The new Sonata wants to pick up where the i45 sedan left off, chasing down the Mazda 6 and Toyota Camry in the large-sedan segment
WHAT IS IT?
This is an “all-new” Sonata. Well, all-new in terms of platform and design, while bringing upgraded versions of its existing engine range. It comes in three specs, beginning with a 2.4-litre four-cylinder for the Active and a 2.0-litre turbo for the Elite and Premium models.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT
It's a new player in the hotly contested (if shrinking) segment that battles the Subaru Liberty, Skoda Octavia and forthcoming Ford Mondeo. With Hyundai on the rise, it could be a serious threat to some long-standing D-segment models.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
A competent car with solid dynamics and build quality, but falls short on fit and finish, safety equipment and fuel consumption
PLUS: Smart styling; excellent road manners; generous rear seat and boot space
MINUS: Cabin lacks sophistication and polish; doesn't offer safety levels of rivals; thirsty engines
THE WHEELS REVIEW
YOU'VE heard the name Sonata before, and Australia loved the previous i45 that this new car replaces, but not as much as the locally made Toyota Camry.
Since the i45 was ditched in 2012, we've seen a new Mazda 6 set the benchmark, been blessed with the best Skoda Octavia yet, and have a new Ford Mondeo arrive in D-segment shopping lists.
This is a new car on a brand new platform, so it's big news for Hyundai.
It takes its styling cues from the flagship Genesis, with a chrome line that starts in the sleek Subaru Liberty-esque headlights, along the front guards and continues along the window sill. There's also the pinched waistline featured on other Hyundais, but it runs above the doorhandles, unusually.
The look is derivative – it doesn't look fresh or new, aping not just the Liberty but also Mazda and other Hyundais – but it's still handsome, elegant and has presence, even in base form.
Why the Sonata name? That's part of Hyundai's naming strategy for global cars; they get names whereas models for Europe have codes such as i40.
The i40 is slightly smaller than the Sonata, and will continue to be offered in Australia, both cars starting at $29,990.
As part of a two-pronged attack on a shrinking segment, the Sonata is offered only as a sedan with a choice of two petrol engines, across three trim levels, all with six-speed autos; the i40 takes care of diesels, wagons and manuals.
While the entry-level Sonata Active has a 138kW/241Nm 2.4-litre four, the $37K Elite and top-spec $42K Premium that we're testing here get a new 180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo.
That's a good helping of kilowatts and torque; in fact, the 350Nm is on tap from a low 1400rpm through to 4000rpm. It needs this sort of grunt, however, to shift a large car well, which it does.
Sonata is 10mm shorter than the Mazda 6 and has a 25mm shorter wheelbase at 2805mm, but it has loads of rear passenger room, and a 510-litre boot that's bigger than a Holden Commodore's. That's the good news about the cabin.
The interior feels well made, the switchgear and buttons solid and firm, but the design is dated and lacks any glitz or glam.
The intuitive controls are easy to reach and the deliberate positioning of the larger centre display at the same high level as the instruments is smart, but it's fifty shades of grey inside and very stuffy.
It's safe, boring and what's worse is that despite the larger (8.0-inch) centre display, start button and leather upholstery in this top spec, it feels little different to the $12K-cheaper base car. The Premium's standard panoramic roof is a welcome distraction.
Despite all models have a reversing camera and six airbags as standard – earning the Sonata a five-star ANCAP rating – there's no auto emergency braking, lane-assist or blind-spot tech offered (as do the Mazda 6 and Subaru Liberty), even on the top-spec Premium. That's a huge disadvantage for the Korean in the sales war.
So, too, are the fuel figures. Official numbers for the turbocharged Theta II engine are 9.2L/100km combined. The new Liberty's 2.5-litre is rated at 7.3L/100km, the Mazda 6 range's worst figure is 8.4L/100km, and you can buy a hybrid-powered Camry for less than both the Elite and Premium Sonatas. The Hyundai doesn't even have idle-stop.
That doesn't bode well, especially for fleet buyers, who are expected to account for fifty percent of the sales mix.
The Sonata does have excellent road manners, though, and that's thanks to not only the new foundations, but the effort Hyundai Australia has put into its unique local suspension tune. It's well balanced, with little lift or nose dive when you work the throttle.
The engine – which pulls strongly down low but noticeably falls away beyond 4000rpm – is reasonably quiet, but that's more to do with the cabin insulation than powertrain refinement.
Odd gearing from the six-speed auto (and no shift paddles available) hampers acceleration and the Sonata’s ability to attack winding roads with verve. Same goes for the well-weighted electric steering, which increases in Sport mode, but is too slow for quick, decisive manoeuvres.
What's commendable is its lack of crash-through over even large bumps, and its composure that is maintained unless you push it to the ragged edge, far from its design brief.
And that's the point here: the Sonata meets the brief of a spacious, solidly built and well-mannered sedan. Yet its lack of overall polish, safety gear and its love of a drink mean it doesn't pose a serious threat to the benchmark Mazda 6.
Model: Hyundai Sonata Premium
Engine: 1998cc 4-cyl, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Max power: 180kW @ 6000rpm
Max torque: 350Nm @ 1400-4000rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 9.2L/100km
On sale: Now