Hyundai struggles to fix wandering Sonata syndrome

The Hyundai Sonata is one of the best-selling cars in the United States and a touchstone for the Korean automaker's rise among consumers. Yet possibly thousands of the cars want to turn left, constantly — a problem Hyundai can't seem to fix.

Hyundai's onslaught of new models for U.S. consumers has been mostly well-received by buyers and auto critics, with one group saying Hyundai's quickly created the most loyal group of owners among all automakers, surpassing even Honda and Toyota. Much of those gains came from Hyundai overcoming a reputation for defects from its last big push a decade ago, and offering high-tech cars like the Sonata, the only midsize sedan with turbo and gas-electric hybrid variations. So far, Hyundai's sold 600,000 of the latest generation sold so far.

But since its launch last year, a growing number of Sonata owners have reported the same problem with their vehicles; a tendency to wander, typically to the left, especially at highway speeds. The problem has spawned 188 complains with U.S. federal officials, and hundreds more have weighed in online. Many say the issue persists despite repeated attempts to fix it by dealers; some customers even accuse dealers of trying to conceal the problem before selling a Sonata:

I really have to fight with the steering wheel to keep the car going straight. after 45 minutes of driving on interstate my arms were sore from fighting the steering wheel. is this normal? according to the hyundai rep it is common to 2011 sonata. i am suppose to just get used to it. this one mechanic confirmed that every other sonata owners come complain about this problem. yet supposedly it is not a problem. it is simply the nature of the car.

While Hyundai has issued a recall for a separate steering defect in Sonatas, it's been unable to produce either a permanent fix or an explanation for the problem — a large mark against its carefully crafted reputation for quality.

All cars can wander a bit, and even small variations in tire pressure and wheel alignment can create problems. But as several videos posted by Sonata owners demonstrate, the wandering Sonatas require unusual and constant force to remain in line. The vast majority of complaints report their Sonatas pulling left, although some have said their cars pull to the right as well.

Hyundai's response, including a technical service bulletin and special alignment instructions, has grown over the past few months to include a new strut for the left front wheel — one with a slightly larger bolt hole allowing the camber, or vertical tilt, of the wheel to be altered so that the left tire angles inward at its top more than the right. That's fixed the problem for a few drivers; so has putting weight in the trunk or having passengers ride along.

But nothing's been shown to definitively fix the complaint, and even long-term magazine testers, including Consumer Reports and Car & Driver, have reported the same problem and the same attempted fixes. Several owners say Hyundai washes its hands if the problem outlasts its fixes:

W/myself and others every step of the way the dealership is claiming victory and everyone except the owner is signing off that the vehicle performs as intended/properly/satisfactorily.

Case closed as they try time again to shut the door in your face basically telling you to take it down the road because several of them have agreed amongst themselves to toe the company line instead of alleviating the problem. They cower to pressure from within the Hyundai Kia Motor Group and the powers that be within the dealership because they don't have the cajones to do right by the paying consumer...They pitched the 2011 Sonata, and now the 2012 sonata as cutting edge technology at affordable prices, but when a technological problem of mechanical nature comes down the pike they shrug their shoulders implying whaddya expect from a budget ricer?...We don't build 'em we just sell 'em. Left pull? Well, we don't know; how does a rainbow work? It just does.

The topic has become so widespread that dealers are now tacking it before Sonatas are sold, with one potential buyer reporting the salesman waving off the issue as common to all Sonatas, due to wet roads and triggered in part because they're front-wheel-drive and only the right wheel spins.

Hyundai spokesman Jim Trainor said the automaker was "working hard to understand the issue and working with customers who feel they have an issue on a case-by-case basis." The phrase "case-by-case" is automaker lingo for a problem not deemed widespread enough to warrant a recall, but another person who's been in contact with Hyundai executives said the company had explored fixes that could involve replacing much of the front suspension in affected Sonatas — but that the company's dealers were being pressured to just keep customers happy until a broader fix arrived.

Since there's no reports of crashes or injuries so far to U.S. authorities, the problem doesn't yet appear to qualify as a potential safety defect that could warrant an investigation. Unless something dramatic develops, Hyundai Sonata owners will have little option but to tilt against the company on their own.


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