Inside a lower-level room of Hyundai America's Technical Center, Honda and Toyota parts are scattered everywhere.
Headlight assemblies sit on tables to the right. Closer to the wall are car frames - each individual section painted a different color.
And waiting for us outside this room is the reason Hyundai completely dissected an '08 Accord and '07 Camry - the refreshed 2009 Hyundai Sonata.
Benchmarking cars such as the Camry, Accord, and Nissan Altima, Hyundai inspected every inch of its mid-size competitors in an effort to give the Sonata some impressive mid-cycle enhancements. For 2009, the Sonata gets new headlights and taillights, a slightly revised fascia with a deeper grille, and several new color options.
Thanks to a more linear air intake path and standard five-speed automatic, the Sonata's fuel economy and power also receive a boost in both the 3.3-liter V-6 and 2.4-liter four-cylinder models (which now have 249 hp and 175 hp, respectively). However, its horsepower numbers still don't match the V-6 Accord or Camry, and the V-6 is only a bit more powerful than the one in the Ford Fusion (which has the least V-6 grunt in the mid-size class but partially makes amends by offering all-wheel-drive).
Finding the revised Sonata gains power and sips less fuel is welcome news, but perhaps more important is that Hyundai completely redesigned the car's aging interior for 2009.
Taking styling cues from its Veracruz SUV (which we have described as having a Lexus-like cabin), Hyundai gave the Sonata a new center console, audio and HVAC instrument panel, new door trim, and blue ambient lighting. Other interior upgrades include a minor seat angle adjustment and a new touch-screen and voice-activated navigation system that allows drivers to input a destination without taking their eyes off the road or stopping their vehicle (and it's a bargain at only $1250). Though the Sonata is shorter than the Camry and Accord, it has more interior volume. And at $26,345, a fully loaded version costs a few thousand dollars less than comparably equipped models of either Japanese competitor.
During test runs of two different V-6 Sonata models, we grew partial to the 3.3-liter Sonata SE (identified by a rear spoiler and five-spoke wheels), which feels less floaty than the Sonata Limited because of a recalibrated sport suspension. For longer trips, we'd probably take the Limited model with its intuitive navigation, iPod and USB connectivity, and more attractive interior (although some staffers prefer the SE's silver-accented dash).
However, if you do order the Sonata Limited, be prepared to sacrifice some of the SE's better steering feel for style.