COAL: 2008 Hyundai Sonata GLS –Perfectly “Blanding In”

Some time ago I expressed my desire of a comfortable sedan for the longer trips while complaining about the harsh ride and ergonomic quirks of my 2005 Pontiac Vibe. Now I have such a sedan: the 2008 Hyundai Sonata GLS 2.4L. The yawn-mobile of the decade and I like it. It’s actually my son’s college car and I took it over for the time being while he has fun studying abroad. I bought it for him in 2015 when his ’98 Mazda Protégé was dripping oil on the exhaust and fumigated him the cabin. That and the looming start of the semester made the move urgent.

I was heading to Sebastian, a local used car dealer to check out a Nissan Sentra. However a happily smiling man was waving good bye to Sebastian and driving it off the lot. “Too bad, Wolfgang!” “Well what’s up with this here?” I asked pointing to the silver over fifty shades of productivity enhancing Steelcase ™ grey Hyundai Sonata. “It’s a nice running car, only 102,000 miles, take it for a spin,” Sebastian said. I could not find anything wrong on the short drive other than a little imbalance in the tires. I called my son and let him take a spin too. He liked it as well. Sebastian and I talked numbers for a few seconds ($4500) and just like that it was his. Sebastian offered me to display the Protégé on his lot and we sold it there for $500 a week or two later.

As found on the dealer’s lot.

During the test drive I said to my son: “This is just a comfortable family car, not more not less”. Keeping this in mind I have to say Hyundai nailed it with this generation Sonata. Everything is neat and straight forward. The body is nicely proportioned and looks substantial. I think it fits the Bauhaus philosophy of design: form follows function. And yet there is nothing outstanding about it. Remember where you park or you will walk right by your Sonata.

It continues like that on the interior. The view out is great all around. It’s a nice enough a place to let the scenery pass by while listening to music. I can’t find any ergonomic quirks and drove for hours without feeling the need of making adjustments to the seat. The GLS trimmed car does not pretend to be luxurious, but it has what makes driving easy and pleasurable: easy to read instruments with a big speedometer and a smaller tachometer, good sounding stereo, cruise control, power mirrors and windows, and for safety a whole bunch of airbags and electronic stability control.

There is integrity in its design. The driving experience delivers what the esthetics promise. Neither Sport Sedan nor Luxury Barge it gives you a calm and competent ride. The Sonata makes me patient and relaxed. It discourages spirited driving. It does that with the steering mostly. At center the Sonata gives a muted response to the initial steering input. It becomes more linear off center. The steering ratio is indirect as well and it’s a little bit over-assisted. As a result it suites a mellow driving style. The other part is the softness of the springs and damping rates. Clearly this is for the one who seeks comfort. Yet the fully independent suspension with double wishbones up front and 4 wheel disk brakes provides the stuff to keep it securely on track. In short: play it allegro ma non troppo. The most appropriate pace of locomotion may be allegretto if not moderato.

I like the fact that there is one thing not present: a CDU, you know the Central Distraction Unit aka touch screen. Everything works with tactile feedback. You turn dials and push real buttons and you operate levers. The console is of modest size leaving ample room for the driver’s legs and knees. On the other hand, a dedicated cell phone holder for the navigation app would have been nice. I am not contradicting myself; it’s just a dissonance. The Google app I use provides audible turn by turn instructions, something that really lowers the anxiety levels when navigating unfamiliar locations in fast flowing traffic.
If there is something to criticize it is the headlights. The output of the halogens is mediocre. They make me miss the Ford Windstar I used to have.

That’s all you need to know about the Sonata. Anyway that’s what I thought until Ed Snitkoff taught me otherwise in his excellent CC on the Sonata. But this article is about our particular Sonata that became what it is under the influence of a previous owner and the general forces of entropy.

The first stop was the gas station and we couldn’t open the fuel door. The button in the door did not work. The trunk popped open though and there we found the manual release cable. Hey, it’s a cheap college car! It came with a nice yet expandable starter collection of dings, hail dents, scratches, stains on the seats, tears in the carpet. The ashtray was (and still is) open 24/7 because the catch is kaput. What’s more, the newest part must have been the left front fender because its paint does not match the rest of the car. This and the fact that the passenger side mirror is mounted with power screws is indicative of incidental “sonar” navigation in its past. The tires were mismatched too and mounted with mixed nuts, and the TPMS light was (and still is) on. But it ran like a top. Upon closer inspection we found that the plugs were new, but the hold downs for the coils were not tightened.

Just add water.

The air cleaner was fine but the cabin air filter was the one the factory installed some 8 years prior. A car is original only once, but this was gross!

As winter drew close I found a set of four near new Michelin X-Ice for about $ 275. It was more than I hoped paying for winter tires as I still had to pay for mounting and balancing. I had them put on the rims and stored the mismatched and rather worn all season tires in my garage. I expected a protracted search for a better set of used tires. But just a few weeks later there was an ad for a complete set of wheels for the Hyundai Sonata with good to very good Continental tires for only $25. When I met the guy he was seriously hung over, the result of a graduation party, he mentioned. He also had an extra tire and a set of wheel covers. I took it all for $40. The old tires, and the spare tire I sold for $50. I had the alignment checked too and it was perfect but for one half a degree of trail on the right front. Great!

My son faithfully had the oil changed at the local quick lube often taking advantage of the early bird special. He commuted to his varied jobs and took it for a few longer trips. He also bought a cover for the rear seat to protect it from the dog’s paws and stuff when he took him out to the river bottom occasionally. According to Mrs. W. he got the dog because he would teach him all that responsibility. Obviously it worked.

Then he went to Germany for 10 months of study abroad and mind-expansion headaches .

And we old folks get to enjoy his car. Well, its condition wasn’t exactly enjoyable as it was because it had hardly changed since the purchase two years ago: dirty inside and out, carpet torn under the driver’s feet, driver’s seat rail mechanism making ratcheting noise, the horn being mute, visors don’t stay up, electric fuel door release didn’t work, neither does the master window switch for the passenger side, pulsation in the brakes, vibration in the wheels- just little stuff, you know.

Using the garden hose on cloth seats: you can’t wash them without making them wet.

I took the cloth seats out and put the garden hose to them and scrubbed them with a solution of Bissell Carpet and Upholstery cleaner. I then used the Bissell machine to suck out as much of the water as possible. The collected water was black of dirt and filth. The seats still have faint stains though. The carpet got the same treatment because I did not know when I would find a replacement.

After straightening this tab….

….the keys fully retract from the holes.

To move the driver’s seat fore and aft I had to tug hard on the release lever and it made ratcheting noises when it finally moved. After bending a tab to the correct angle the action was restored to new.

Sparky the bison survived a lightning strike

On Labor Day we took a short trip to the Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge. The 2.4L engine is surprisingly smooth owing to balance shafts. I find it quite torquey for an I4 engine. But then I am used to 1.8L and 2L engines. The car is delightfully quiet and comfortable. I really appreciate the elbow space compared to the Pontiac Vibe or the Ford Focus, our main rides. By the way the EPA considers the Sonata a large car for its interior space. I kept tabs on the fuel consumption and got 30 mpg with regular containing up to 10% ethanol. Not bad, not bad at all with the AC running.

The missus was indifferent about the car, she noted the absence of a sliding roof and that was it. On the other hand she did not ask what people might think of the owners, which was a question regarding the Vibe.

Mid-September I went to Wrench ‘n Go in Des Moines looking for a donor car with a good carpet. There was no Hyundai Sonata but a same generation Kia Optima. Scored on the first try! I also picked up the switch for the fuel door release. On the way home I needed to blow the horn on an SUV that threatened to cross the centerline into my path and nothing happened. With distracted driving being a common thing you need a functioning horn. Replacing the blown fuse fixed that.

I did the garden hose / Bissell routine on the junk yard carpet. On the rear passenger side the water turned brown. It must have soaked up a soda beverage some long time ago. On the passenger front the water turned foamy. I suppose there was some residue of a carpet cleaner present. It all cleaned up very well but not perfectly, not that I expected perfection.

Yuck! Shifter assembly.

Detailed details.

A few days later, when the Optima carpet was all dry I pulled the torn carpet out of the Sonata. Replacing it shouldn’t take all that long, a few hours, I guessed. But what a mess came to light! This must have been the Big Gulp ™, spilled by the previous owner, half of it over the carpet and the other half into the shifter assembly. The projected 2 to 3 hours turned into 3 week nights and a Saturday morning.

I removed and disassembled the console and the covers of the shifter assembly and cleaned them in the kitchen sink. Some of the gunk I identified as a cosmetic paste (foundation?). Some pitch black gunk may have been mascara. The actual shifter block I left attached to the shift cable. The block had lots of nooks and crevices filled with a dried up cola beverage. I took a paint brush to reach in with soapy water. On a what-the-heck impulse I took the garden hose and showered the thing and everything else. This was a bit risky with all the electrical wiring exposed. I followed up with the Bissell wet vacuum to remove the water. Of course the foam pads in the foot wells were soaking wet. This required propping them up and running a fan for several hours for drying.


There was some rust on the floor probably the result of salty slush coming off winter boots. I figured it’s superficial but will continue unless treated in some way. I used a wire brush then a penetrating oil and followed up with an oil based primer of sorts.

Much better!

Out with the Sonata carpet in with the Optima carpet.

A number of mounting perforations in the Optima did not line up with the Sonata. It took some extra time and a pocket knife to fix this. Other than that reassembly went well. In fact I find it is quite easy to take apart the interior of modern cars. I did that with the Pontiac Vibe and a Ford Contour before. I managed to scratch the hood of the Sonata though when I lifted a seat over it.

The backs of the switches can be pried open to clean the innards.

‘How about the fuel door popper’ went through my mind? I pried the switch out of the door panel and had a close look at the backside. I used a pocket knife to pry it open. There was a small coil spring and a metal tab with two contact points on it. The contact points were covered with some black stuff. The push button had corresponding contact points and they were gunked up too. I cleaned it up with the pocket knife and a rag. And after snapping it back together it worked again. Hmm, I wasted money at the junk yard. The things we do to support the economy!
What else? One wheel was mounted with a handful of mixed nuts that required changing the wrench between 19mm and 21mm. How inconvenient. I found a few 21mm wide nuts in the dirt of the junk yard and swapped them out. Now all twenty lug nuts go with the 21 mm wrench.

That’s as good as it gets.

The clean-up and carpet swap made a huge difference in the cabin’s ambience. I even retired the air freshener that dangled from the rear view mirror. Aside of the remaining faint stains the interior is now as enjoyable as drab grey can be.
Can I fix the window switch? The passenger window goes down but not up using the master switch. I looked at some Youtubes on fixing broken power window switches and realized there is a chance I could repair the existing one. I removed the door panel and unscrewed the switch and applied electronics cleaner. Then I plugged it in without the buttons attached for a test and it worked! Then I put it all together and tested again. No go.
Another trip to the junk yard yielded a window power switch from a ‘07 Kia Rondo. Unfortunately it did not fit. Later I returned the window switch for a store credit. I also found floor mats for the passenger side front and rear. And the lug wrench and jack. No ashtray though.

This lady may have something in common with the previous owner: too much make up.

The burn mark shows the location of the vanity light switch

Receipt issued in Florida with a cryptic note.

Once paying closer attention I noticed a bunch of stains on the driver side visor and the surrounding headliner. I thought my trusty Bissell will take it off in an instant. But it didn’t. When I took the vanity mirror out of the visor I noticed that the built in switch for the vanity light had burnt through. The stains were of liberally applied foundation and the carpet was likely torn by fashionable footwear. The evidence of makeup and the note on a receipt “All my son” that surfaced leads Sherlock to conclude that the previous owner was a fine looking Mama who treated her son to a vacation in Florida.

The fast lube place sent a post card with the message “Your oil change is overdue!” I know, I know. I’ll do it myself. And the tranny drain and fill as well. I spend almost $100 for 2 gal of tranny fluid, 5 qts of oil and a filter. The tranny fluid came out black and the deposits on the magnetic plug lead me to believe that this is the first time the fluid has been changed. I did a second drain and fill a week later and more extra fine metal shavings coated the magnetic drain plug.

The power steering is whining a little so it could benefit from a flush as well. It will take the Hyundai PSF 4 fluid. No one knows what exactly this is, therefore I won’t chance the off the shelf stuff. On another trip to Des Moines I went to the Kia dealer. Two guys were having a smoke and watched me backing into the parking spot. Inside, a fine looking lady with too much make up helped me by calling the parts guy over the intercom. One of the two took a break from his break and gave me the three bottles of PSF-4. On top of that he advised me that two light bulbs were out: the reversing light on the right and the brake light on the left.

Did he just give me another excuse to lavish love onto my Sonata in Grey? Sure did. Sunday I ventured to the parts store and fixed those and the front right parking light that I noticed out in the reflection off the store window. It took the better part of one hour to change these bulbs because you have to remove a panel on the trunk lid and the headlight unit to get to them. The brake lights are easily accessed behind little covers.

Where is Waldo? At the grain elevator in Cambridge , Iowa.

Later that day I asked my other son to verify that my brake lights are indeed working. They did, except for the center light at the rear window. That should be a snap, I thought. But it wasn’t. Youtube revealed that a pair of magician’s hands will do that trick in about 30 minutes. I found out that I don’t have magician’s hands and it took me 60 minutes.

60 minutes to change a light bulb.

I had to remove the package tray. Something you can do after removing both side bolsters of the rear bench, the inside covers of the C-pillars, the 10 or so screws that hold the trim pieces of the trunk to cabin opening, and an electrical connector from inside the trunk. Then you can pull the bulb and plug in the new one. Assemble in reverse order.
Or do what the geniuses at Hyundai did not: make a 2 ½” access hole, pull the bulb holder, replace the bulb and seat the bulb holder. I guess that takes ten minutes, if you have the proper hole saw handy.

Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge Council Bluffs, Ia and Omaha, Ne.

We went on a get-away to Omaha, NE using the Sonata. “Is it better than my [‘10 Ford Focus]?” Mrs. W asked. “It is for this purpose”, I said. It is two sizes larger, more comfortable, causes no pain in the seat meat even after hours of driving, and makes less wind and mechanical noises. I have to say if this is a basic and ordinary car then the bar to reach basic and ordinary levels is set very high indeed.

Sonata in front of ethanol plants.

I have spent as much time tending to the Sonata as I did driving it and there are still a few things left to do. However, the interior detail was well worth it. Even Mrs. W seems to agree: “You really cleaned it up well and it smells better too.” Beyond that it was nothing out of the ordinary to bring this Sonata in proper shape. The car has the potential to get my son through college. It has already served him well for two full years. On top of that we are having a trial period of owning a sedan for travel and a small wagon for commuting and dog duties.