We frankly didn't expect to find iPod integration when we put the Sonata on our schedule. The interface for it, through the touch-screen LCD, is everything we would want, letting us choose music by album, artist, and genre. The interface for USB drives is more primitive, merely letting you browse through folders, similar to the interface for MP3 CDs. With the navigation system, there is a single-CD slot. A six-CD changer is available if you don't get the navigation system. We've found that in cars with iPod integration, the iPod becomes our go-to source for music, and we don't bother much with CDs. XM Satellite Radio is also built into this system with, we expect, the first three months free.
The audio system in the Sonata uses six speakers in the standard configuration of tweeters in the A pillars and woofers in each door, along with a subwoofer in the rear deck. Our experience with this system largely depended on the music we were listening to. With acoustic guitar, we could hear the scratch of the strings, pointing to good clarity at the high end. But tracks with serious bass quickly overwhelmed the speakers, leading to bad rattle. It sounds like the amp used with this system is clear and powerful, but the speakers aren't always up to its output.
We were disappointed that the Sonata doesn't have Bluetooth cell phone integration as an option, especially as a hands-free law is about to come into effect in California. Looks like we will have to wait until 2010, when both Kia and Hyundai models will be getting a Microsoft system similar to the Ford Sync.
Under the hood
The 2009 Hyundai Sonata comes in three trims: GLS, SE, and Limited. A 3.3-liter V-6 is available in all trims, while a 2.4-liter four cylinder is available in the GLS and Limited trims. We had the 3.3-liter V-6 in our Limited trim model, which puts out 249 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque--plenty of power for the little Sonata. The engine hummed right along, moving the car easily up hills, at freeway speeds, and passing other cars. To enhance efficiency, the engine uses continuous variable valve timing.
The 3.3 liters seems an odd choice for displacement, and Hyundai could probably have shaved it down to 3 liters without hurting the driving experience while increasing mileage. As it is, this engine gets an EPA-rated 19 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. During our time with the car, we saw the mileage creep up close to 23 mpg during freeway driving, but our final average was down at 19.4 mpg. An emissions rating wasn't available at the time of this review, but we are impressed that the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine available in the Sonata is a PZEV, meaning it produces very few smog-causing pollutants.
The five-speed automatic transmission proved to be the weak link in this power train. It doesn't react particularly fast, even in manual mode, and it takes a while to find the right gear when stressed with hill climbs or passing. Our passing experience inspired very little confidence. When we stomped the accelerator to get around slower cars on a hill, the transmission did its hunting, and settled on a gear, which made the engine give off a bad grinding sound.
The suspension in the Sonata is also very soft. You can feel the shock absorbers compress easily, and on one bad section of road, we felt the suspension bottom out on itself. This type of suspension is fine on a commute car, but allows for plenty of lean in corners and generally doesn't behave well in more stressful situations.
Likewise, the steering felt overpowered. It was too easy to swing the wheel around, whether maneuvering through a parking lot or barreling down the freeway. We didn't get a lot of road feel through the steering wheel because of the power mechanism, although it was tight enough to produce results when turned. Again, this tuning is fine in a commute car, but can be troublesome in situations where you want some feedback.
The Sonata comes standard with traction and electronic stability control, along with a tire-pressure monitoring system, plus airbags all the way around.
The 2009 Hyundai Sonata Limited V6 goes for a base price of $25,670. The navigation package is a surprisingly good deal at $1,250. Along with $90 carpeted floor mats and a $675 destination charge, our Sonata came in at $27,685. The Limited is the only trim with the navigation option, although you can save some dollars by going to the four-cylinder version, which bases at $23,970.
We were suitably impressed with the Sonata Limited, as it offered cabin tech we weren't expecting. The navigation system offers one advanced feature, text-to-speech, and generally looks and works well. We noted some problems with the audio system, but we also liked the iPod integration. Lack of Bluetooth is a problem. The drivetrain tech was less impressive. The engine was fine, although it could have been more economical, but we just didn't like the transmission. Among the Sonata's major competitors, the Honda Accord is too pricey by comparison. We've also tested the Nissan Altima Coupe, a tech-filled and more sporty alternative, and the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which offers better fuel economy.