Car reviews - Hyundai - Sonata - 2.4 Elite sedan
Interior space, smooth and quiet ride, value for money, clean exterior styling, neat interior
Room for improvement
Overly light steering, flat seats
26 Aug 2005
By TIM BRITTEN
AS Hyundai forges its way towards recognition as a manufacturer of truly credible cars, the latest Sonata makes the strongest statement yet about its right to be taken seriously.
Not just by customers, but also by the rest of an industry that is already taking note of the company's ascendant position on the sales charts.
The new NF Sonata replaces the EF that came in August 1998 and it would be fair to say it's taken the company on a mighty leap into the future.
It's not just that the new car drives better than any Sonata before it, or that it's unexpectedly large inside - it's also the fact that the NF adopts various safety technologies that lift it into straight contention not with just the Japanese, but also with second-rung European cars.
All V6 models, for example, come with electronic stability control as standard, while every Sonata has an array of airbags that includes full-length curtain bags to maximise side-impact protection.
All this, plus the fact that the company stays close to its original philosophies by keeping a tight control on prices.
The most expensive Sonata you can buy is the top-spec Elite in V6 form and it can be had for less than $35,000, plus on-road costs. The entry-level four-cylinder model is less than $26,000.
The Sonata tested here is the Elite-spec four-cylinder version, which only misses out on electronic stability control (ESP) and traction control when compared with its V6 sibling.
The sub-$32,000 package includes six airbags, active front head restraints, four-channel ABS, parking sensors, 17-inch alloy wheels, climate control, leather seats with power adjustment up front, six-disc dash-mounted CD stacker, cruise control, trip computer - the list goes on. The only option you can pay for is metallic paint.
And then there's the NF Sonata's body - an all-new structure that swallowed something like $A330 million and 46 months of research, design and development.
Hyundai says in-house testing indicates a five-star Euro NCAP rating for the new Sonata, gained largely through a rigorous development programme that saw the new body stronger, stiffer and more passenger-protective than the previous model.
This comes via tougher, box-shaped reinforcements for the dash and the complete frontal area, a more crush-resistant roof and side-impact work that includes the in-door beams and the inner side panels.
Although it may not look it, the Sonata is a bigger car than the present Toyota Camry in all but overall length and height. Its 1832mm wide body sits between the Camry (1795mm) and the current Holden Commodore (1842mm).
Hyundai says the Sonata offers more interior legroom than either Commodore or Ford Falcon and it certainly feels that way. The interior also offers unmistakably competitive shoulder-room, while being none to shabby when it comes to headspace.
And the boot, with its nicely-shaped 462 litres and a lid that lifts high and wide on non-intrusive hinges, is augmented by a 60-40 double-fold rear seat that enables it to offer hatchback-like usability.
That's the packaging.
The style isn't too bad either, maybe not quite as European as Hyundai would like us to think, even though it was penned with input from the company's European design studio in Russelsheim, Germany.
It presents smooth, flowing shapes and a virtual absence of glitz. Inside, it's quite tastefully restrained, with no signs of the traditional Korean penchant for ornate shapes and chrome-plated plastic.
In fact, the availability of light-coloured materials, in both leather or cloth-trimmed variants, helps the feeling of space while giving a Euro-style break from the usual drab greys and blacks. Not so easy to keep clean though.
The Sonata's dash is simple, attractive and presented in a thoroughly non-confusing way. All things are pretty much where you'd expect them to be, and the steering wheel buttons for things like the radio and cruise control are arranged so they don't offer too much of an ergonomic challenge.
Sonatas now also get a two-way adjustable steering column, which is good news, although it's still slightly compromised by the fact that the fulcrum point is so close to the driver that the wheel's angle changes dramatically as it's moved up and down.
In the Elite model, there's an eight-way adjustable power seat that accommodates just about any body shape. The cushion tilt offers enough range of movement to help disguise the fact the seats are a little short on under-tight support, while the active head restraints can be optimally adjusted by setting the height, then tilting them backwards or forwards.
Some drivers, on getting the seat adjustments tuned to exactly where they should be, still might find the experience a little short of inspirational, if comfortable and attentive to all basic needs.
The driving experience is pretty much the same.
The all-new 2.4-litre engine, in a reversal of past practices where Hyundais have used Mitsubishi technology, was developed by Hyundai and is slated for use in future Mitsubishi and DaimlerChrysler models.
Like the previous four-cylinder, it displaces just under 2.4 litres in a torque-friendly long-stroke configuration and uses twin camshafts and multi-valve cylinder heads.
But it's now an all-alloy casting and adds variable valve timing to extract more efficiency, while adopting a twin-catalyst system as part of its methodology in meeting emission requirements that won't become active here until 2008.
Despite its cleanliness, power jumps from 104kW to 119kW, and torque rises from 202Nm to 219Nm, more than compensating for the relatively mild - around 80kg - overall weight increase.
As you'd hope in a totally new development, the four-cylinder is agreeably smooth and silent, quite happy to rev yet responsive enough at lower speeds. It mates well with the sequential-shifting auto but would do even better if it had, like the V6 Sonata, five ratios to work with rather than four.
Shifts are smooth enough, kickdowns in auto mode come readily, and the sequential operation uses the more popularly accepted forwards-upshift, backwards-downshift configuration.
The fact though that the 2.4 is hardly a bristling, snappy, forceful powerplant is matched by the Sonata's ride and handling characteristics.
Basically it's a competent chassis, with a reworked double-wishbone arrangement at the front and a new multi-link arrangement at the rear combining to give a commendably smooth ride while attending competently to any handling challenges that may arise. The sort of thing most customers in this category are after.
The sheering's tendency to be over-assisted is consistent with Hyundai's populist approach. Combined with the especially silent progress of the Sonata, it tends to give the driver a slight feeling of disassociation with what's going on outside.
Tight corners are therefore approached with good sense rather than bravado, even though there's never any doubt that the Sonata will get you through safely and with reasonable accuracy. The Elite's relatively meaty 225/50x17 tyres help.
The main benefactor of all this is the ride, which is notably quiet, absorbent of small bumps and not too bad in dealing with the larger ones as well.
The brakes, with ventilated discs at the front, four-channel ABS and electronic brake-force distribution, feel able to deal with the car's performance even though the discs are smaller than those used in the V6.
The end effect is a car that comes across as smooth, capable and composed, definitely not sportingly inclined. One revels in the comfort of the ride, the silence of the cabin and the luxury fittings rather than getting excited by any point-to-point eagerness.
But the Hyundai is a totally agreeable car. The quite amazing space, the obvious attention to safety, the high equipment levels, the quality of the finish - and the price - all add up.
If you've so far never taken a Hyundai seriously, now might just happen to be re-think time.
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