Once upon a time, owning a Hyundai Sonata was akin to telling the world you couldn’t afford a Toyota Camry. Korean automotive technology twenty years ago was still lagging behind the Japanese. However, times have changed — with the industriousness of the Korean “underdog” culture, and possibly with heaps of assistance from the government, in terms of incentives and even some bail outs, the Korean automotive industry has grown in leaps and bounds, moving from manufacturing under license to full-fledged A to Z manufacturers.
With a hard-working population that was willing to take lower wages, South Korea literally became the modern “Japan”, taking over the affordable car slot that was vacated by the Japanese car makers due to increasing wage costs. Car designs went through a quantum leap about a decade ago, and from being copy cats (I remember distinctly the “Front looks like a Mercedes and the back looks like a Jaguar” advertisement), new and more exciting designs started to emerge. The two distinct leaders in the Korean automotive trade are Kia and Hyundai, which are actually sister brands belonging to one huge conglomerate, and the latest vehicles coming from these two marques are really ground-breaking in design, and are of high quality in terms of specifications.
The Hyundai Sonata has come a long way indeed — the late model Sonata introduced about five years ago created quite a wave, and the latest 2015 looks set to give its D-segment Japanese competition a fair run for the purchaser’s purse strings.
However, technology and a high level of trim comes at a price — in today’s borderless world, a typical automotive part of a set level of quality costs much the same anywhere in the world, and it is the same with tooling and equipment. Together with a flourishing society and more than half a century of peace with its northern neighbour, even labour costs have caught up.
Thus, don’t let it be a surprise that it is no longer cheap to own a Sonata. For the recently-launched all-new 2015 version, you pay a minimum of RM143,163.30 for the entry-level Elegance B model, higher than the asking price of a Nissan Teana or Honda Accord. Further up, the Elegance and Executive models complete the line-up at RM149,845.30 and RM158,053.30 respectively.
For some reasons known only to these select makers, they are all competing to sell similarly-sized cars in the RM140K to RM180K price bracket, leaving a distinct gap between them and the two premium German makes. (Volkswagen goes against the grain by what appears to be a strategy to cut across all segments with a wide range of vehicles over an equally wide spectrum of prices).
To make the higher asking price more palatable, which seems to construe a healthy respect for its competitors, Hyundai nevertheless endeavours to offer greater value for money, fitting an admittedly competitive array of kit with electronic stability control, electric driver seat adjustment, and keyless entry among other things as standard in all variants. The higher models are loaded with additional features such as satellite navigation, six airbags, bi-xenon headlamps, and panoramic sunroof.
A 2.0-litre all-aluminium engine carried over from its predecessor powers the Sonata. Generating outputs of 154PS and 194Nm and mated with a 6-speed automatic transmission, it does offer adequate performance for 90 per cent of buyers in the segment. The remaining 10 per cent with demands for more oomph will probably feel left out as Hyundai has decided to drop the 2.4-litre engine option. This was my personal impression after attending a recent test drive session of the new Sonata. Hyundai actually has a 2.0 litre engine with direct injection that develops more power and is more fuel efficient, but for the moment, that engine is reserved for its i40, sold as a CBU alongside the Sonata which is locally assembled.
Personally, I really think going with the direct injection engine would boost the Sonata appeal — I was told there needs to be some product differentiation between the i40 and the Sonata, so it is purely a marketing decision that can be judged to be right or not so right over time and sales performance.
Other than its engine, however, rest of the new Sonata really is all-new. More than half of its body structure is made of advanced high strength steel which is lighter in weight, but stronger in rigidity. Compared to its predecessor, the new Sonata has 41 per cent higher torsional rigidity and 35 per cent higher bending rigidity. The all-independent suspension architecture has also been thoroughly revised for better overall stability whilst power steering assist switches over from hydraulic to electric.
The car handles quite well, and I would dare say the ride quality is on par with its Japanese competitors, which is about half a step below the German makes. The new electric steering felt good, and if I didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t know any different.
Seeking to project a more refined and luxurious persona than its predecessor, Hyundai adopted for an evolutionary approach in styling the new Sonata. The busy and curvaceous appearance of the previous model has, in general, been toned down and refined, giving the new Sonata a less fussy, more understated appearance. On a personal level, I kind of like what they have done to the overall design — the front end makes a louder statement, with a more upright grille than its predecessor, and the sculpted overall form which I liked about the previous Sonata is retained.
Overall, I am neutral about the new Sonata, but then, it is probably due to the petrol flowing through my veins that is always looking for that little extra power. As said above, nine out of 10 will have no issues.