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Car reviews - Hyundai - Sonata - sedan range

Our Opinion

We like
Space, comfort, practicality
Room for improvement
Below-par ride and handling, quality and durability questions, marques' cheap brand image

18 Jun 2003

HYUNDAI released a second range of cars in March, 1989, with the first generation Sonata.

The importers positioned it above the neat X1 series Excel, which had introduced Hyundai to Australian new car buyers three years earlier.

Slightly larger than the Toyota Camry, the medium-sized Sonata offered a low price and lots of space, but not much refinement or grace. It failed to make much of an impact.

At least the MK2 version of October, 1993, looked better. Its contemporary styling inside and out promised a Mazda 626-like package for less money but the appeal was skin deep.

The Sonata was again let down by excessive noise, a ride that was too soft, inferior dynamics and low quality interior.

A heavy-handed facelift in September, 1996, brought some worthwhile mechanical improvements along with a distinctly toothy grille.

Inside, the changes are minor. The plastics still seem low grade, with fit and finish to match. But this is offset by sensibly placed switchgear, good ventilation, plenty of oddments space and simple, clear instrumentation.

Interior space is adequate with room for five adults in reasonable comfort. The driver's chair has the bonus of a height adjuster but the shiny plastic steering wheel rim is slippery and unpleasant to hold.

The mechanical revisions improve the dynamics and refinement.

Noise/vibration/harshness reducing measures include hydraulic engine mounts and the addition of beam bearing caps to the crankshaft.

A thickened central floor area cuts road noise and the rear view mirrors have been reshaped to reduce wind rush.

The changes make this series Sonata a fairly relaxing car to be in, a first for the model. It is not a class leader by any means but a big improvement nevertheless.

Engine power and torque remain unchanged at a healthy 102kW at 5800rpm and 180Nm at 4000rpm. As you would expect from these figures, performance is good.

But think carefully about opting for the manual gearbox. The change is awful with long, vague throws that lack smoothness.

A Mitsubishi-sourced 3.0-litre V6 powers the more upmarket versions. While offering an extra dose of torque, the engine is not particularly refined, making the grunty four-cylinder the preferred choice, especially as the ride copes better with bumps because of the lighter engine weight over the front axle. The V6 also seems to suffer from more vague and woolly steering.

Handling is typical front-wheel drive understeer. Better quality tyres improve the overall grip and noise levels, so it is worth spending extra money on reputable rubber.

Central locking, power steering, mirrors and windows, and a driver airbag are standard Sonata GLE features. The automatic- only V6 GLS gains air-conditioning, cruise control and alloy wheels while anti-lock brakes, power seats, sunroof and leather trim distinguish the Levant as the range-topper.

Avoid thrashed or high kilometre examples as Hyundai quality was still not a strong point. Automatic gearboxes can fail while electrical problems have been known to occur. A mechanic's report is desirable.

In 1997 Hyundai recalled the Sonata to stop the possibility of unintentional airbag deployment. Make sure there is a dealer sticker to prove the problem has been addressed.

A well-maintained Sonata offers plenty of space for the money but most rivals are better all-rounders for the money.

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