You would think as the fifth largest manufacturer of passenger cars in the world (after Toyota, Volkswagen, General Motors, Nissan-Renault), Hyundai-Kia would be breathing down the necks of the Japanese powerhouses in Malaysia. A cursory glance at the 2014 sales charts reveal otherwise; Hyundai and Kia ended up in tenth and eleventh positions overall, eighth and ninth if the national brands are omitted.
Winter Sonata turns cold
To find some context, we rewind the clock back to 2010 when the last generation Sonata (dubbed the YF) broke cover. After decades of bland, tofu flavoured cars, Hyundai rolled the dice and served up Kimchi. It may have derived some inspiration from the Mercedes-Benz CLS, but its original “fluidic sculpture” design language shocked, awed and won over the hearts of many “younger”, K-Pop-watching executives. Uplifting shapes followed in the Tuscon, Elantra and Santa Fe, all with prices and features that embarrassed the Japanese. Hyundai’s market share grew steadily.
Quite as to why Hyundai is dialling back the flair is anyone’s guess. Some say it has to do with the cool reception the previous Sonata received back home, or that Chief Design Officer, Peter Schreyer – bumped upstairs in 2012 to oversee both Hyundai and Kia – envisaged a more dignified image for Hyundai, one that is distinct from sister brand Kia. Whatever the reasons, the new Sonata LF, launched here late last year, is nowhere near as well-received as its predecessor.
A different sense of fashion
By going Audi-esque with cleaner lines, shaper edges, along with strong hexagonal grille that is the Hyundai hallmark these days, the new Sonata LF no longer makes your head spin like the YF. Imagine K-Pop ditching the shiny slim-fit blazer and bleached locks for a well-cut business suit and razor #2 (you understand that number if you keep your hair tightly cropped). I’m in my mid-forties, and I do find the new Sonata to be well-proportioned and perfectly handsome outside, while looking classy and understated inside (maybe a touch too much grey). Then again, I’m no fan of K-Pop.
So here’s the hypothesis: by wading in the same pool as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, Hyundai is betting that its brand has come far enough to appeal to the traditional D-segment folks, not just younger upstarts driven by impulses and their right brains. However, that is by all accounts a big ask because the requirements of D-segment traditionalists have a lot to do with trust – in residue values, mechanical reliability and running costs – perceptions that Korean brands are still working to get right, at least in Malaysia.
Is the Sonata singing the right tune?
It would be a shame if the hypothesis turns out to be true, because the Sonata LF is technically hard to fault. Where previously there were questions if a Sonata drove as well as it looked, this one delivers on every count.
Okay, 154ps/194Nm will always be on the marginal side when asked to haul a large sedan around, but its Japanese rivals aren’t offering that much more either. In any case, the six-speed automatic is quick to oblige with a suitable ratio, ensuring that the Sonata covers ground in a hushed, refined manner befitting a D-segment contender. The steering too has once and for all banished the disconnected feel of Korean cars of yore, the Sonata is pleasingly responsive to inputs, backed by just the right amount of weight and feel. Despite wearing some pretty low profile rubber on 18-inch alloys, ride comfort and outright handling is likewise a well-judged compromise, if not a revelation for a Hyundai.
Expectedly, equipment level on our top-of-the-range 2.0L Executive test unit was generous; leather interior, keyless-start, panoramic roof, bi-Xenons, powered front seats, six- airbags, even a boot that opens on its own if you stand close to it with the key fob in your pocket (might not be so flattering when chatting with a neighbour, but handy when you have a crying toddler and armful of shopping bags). Less impressive is the AV head-unit – not only is its interface frustratingly fussy to operate, its sonic fidelity and radio reception also fall short of the mark, with playback sounding thin and compressed like a tiny transistor radio. Girls’ Generation and Wonder Girls deserve better, the faster Hyundai-Sime Darby Motors is able to offer the OEM-grade head-unit with Android Auto (a world’s first), the better it would be for the Sonata.
You kind of get the hint that Hyundai wants to move on to a higher plane as a brand; to appeal not only to emotions with eye-catching designs and generous features, but also to be recognised as a car maker with engineering distinction. Which explains why Hyundai talks a lot about the Sonata having a strong chassis – pointing out that 51% of the car’s structure comprises “Advanced High Strength Steel” – comforting data if you already own one, but highly unlikely to get new customers to showrooms. It remains to be seen if Hyundai will remain steadfast in its efforts to change its brand perception, but they are giving it a good go with the Sonata. After all, K-Pop will eventually have to morph into something more mature as its fans grow up.
Price RM153,510.03 (w/o insurance)
Engine 2.0L petrol, 4-cylinder
Output 154ps, 194Nm
Transmission 6-speed automatic w/ manual mode
Performance 0-100km/h in 11sec, top speed 200km/h (est.)
Wheels/tyres 18in alloys, 235/45R18