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New models - Hyundai - Sonata - GL V6 sedan

First drive: Sonata plays
a new tune

New look: Sonata's face is claimed to be reminiscent of both Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar.

A facelift and new engines are the key changes for Hyundai's medium sedan

26 Sep 2001

THE latest version of the most enduring name in Hyundai's Australian armoury, Sonata, has been given a mid-life facelift and received an engine boost.

The medium sedan has been around in Australia for more than 12 years, right back to the days when Hyundais were sold in Australia by Alan Bond's now vanished business empire.

It soldiered on through the 1990s as Hyundai's Australian flagship, and went through its last major model cycle in August 1998, before being usurped at the top of the Hyundai tree by the Grandeur.

Sales of the current generation EF have not been as strong as its predecessor, despite being a better built and engineered car, as well as - in most eyes - better looking.

Enter EF-B, which goes on sale in early October and represents a significant mid-life regeneration by any standard. The exterior is completely new fore and aft of the cabin, with quad ovoid headlights wrapped back over the fender, a taller grille, scalloped hood, side sill skirts and a raised and arched boot with new round taillight lenses.

Hyundai executives optimistically talk of Mercedes-Benz (headlights) and Jaguar (hood) signatures, but the grille spoils the effect by being too large and aggressive and appearing to be truncated at the bottom.

The rear-end is a much more pleasing and resonant design. It's actually as if two different styling teams attacked the car and finished in the middle. Fact is, with Hyundai styling studios in Korea, Germany and California this could well have happened.

The body is slightly longer, wider and higher than its predecessor, has a wider rear track, is strengthened, is heavier by up to 110kg depending on the variant and has a 24-litre larger boot.

Under the skin the changes include a new "Delta" 2.7-litre V6 replacing the old 2.5 and the addition of a "Sirius II" 2.4-litre four-cylinder The latter engine returns the Sonata to the medium four battle against Toyota's Camry for the first time since April 2000 when the 2.0-litre engine was dropped.

The 2.7 V6 has already been seen here in Hyundai's Trajet people mover and Santa Fe light-duty four-wheel drive. It produces 132kW at 6000rpm and 245Nm at 4000rpm, compared to the 2.5's 127kW and 230Nm.

The 2.4 is also in the Santa Fe, and it produces 104kW at 5500rpm and 202Nm at 3000rpm. That's an increase on the 2.0 of just 1kW, but torque grows 22Nm and is produced 1600rpm lower in the rev range.

Both engines are mated to five-speed manual transmissions, with the option of a four-speed automatic complete with a sequential clutchless manual mode Hyundai Australia has christened "Selectronic".

The independent suspension has been retuned with Sachs gas dampers replacing Korean items the braking power is boosted by the BAS brake assist system while the front brake discs are 5mm thicker and the wheel size is up one inch to 15 inches.

Inside the cabin there's a new dash with digital rather than mechanical odo and tripmeter a new centre console with the stereo moved above the climate control, lidded dual cupholders and two open top storage areas front seats borrowed from the Grandeur and there's now a darker charcoal interior trim.

Equipment boosts include a six speaker CD player instead of a cassette player, the V6 gets steering wheel-mounted cruise control, the centre rear passenger gets a head restraint and there's a second power outlet in the boot.

Standard features across the range include air-conditioning, remote entry with alarm and the now obligatory immobiliser, power windows, mirrors and aerial, a driver's airbag and front seatbelt pre-tensioners and load-limiters, while all passengers get a lap-sash safety belt.

A safety pack comprising passenger airbag and ABS anti-lock braking is a $2190 option.

Oddly enough, alloy wheels aren't available as an option, not even on the more expensive V6.

Which brings up to the pricing, which is, unsurprisingly increased. The model range has been renamed from Classique and the limited edition Executive, to the GL and the GL V6.

Compared to the current car on run-out, the price increase is pretty hefty, although it drops back to a more acceptable increase around $1000 when GL V6 is compared to the Classique's pre-run-out pricing.

Compared to opposition like Camry, Holden Vectra and Subaru Liberty, there's no doubt Sonata is ultra-competitive on price.

Sonata GL $23,990
Sonata GL auto $25,980
Sonata GL V6 $25,990
Sonata GL V6 auto $27,980
EACH time we've driven a new model Hyundai in recent time - Trajet, Accent or Santa Fe - we've come away convinced the most prominent of the South Korean car companies is making the transition successfully from quantity to quality.

The Sonata continues that trend - sort of. EF-B is a step ahead of EF there's no doubt, but being a half-life change it can't make the sort of quantum step some of its brethren have.

It looks - misgivings about the front-end aside - and feels a better and more solid car than the one it replaces. Yet the fundamentals remain, which make it good, solid, value rather than an outstanding car.

Shackled to the automatic transmission both the four-cylinder and V6 feel the EF-B's increased weight. Forced to respond by a firm push of the accelerator, both engines become intrusively noisy but remain lethargic in their response. They are smooth enough though.

All that changes in manual form, where there's zest, zing and eagerness combined with a light and positive gearchange, which has been improved for EF-B by the use of triple cone rather than dual cone synchronisers.

Pity then, that most people will opt for the auto.

The suspension changes have resulted in steering which is heavier than before and a ride which is noticeably firmer, but still doesn't feel convincingly grippy despite its theoretically impressive double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension.

Understeer is the order of the day here, along with some rack rattle over bumpy corner - a trait this car shares with its close relation, the Kia Optima.

There's some thrumming from the tyres - which Hyundai say come off the boat in a mixture of Korean Hankooks and Kumhos and occasionally, French Michelins. There's also noise from gravel spray under the guards on dirt roads, although Hyundai points to work designed to improve Sonata's noise, vibration and harshness levels.

The new seats are big and flat and comfortable when cruising. Although you can roll off them when the cornering speeds pick up.

But when you consider Sonata's intended purpose hard cornering's unlikely to be near the top of the list.

It's a competent update of a competent car, quite good value and quite good looking - particularly from the rear.

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