The 2015 Hyundai Sonata is destined to arrive in Australia at a time when medium-sized cars are struggling and the Toyota Camry continues to dominate the segment.
Why then, is Hyundai bringing the seventh-generation Sonata to Australia? It seems a pertinent question, particularly given it already has a player in that segment with the i40 sedan and wagon, and that it pulled the underwhelming i45 from sale well before that car was replaced by this new model.
The new Hyundai Sonata is by and large a substantially better car than its predecessors. In fact, despite a very short drive of the car at Hyundai’s top-secret proving ground in Namyang, South Korea, it remains a challenge to express the level of improvement over the i45.
Cynics would no doubt say Hyundai Australia decided to go with the Sonata name instead of keeping i45 due to the previous car’s relatively lacklustre reputation in terms of vehicle dynamics.
In reality, however, the decision was forced by the global naming structure, which sees cars that are more North American-focused taking an actual name while ‘i’ cars, such as the i30 and i40, are targeted more at Europe - a process the previous Sonata/i45 managed to avoid.
Unlike the previous model, which Hyundai used to showcase its 'Fluidic Sculpture' design language with a bold and somewhat busy look, the new Sonata is a more cohesive shape, with conservative design cues that highlight the evolution of 'Fluidic Sculpture 2.0', first seen in the soon-to-launch Hyundai Genesis sedan.
Power for the Sonata comes from either a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine with 138kW and 241Nm of torque or a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged unit that pumps out a very healthy 183kW of power and 352Nm of torque.
Hyundai Australia is likely to take both engines when the car arrives mid next year.
Inside, the new interior is close to Mazda 6 standards in terms of refinement and feel but still falls short of its Japanese rival on plastic quality. It’s helped, however, by a new and easy to use 8.0-inch infotainment system that boasts a high-resolution screen and a more logical human machine interface.
Hyundai boasts that the interior passenger space of the new Sonata is 3004.4 litres - bigger than the Toyota Camry (2908.1L), Honda Accord (2922.2L), Nissan Altima (2885.4L), Holden Malibu (2831.6L) and the Volkswagen Passat (2888.3L). The 461.5L boot capacity too, is only matched by the Malibu.
Inside, we found there was plenty of leg and headroom both at the front and rear, with four large adults capable of fitting inside without any concerns.
Behind the wheel, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata drives as you’d expect from a car in this segment, with focus more on comfort than sportiness. Nonetheless, our quick test showed no signs of the steering issues the previous generation was so infamous for.
This is no doubt helped by the suspension improvements but also the revised front sub-frame bushings, which are now 17 per cent stiffer than before.
Additional ride and handling improvements come from many areas, most notably the extra use of high-strength steel. The 2015 Hyundai Sonata being constructed from up of 50 per cent high-strength steel (total platform construction), not only improving safety performance in the event of a crash, but also a 41 per cent improvement in torsional rigidity and 35 per cent greater bending strength.
Technicalities aside, it’s now more of a contender against the dynamic-leading Mazda 6 than even before. The steering is still light but using the drive mode selector can change its feel substantially.
The turbocharged sport models are taken seriously and tuned with a different suspension and afforded larger 12.6-inch front brakes.
Speaking of which, the 2.0-litre turbo provides ideal power delivery throughout the rev range, which sees drive sent to the front-wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission (which could be seen as a downer, given the company has access to eight-speed transmissions).
In contrast, the 2.4-litre felt hesitant at times and not nearly as engaging to drive.
Safety is taken care of by seven airbags (dual front, front-side, full-length curtain and driver's knee) and the vehicle is available with forward collision and lane departure warning, blind spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert. Whether we get all of the safety technologies in Australia remains to be seen.
Overall, our first impressions of the 2015 Hyundai Sonata are very positive. It may not be as good looking as the gracefully ageing Kia Optima, but its interior quality and dynamic ability is a generation ahead.
It will face very stiff competition from the heavily updated Toyota Camry, but should no doubt provide a good alternative for sedan buyers.
We await an opportunity for a more comprehensive drive before the car’s launch next year.