I met him in a crowded room. Where people go to drink away their gloom. He sat me down and so began the story of a charmless man
THAT DAMNING LINE from Brit rock band Blur was racing round my head as I slid from behind the wheel of Hyundai’s latest Sonata sedan. The latest iteration rejoins the compact executive saloon market that is 85% owned by the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4. Booted alternatives fighting for the minor placings include the Honda Accord, Citroën C5, Mazda6, Subaru Legacy, VW Passat and Volvo S40.
Plucky then, for the Koreans to take on the segment big boys in this market, because despite their product quality gains, world top five producer ranking and a doughty attention to customer service, it’s still about the badge. Hyundai’s new thrust is to build emotion through design, and to boost brand value, but they are yet to make the link to luxury.
The earliest Sonatas (released 1993, facelifted 1996) traded on honest value and were let down by reliability issues. The fourth generation released in 1998 after Hyundai Motor Corporation took control locally was better, but this sixth-gen car (strangely not badged ix45 as it is down under) is a significantly better car in very respect.
Visually the new Sonata showcases Hyundai’s new design language, dubbed Fluidic Sculpture, which is also evident on the popular ix35. Apart from the overly ornate grille a sleek and elegant flow from the A-pillar to the rear is the main event. The design takes cues from the German rivals (who can fail to see C-class elements, including the boldly upswept shoulder line) but it is physically larger, being 20mm longer, 5mm wider and 5mm lower than its predecessor, with shorter front and rear overhangs. A stretched wheelbase (2795mm) makes for more generous cabin packaging while bootspace of 463 litres is enough for a couple of overnight bags.
The plush leather seats and upscale interior has a functional design with a high level of specification, though the details lack the refinement of premium rivals. The horrid paddle shift levers and tacky gear lever and gate which looks like a throwback from a 230E Merc, but executed in shiny plastic, are distinctly downscale. No complaints about the safety kit list, which includes six airbags, active headrests, brake assist and hill start assist. Add in the standard 18-inch alloys and a nice-to-have like park distance control and the standard 2.4 GLS Sonata (R286 313) and 2.4 GLS Executive model (R306 313) present incredible good value. Factor in the panoramic sunroof, bi-xenon headlights and electrically adjusted front seats with memory (all part of the Executive model’s spec) and you have features that would add R40k or more to the list price for competitors like the
BMW 320i Start Steptronic (R329 900), Mercedes Benz C180CGI Classic auto (R357 400) and Audi 1.8T Attraction multitronic (R324 155).
Hyundai chose to slot an older generation 2.4-litre naturally aspirated petrol four under the hood instead of going the smaller capacity force-fed route of the rivals, focusing engineering attention on the new six-speed automatic gearbox which is smaller, lighter and has 62 fewer moving parts than the previous five-speeder. It’s a smooth powertrain, offering relatively swift acceleration and a well-matched set of transitions through the gearbox.
Cruising is effortless on the open road and both refinement and ride quality are excellent over undulating terrain. But there’s a lack of personality and dynamic character. In a straight line the Sonata feels inoffensive and well-mannered, but tackle a corner and it exhibits lurid body roll, a victim of that overly compliant suspension. There’s no steering feel whatsoever and little sense of driver engagement, which makes it near perfect for the American market.
If there are still any Camry fans out there, they would find Utopia in the Sonata as it’s a very roomy, premium appliance. Those in search of a more dynamic option should rather stick to the pricier Germans or put the accomplished Honda Accord on their shortlist.
While not offensive, the Sonata is still no class leader. It’s closer to the top three, but its chintzy finishes and handling deficiencies won’t go unnoticed. Perhaps Generation 7 will fix all that, but for now, that Blur song pretty much sums it up.