The Sonata looks pretty okay to me. It is not as sparkling as the Camry but has enough styling to establish a place in the mid-sized segment.
Talk about South Korean cars and one cannot help thinking about vehicles that are offbeat, low-cost and come without much attention to detail.
The South Koreans are aware of that image and in the past decade companies such as Hyundai have been working hard to catch up with the leaders in their market, namely Japanese brands such as Toyota and Honda, as well as American giants Ford and Chevrolet.
Hyundai was present in Thailand many years ago and there were plans for local assembly of the Elantra compact sedan. But suddenly it just disappeared from the market, with the local distributor offering only after-sales servicing of cars previously sold.
Rumours were that Hyundai just could not strike a deal with its local partner, while other problems were that the cars weren’t competitive enough against the Japanese and buyers of imported cars expected something with more quality than it could offer.
I haven’t been giving much thought to Hyundai for a long time, until one of its sedans sold in the US, the Sonata, won the Car of the Year award there, beating contenders like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
How could that be? Toyota and Honda were so good at whatever they did and quickly dethroned American cars from Ford and Chevrolet with products that were exciting and came with great value for money. Their production systems were also highly efficient, earning lots of profits for the companies.
So when Hyundai made a return to the Thai market late last year with a new distributor, Hyundai Motor (Thailand), I awaited with much eagerness the chance to test-drive their cars.
The first three models from the South Korean company for the Thai market are the Sonata mid-sized sedan, the Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle and the Coupe sports car.
While the other two models are fully imported, the Sonata is locally assembled from CKD kits at the Thon Buri Automotive Assembly Plant, which also assembles Mercedes-Benz (and in the near future Tata) cars.
There are two engine choices for the Sonata – a 2-litre capable of delivering 144 horsepower and 185Nm of torque, and the 2.4-litre capable of producing 161 horsepower and 219Nm.
The 2.0 EL is priced at Bt1.075 million and the 2.0 SP sells for Bt1.095 million, while the 2.4 EXE has a tag of Bt1.285 million.
Although prices of the Sonata are comparatively lower than others in the market by as much as Bt100,000, the distributor is not planning to compete head on with Toyota or Honda (or even Nissan). Initially, the company just wants to be present in the market and find niche customers who are not bothered about brand but want a vehicle with reasonable pricing as well as good quality and value.
Apart from highly competitive prices, the Sonata also comes with a five-year unlimited mileage warranty, which is expected to give customers high confidence in the quality of the car.
I first drove the Sonata in a long-distance driving event in which both the 2-litre and 2.4-litre models were driven around the country in six days. During the whole event, the engines of both cars were not switched off at all, and at night they were parked with engines idling at various destinations.
My turn to drive was from Chiang Rai to Udon Thani, which was almost 900 kilometres through various conditions. There wasn’t much city traffic, but the cars were put to a good test over the mountains as well as on long stretches of highway.
At first glance, the Sonata looked pretty all right to me. It isn’t as sparkling as the Camry, but has enough styling to establish a place in the mid-sized-car segment.
Unfortunately, the interior is a little dull, especially compared with that of the Camry or Accord. Nevertheless it is fully equipped, whether it be the DVD player (standard across the range), automatic climate control or a total of six air bags (dual-front, side and window).
There is also a spacious interior (three square metres) and the Sonata also comes with leather upholstery, two-tone console design, rear-view mirror with automatic anti-glare feature, onboard computer and very functional sun visors.
In the 2.4 EXE, power from the smooth-revving 16-valve engine with CVVT (continuous variable valve timing) is transmitted via a four-speed automatic gearbox featuring manual-shift mode. I usually don’t use the manual mode when driving in the city since all automatic gearboxes have a kick-down function. But on the mountainous roads from Chiang Rai to Udon Thani, it proved very helpful, offering enough engine braking when going downhill.
The four-speed gearbox also hints that Hyundai is still a step behind with the Sonata. Perhaps the next generation will come with a five-speed automatic.
There is just enough torque to get the Sonata going on hilly conditions (again a five-speed auto would help here), but the highlight of this car is the suspension.
The front double-wishbone and rear multi-link suspension (there are stabilisers both front and rear) is firm and right away makes you think of European cars.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed driving the Sonata through the curves. While cars like the Camry and Accord would have been suffering from lots of body roll due to the comfort suspension settings, the Sonata kept its poise neatly while cornering at speed.
But on the other hand, when driven in rough conditions, you won’t get the same amount of comfort as in the other two cars. The suspension tells you what you’ve been driving on with plenty of accuracy.
The steering feel is good, although there is a little slack in the middle, which is acceptable.
Brakes, vented discs in front and solid discs at the rear, offer good stopping power and come with both ABS and EBD.
Apart from six air bags, the Sonata also comes with a five-star crash-test rating from the US NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). There is also an ESP (electronic stability program) for the 2.4 EXE, which is a good feature if you get carried away and exceed the limits of the car.
Among the standard features in the 2.4 EXE are cruise control, parking sensor, multi-function steering wheel, wood trim, side-view mirrors with defroster, tinted glass, central locking, keyless entry, powered windows and 17-inch alloy wheels with 225/50 tyres.
After the drive, my feeling was that Hyundai has gone in the right direction with the Sonata. The engine has become much smoother than older models and cornering performance is better than the competition.
But there are just little things that it needs to perfect, such as the interior design and attention to little details (like the large amount of glare via the side-view mirrors).
In order to be successful, it just can’t match the quality of the Japanese and sell the car at a lower price. It needs to beat the Japanese in every department – as the Japanese did to the Americans – and show customers that they have produced a better car.
Hyundai Sonata 2.4 EXE
Engine: Four-cylinder DOHC 16 valve
Compression ratio: 10.5:1
Bore and stroke: 88x97mm
Max power: 161hp/6,000rpm
Max torque: 219Nm/4,500rpm
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Final drive ratio: 3.77
Suspension (f/r): Double wishbone, stabiliser/multilink, stabiliser
Brakes (f/r): Vented disc/disc with ABS, EBD
Steering: Powered rack-and-pinion
Minimum turn: 10.9 metres
Wheels: 17-inch alloys
Track (f/r): 1,565/1,565
Fuel tank capacity: 70 litres
Price: Bt1.285 million
Distributor: Hyundai Motor (Thailand)