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Car reviews - Hyundai - Sonata - GL V6 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Good space, equipment, V6 value
Room for improvement
V6 lacks low-speed torque

21 Jan 2002

HYUNDAI has taken some time getting the formula exactly right with its Sonata model.

Initially an uninspiring swipe at the mid-size car market, it fronted with an all-new body complete with the availability of a V6 engine in 1990, but despite the suggestion of Japanese quality and performance at South Korean prices, Hyundai's one-time flagship really did not begin to live up to expectations until fairly recently.

The third generation Sonata came in 1998 and carried the company into a stronger, more competitive position in the mid-$25,000 passenger car segment.

The EF model brought to a halt the availability of a four-cylinder engine in the Sonata package, a move intended to position it clearly as a six-cylinder line. This underlined the company's decreasing dependence on Mitsubishi as an engine donor with its all-new, Hyundai-designed 2.5-litre multi-cam, multi-valve V6. The distinctive, US-inspired styling seemed somehow appropriate in the context of the six-cylinder-only proposition too.

The V6 proved to be a smooth, refined and responsive operator, but it did need stirring along due to the fact its best torque did not appear until high in the rev range.

The updated Sonata does an about-face on styling with the adoption of more conservative styling themes, particularly at the rear where the broad, sculpted bootlid, stretched badging and wide garnish panel have been replaced by a simple, clean layout that brings to mind some recent British designs. The licence plate is encased in a broad, chrome-bordered panel that looks very Rover-like.

The front end has been extensively revised too, adopting the toothy look seen in the upmarket Grandeur, plus a new bonnet with a central "power" bulge and accentuated headlamp fairings.

All this gives the Sonata a more mainstream appearance, but at least it has been done tastefully and lends an almost classy air to the mid-size Hyundai.

Passive safety has been upgraded with a stronger body concentrating on the roof pillars, side sills, rear side frame and around the boot, while a driver's airbag is now standard. A front passenger bag comes as part of a safety package that also includes anti-lock brakes.

There's been a fair bit of work inside too, with a revised instrument panel, new seats (from the Grandeur), a bigger centre console and revised colour schemes the heavily rely on charcoal-toned trimmings.

Underneath, the new model benefits from a reworked suspension with wider track measurements, bigger wheels and tyres, and a set of Sachs gas shock absorbers. The four-wheel disc brakes are also improved with 5mm thicker front ventilated discs helping avoid brake judder, while a new brake assist system increases pressure delivered to the discs in emergency situations.

The revisions have made for a bigger and heavier (but still only a paltry 1400-odd kilogram) Hyundai, although this shows up not in passenger space but in a bigger boot, up from 374 litres to 398 litres.

Another important revision has been made too: the quad-cam, multi-valve V6 engine has been bumped from 2.5 to 2.7 litres, picking up gains in both torque and power outputs as well as producing fewer exhaust emissions on the way.

On the road, and driving through the five-speed manual gearbox, the new V6 version is indeed a smooth performer. The manual box has revised ratios aimed at taking full advantage of the extra 5kW of power and 15Nm of torque.

The disappointment is that, despite respectable peak figures of 132kW and 245Nm, the V6 still lacks low-speed response, meaning it needs to be revved to give its best. Step on the accelerator at medium rpm and the Sonata will just stand there and look at you.

On the credit side, it is as smooth as most other V6 engines and does have a reasonable degree of punch once wound up. Clearly though, the Sonata's weight gains have swallowed the extra power and torque.

The manual gearbox seems less irritating than in the EF Sonata, doing a workmanlike job of shifting smoothly and quickly between ratios, although the uninitiated will occasionally get caught out by the fact the clutch needs to be depressed before the engine will start.

The Sonata's ride is also quite smooth and well controlled, with less noise seeping through into the cabin than before. But it still heels over when pushed into a corner, reminding the driver that despite its seeming sophistication (double wishbones at the front and multi links at the rear) this is no refined European suspension system. The bigger wheels and fatter tyres help cornering abilities, but the Sonata is not a BMW.

From the driver's seat, there's a nice feeling of control with steering that is communicative, albeit a little too light and unsettled, while also prone to suffering some annoying rough-road kickback. The driver's seat cushion is adjustable for both height and tilt, and there is an adjustable (for height only) steering column.

In the back there's reasonable legroom - more than the Camry, according to Hyundai - while a fold-down centre armrest in the 60-40 split-fold seat provides a little extra comfort (more front legroom and shoulder room than Camry is another Hyundai claim).

The Sonata's extra boot space is welcome, although the opening through the split-fold rear seat is a little tight at times. The spare is full-size and the non-intrusive hinges tucked into the rain channels are a nice touch.

The Sonata has usurped the Lantra (now Elantra) as the most appealing Hyundai on the market today with its nicely balanced looks (something Hyundai is not always noted for), more refined suspension, improved safety and a general air of competence that eluded it at the beginning. But we suspect the torque-deficient V6 would work better with the sequential automatic gearbox than the five-speed manual.

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