started with a few free-form commands, not bothering to read the manual. After hitting the voice button on the left side of the steering wheel, we waited for the prompt, then said, "Destination." The navigation system brought up the destination entry screen right away--a good start. We wanted to go back to the map, so tried saying, "Exit." Hearing that, it switched from the CD player to AM radio. All right, time to get serious.
We pulled off the freeway, parked, and said "Help." The car brought up some top-level help commands on the screen, informing us that we could get specific help on any function. After reading the available commands, we set off again, and tried something complex. We said, "FM frequency 102 point 1," and the car responded by switching to FM 102.1, the local classical station.
OK, we had the hang of this. Thinking we might want to stop for a water, we tried another somewhat complex command. First we said, "Destination," then, "Find nearest convenience store." The screen immediately brought up a list of 7-Elevens and other convenience stores, sorted by their distance from our current location. Nice, but there were no indicator arrows telling us the direction to each one. With a few taps of the touch screen, we could find the locations of any entry on the map, but that was fairly tedious, especially when most of the nearest ones were behind us and we weren't in the mood to backtrack.
We continued on, and in thinking about our experience with the system so far, we realized that we might be able to utter our commands out of context. For example, with many systems we've found that you have to drill down, as in first saying "Navigation" then saying navigation-specific commands. So with the Sonata, we brought up the iPod screen, then said, "Find nearest Mexican restaurant." The system switched from our music screen to a list of nearby Mexican restaurants.
We were pleased with the Sonata's voice command system. In general, the voice commands are intuitive. It doesn't take much time with the onscreen help to figure out some useful commands. It also recognized our spoken commands with good accuracy, working just as well as the system we've used extensively in the Honda Civic.
In the cabin
We mentioned above that we were surprised to find so many tech features in the 2009 Hyundai Sonata. Part of the reason for all these tech features was apparent in the cabin where Infinity logos abound. The subwoofer grille on the rear deck proclaimed Infinity, as did the faceplate for the navigation and audio system. We could see that Hyundai had been hanging out in the right company.
The instrument panel in the Sonata is very uncluttered, with a high-resolution LCD and plenty of nicely inset buttons. Hyundai seems to be taking a stance against knobs, for the most part, as even the temperature controls are rocker switches. In fact, there is so much leftover space from this clean design that Hyundai places two small storage areas in the center stack, below the navigation unit.
The optional navigation system, a good deal at $1,250, uses bright, clear maps with good resolution, avoiding jaggy street names. It renders its maps quickly enough, although we sometimes found its route recalculation slow. On one trip, when we forced it to recalculate multiple times, it finally seemed to give up. Of course, our final destination was already visible on the map, so the navigation system must have been telling us we could find our own way from there. But other than that critique, the route guidance is good, with clear graphics for upcoming turns and text-to-speech, its one advanced feature, where it reads out street names.