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Car reviews - Hyundai - Sonata - Premuim 2.0T

Our Opinion

We like
Sweet handling, spirited engine, excellent comfort, heaps of room
Room for improvement
Undistinctive styling, some engine lag, six-month servicing

Hyundai logo24 Jul 2015

By NEIL DOWLING

Price and equipment

Mid-size sedans have an issue with identity, or rather, the lack of it. We’ll call it the Camry Factor – a case of a fleet car that can be used as a family car or one designed for the family but ended up parked with dozens of others in the corporate car park.

Hyundai isn’t scared to admit that the entry-level Sonata Active – same body shape as the 2.0T Elite and 2.0T Premium (tested here) – would slot nicely into the commercial side of the business. And in features, space and performance, it matches up well with Camry.

But the 2.0T Premium lures a slightly more discerning customer. It is more expensive at $41,990 plus on-road costs – a considerable $12,000 more than the Active.

It faces up against the flagship variants of other mid-sizers, such as Ford’s Mondeo Titanium, the Mazda6 GT, Nissan’s Altima Ti, the newly made-over Camry Atara SL and Hyundai’s own i40 Premium diesel ($41,990 plus costs).

The Sonata 2.0T Premium is also a showcase for equipment, though the mid-spec Elite ($36,990 plus costs) is less ostentatious and the handy $5000 saving may be a welcome reward for going without a panoramic sunroof, front parking sensors, 18-inch wheels and heated front seats with ventilation. Plus other little things.

But maybe it’s the little things that count. In addition to its more visible additions to the Elite, the Premium also gains bi-Xenon headlights with washers and the handy ability to bend through corners. There is an automatic dimming feature on the rear-view mirrors, sun blinds on the rear windows, rain-sensing wipers, one-touch driver’s window, and automatic windscreen defog button and heated mirrors.

But it also picks up the Elite’s 8.0-inch sat-nav system with three years of free map updates. There’s a hands-free electric boot-opening function, part-leather seats, dual-zone air conditioning and a push-button starter.

Of course it picks up what even the entry-level Active gets – reversing camera, six airbags, cruise control, split-fold rear seat, Bluetooth with hands-free phone and audio streaming, LED daytime running lights and dusk-sensing headlights.

The Elite and Premium also share Hyundai’s new-to-Australia 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, so performance comparisons are pointless.

It is the only Korean or Japanese product in the mid-size petrol sedan market with the extra kick of a turbo.

Interior

If you’re looking for fizz, you’ve come to the wrong place. Hyundai’s Sonata treads the fine line between providing an aesthetic and an ergonomic interior.

Compared with its i40 sister, however, it’s almost drab. Where the i40 is organic and with multi-faced surfaces, with contrasting textures and more than a hint of brightwork, the Sonata is very subdued.

The fascia is almost vertical, the switchgear subtly incorporated into the dash and identified with a simple white-on-black design. The central monitor is large and its touchscreen simple to operate, while the supervision screen ahead of the driver holds two large, clear TFT dials.

There is some relief in the alloy-coloured centre console panel that holds the ventilation, audio and ancillary switchgear, and the flash of faux carbon-fibre above the glovebox is visually welcome.

But though restrained, the design works very well and the driver quickly finds familiarity with its layout.

The electric park brake button (Premium only) gives more room on the centre console to personal space. That means two decent-sized cupholders, a large lidded bin ahead of the gear shifter and a second bin between the fronts eats.

The door pockets take bottles and the glovebox is more than just a token storage space for the car’s instruction manual.

Better is the cabin space. This is a substantial sedan at 4860mm long – in context, the latest Commodore is the length of an iPhone longer at 4950mm – that can easily seat five adults with plenty of legroom and headroom.

The boot is 510 litres against the Commodore’s 495 litres, with a split-fold rear seat boosting cargo space and particularly allowing it to haul long objects. Good news for country buyers is the full-size alloy spare wheel.

Interior decor is generally cloth and vinyl but the seat upholstery is a blend of man-made and natural leather. Hyundai states openly that “finishes specified as leather may contain elements of genuine leather, polyurethane leather (leather substitute) or man-made materials, or a combination thereof.”

But the seats remain comfortable, form fitting and for most owners, will give a long and maintenance-free life – something that genuine leather may not be able to offer.

The communications inventory starts with the touchscreen and uses perennial Bluetooth to connect to telephone, audio streaming and iPod connectivity. The satellite navigation operates on the same screen with Hyundai providing three years of free HERE Mapcare updates.

Engine and transmission

Remarkably, this conservatively-styled sedan with its Genesis-family grille and soft body lines is the most powerful four-cylinder car in the mid-size sector.

At 180kW, it crunches other turbo units such as the Passat 118TSI (118kW), Jetta 155TSI (155kW) and Mondeo with its 178kW 2.0-litre engine.

It even gets close to the six-pot engines from the excellent Subaru Liberty 3.6R (191kW), Volkswagen CC 3.6 (220kW), and the Nissan Altima V6 (183kW).

All this puffery does not translate into blistering acceleration. Though quick, the Sonata’s four-cylinder turbocharged and direct-injected engine is almost benign in its delivery.

Effort at the factory appears to have been guided more to linear performance and developing a strong foundation for the torque. That makes it very easy to drive.

In fact, the 350Nm of torque is its highlight. It’s a fat amount of grunt that peaks at a mere 1400rpm and stays there until 4000rpm. That’s the band occupied by engines in 99 per cent of their life.

It translates this power advantage on the road, sweeping the 0-100km/h time in just under 7.0 seconds. Remember this is a big sedan with a 1600kg dry weight and conventional torque converter automatic, so we think that time is solid.

It revs, too, and is eager to go beyond its 4000rpm torque peak and into the mid-6000s with relative ease, relishing its freedom with a purposeful exhaust roar.

The six-speed gearbox holds up well though we wonder how long will it take before this engine is mated to the seven-speed dual-clutch box that is dribbling out of Hyundai and Kia in the 1.6-litre turbo models.

Progress could be improved by the addition of paddle shifters on the steering wheel – a surprise omission given the engine and the pronouncement of its performance potential.

But it’s not an especially frugal engine. The factory claims 9.2 litres per 100 kilometres but our test circuits – including suburbs, freeways and country – over three days recorded an average of 10.2L/100km – quite a lot for a 2.0-litre sedan.

It runs on standard unleaded petrol which will, in comparison to the Europeans that prefer 95RON or even 98RON for example, shave some of the running costs.

The Sonata doesn’t have tricks such as idle-stop technology, perhaps because of its American background, although that could come as a future upgrade.

Ride and handling

The handling of the Sonata will knock your socks off. Accurate, confident and unerringly faithful to every arc of every country road, it’s the best handling Hyundai yet.

It’s a ground-up result, starting with a very stiff body and then enhanced by attention to the placement of the rear multi-link suspension components.

Then it was massaged by Hyundai’s Australian team, which reduced movement in the suspension bushes, recalibrated the steering box and updated the electric-assist motor with a 32-bit processor (twice as fast as the standard unit).

The result is a car that goes where it’s pointed, can be adjusted mid-corner and has the ability to react instantly if avoiding a potential accident.

Better, it’s just fun to steer.

All that we have mentioned here indicates that the handling prowess will come at the expense of a compliant and comfortable ride. It’s not the case.

The ride is firm but never jarring, supple over the irregularities of country roads and with only some low-speed rumbles being noted as criticism.

The wheelbase of 2800mm is smaller than that of the Commodore (by 115mm) but bigger than the i40 by 35mm. In fact, though the style of the i40 makes it look bigger than the more compact appearance of the Sonata, the former is 110mm shorter.

The Sonata is also wider, most importantly with a much wider track. Its broader footprint is one of the reasons why it feels so confident on the road, aided by it being a recipient of more suspension tuning.

Regardless, no-one will complain about riding in a Sonata. Certainly no driver will complain about being behind the wheel.

Safety and servicing

Sonata has the required list of safety features such as a five-star crash rating, six airbags, electronic stability and traction control, anti-lock braking system, brake assist and hill-start assistance.

It adds auto headlights with bi-Xenon globes and a cornering function, uses LEDs for its daytime running lights and tail lights and even has headlight washers.

Standard across the Sonata line is an emergency brake display, full-size spare wheel, rear parking sensors and a reversing camera with the Premium adding front parking sensors, heated mirrors and an automatic windscreen defog function.

But it doesn’t have any of the expanded safety features that are becoming common with rivals. Look at Subaru’s Liberty, for example, with active cruise control and radar-camera systems to operate an autonomous braking function to prevent forward collisions.

Ford’s Mondeo has a similar feature and adds items including lane-change indicator, blind-spot alert and driver attention detection.

Hyundai in Australia has pledged to boost the Sonata features as they become available from the factory and it may look hard at its competitors’ safety arsenal.

Cost of ownership remains an attractive factor in choosing Hyundai products.

The Sonata accepts the brand’s five-year or unlimited distance warranty and one-year roadside assist program.

But Hyundai rewards loyalty. The roadside assistance extends to 10 years if the car is serviced at an authorised Hyundai outlet.

The capped-price service program is for the life of the vehicle and there’s a free update on the sat-nav maps for three years.

But because the turbocharged engine of the Sonata needs six-monthly (or 10,000km) service intervals, the capped-price service program is more expensive than some competitors.

It costs $1254 for three years of servicing compared with, for example, the equivalent (and turbocharged) Ford Mondeo at $1065 for the same period. The Camry costs $700 for its five services within three years.

The Sonata has a 44 per cent resale value after three years. The slightly less than average result is attributed to the expected fleet use of the model, perhaps an unfair judgment.

Other fleet-oriented rivals score about the same or less. For example the Nissan Altima has a 39 per cent residual, the Mondeo has 49 per cent and the Camry is predicted to retain 44 per cent of its purchase price after three years.

Of interest is that the i40 scores a very high 65 per cent resale potential after three years, indicating it may be a more economical car to own in the longer term.

Verdict

Hyundai steps into a new arena with a high-end family car that has the agility and fun factor normally associated with European hatchbacks.

The Premium (and Elite) get the company’s new turbocharged engine while the Active entry-level variant has a more homely aspirated engine and it should be made clear that these two engines define the character of the Sonata.

So, for the Premium, it’s a well-built, comfortable, roomy and dynamic car that has a strong warranty and reasonable ownership costs, nibbled by the fuel thirst and required six-monthly services.

It’s a better drive than Camry, potentially better built than the Mondeo, has better performance than the Nissan Altima but may be hit by the more stylish Mazda.

Rivals

Mazda6 GT from $42,720 plus on-road costs
The mid-size market leader is threatened only by the latest Ford Mondeo in the style and class stakes. The petrol GT has a 138kW/250Nm 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic claiming an amazing 6.6L/100km. Features include an 11-speaker audio, leather upholstery with heated front seats, sat-nav, sunroof, and 19-inch alloys. Safety starts with six airbags and includes LED headlights, tail lights and daytime running lights, park sensors and reverse camera. Liberal cabin room includes a 464 litre boot.

Ford Mondeo Titanium from $44,290 plus on-road costs
The latest mid-size Ford is sleek, roomy and efficient. The liftback rear is unusual, but handy, in this segment. Performance is very good thanks to a 177kW/345Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engine. With its six-speed automatic, it claims 8.5L/100km. Cabin and safety features are unbeatable here, including low-speed collision avoidance, pedestrian avoidance, automated steering for parking, lane departure and blind-spot alerts, driver attention detection and LEDs for headlights, tail lights and daytime running lights. Other features include sat-nav, leather, glass roof and electric boot with a 557 litre capacity.

Nissan Altima Ti from $40,490 plus on-road costs
Nissan’s top-spec Altima four-cylinder sedan gets a 127kW/230Nm 2.5-litre aspirated engine and a CVT automatic for 7.5L/100km. It’s the longest car here and reflects that with five-adult seating and a 488 litre boot. Features include leather, sat-nav, rear privacy blind, nine-speaker audio, 18-inch alloys with a full-size spare.

The safety kit has a blind-spot monitor, lane departure warning, front and rear park sensors, reverse and side cameras, and six airbags.

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