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.
The Sonata has onscreen help for its voice commands.
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 liked its response when we asked it to "find nearest Mexican restaurants."
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.
Hyundai keeps knobs to a minimum with this instrument panel.
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.
We found destination entry easy and intuitive, whether inputting an address or searching for a point of interest. The system also allows for complex routes, letting you input multiple waypoints. There is a screen listing all waypoints on the route that lets you add or delete addresses.
With the navigation system branded as an Infinity, it's no surprise that the audio system comes from Infinity, too. That both systems come from the same OEM means good integration between them. A USB and an auxiliary audio port in the console are part of this system and are standard with the Sonata Limited. You can plug a USB flash drive directly into the USB port and play MP3s from that, and you can plug an MP3 player into the auxiliary input. But there is a third option. Hyundai includes a cable that plugs into both the USB port and the auxiliary port at the same time, and terminates in an iPod connector.
The connector for iPod, USB drive, and auxiliary input sits in the console, marked by blue backlit labels.
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 V-6 engine is powerful in the Sonata, but we would have liked to test the economy of the available four cylinder.
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.
We felt this five-speed transmission spent too long hunting for gears when passing or hill climbing.
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.