I’m hooking into a corner hard, making my way down the side of Tasmania’s famed Cradle Mountain and the 2015 Hyundai Sonata is sticking to the coarse chip surface admirably. There’s not even a hint of protest from the tyres as I work the wheel enthusiastically, adjusting my line as the radius tightens just before the exit. The Sonata is a competent sedan, but we expected that. What’s really made an impression on me though is the truly exceptional local steering and suspension tune.
Who’d have thought the Hyundai Sonata would be so much fun to drive?
The entry level Active gets the 2.4-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder (138kW and 241Nm), while the mid spec Elite and top spec Premium get the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine (180kW and 350Nm).
You can read our Hyundai Sonata pricing and specification story here. Here’s a brief recap though - three trim grades, two petrol engines, real value for money regardless of model. The six-speed automatic is standard across the range and pricing starts at $29,990, jumps to $36,990 and then $41,990, all plus on-road costs.
A lengthy glance around the exterior reveals an attractive new design, part of Hyundai’s new Fluidic Sculpture 2.0, which Hyundai emphasises, has smoothed out the design. There’s less in the way of dramatic swoops and body creases (a la i45) and more in the way of understated European-influenced modesty (kind of like the i40). It’s a good-looking car, there’s no doubt about that and it looks like a premium product. We’re starting to expect that from Hyundai though, so the Sonata can’t be just about style.
The good news is there’s plenty of substance to match the aforementioned style. Two days behind the wheel on some of the Apple Isle’s finest roads leaves me with a question I can’t answer though. Why would buyers not look to this segment more?
I refer to the fact that this medium sedan segment is dwindling. It has been for some time, and it continues to do so. In sales terms, there’s the locally-built Camry, which sells more than its seven nearest rivals combined. Take fleet sales out of the equation and the fight is extremely tough. Hyundai expects the entry-level Sonata Active to head largely the way of fleet and company sales, while private sales will be split largely between Elite and Premium.
The theory goes that buyers who might otherwise look to this segment to fulfill their family duties are running to SUVs in droves. However, I can’t think of too many SUVs outside of a Porsche Macan that will provide the driver with the level of feedback, engagement and straight up fun the Sonata can offer. Why isn’t the medium sedan the favourite it once was in Australia?
Maybe, the new Hyundai Sonata has a part to play in reversing that trend. Firing down Cradle Mountain, I’m punting the top spec Premium model. Its 18-inch wheels shod with quality Kumho tyres assist the handling equation no doubt, but it’s the local steering and suspension tune especially that impresses regardless of the road surface beneath.
Finding that delicate balance between handling prowess and daily driving comfort isn’t easy to achieve but Hyundai’s suspension gurus have nailed it - I even told them that the Sonata handles – and rides –better than the flagship Genesis. That might be an interesting ride and handling comparison test right there: I’ll put some money on the table now.
Take a look at our launch video and you’ll see some of the footage of the torture test the Sonata was put through in the Australian outback. The Sonata covered 100,000km on some of the harshest roads and toughest conditions Australia can throw up. The process was worth it for Hyundai. There’s no doubt the Sonata’s suspension is built to withstand our local roads.
The only negative we picked up during our fairly spirited run was some very minor torque steer when you really wind the wick up, but that’s present in just about every powerful front wheel drive car, and it’s not an issue 95 per cent of the time you’re in the Sonata. The steering, excellent around town and at slow speed, sharpens up when you select ‘Sport’ mode and is beautifully matched to the handling package.
The higher spec Premium model also gets bigger brakes, which showed no signs of fade after a good back road punt either. The Active and Elite models were also impressive in that regard, keeping in mind most Sonata owners won’t ever tax the braking system the way we did at launch.
With 180kW and 350Nm on offer, the turbocharged 2.0-litre is a performance surprise. The turbo spools into action smoothly, there’s no nasty rush of power at any rpm and you can ride the torque curve up to speed. The engine never feels like it’s working hard either, encouraging you to push a little harder and have some fun.
Don’t assume the entry-grade, naturally aspirated engine is a slug, either. It’s quiet, refined and smooth and for what Hyundai calls a ‘budget’ choice, it’s a quality option. There’s a clean surge of power off the line and the Active model gets up to speed rapidly enough. If you enjoy a spirited drive though, you’ll be obliged to get the turbo model such is its performance ability.
From behind the wheel, there’s an airy sense of space to the cabin. Hyundai deserves kudos in my book for the lack of piano black trim - no nasty fingerprints to be seen inside the Sonata. The gauge layout and major controls are as close to perfect as you can get. Hyundai’s three-tier design means major controls like the speedo/tacho and touchscreen (4.3-inch for Active and 8.0-inch for Elite and Premium) are in a neat line across the top of the dash; the next tier down houses all the major switchgear for the infotainment system; and the tier at the bottom houses the AC controls.
The steering wheel mounted switchgear deserves praise as well. The left side of the wheel controls audio and Bluetooth phone connection, while the right side looks after cruise control and the menu controls for the instrument display. It’s all so easy to see, use and understand – exactly how it should be.
Take a look at our video to see just how much space there is in the Sonata’s cabin. From the outside, Sonata is very much a medium sedan, from inside it’s verging on large sedan space. With the driver’s seat set to my own driving position, I’ve got plenty of leg and foot room. My knees are nowhere near the driver’s seat and I can get my feet under that same seat too.
The leather clad Premium model is the pick of the three cabins, with heated and ventilated front seats and quality trim throughout. Like the exterior, you’re left feeling like you’ve spent a lot more money than you have when you’re ensconced in the Sonata’s interior, whether you’re the driver or passenger.
The only thing missing from the Sonata’s impressive portfolio at the top end is high-tech collision avoidance technology. It won’t be available on the first batch of cars coming into Australia from launch, but will be added in the third quarter of this year as an optional pack. It’s technology we’d like to see as part of the Sonata’s list of features, especially for the top-spec model.
Aside from that, the Premium has every bell and whistle you could want in this segment, but I think the mid-spec Elite is the sweet spot in the Hyundai Sonata’s three-model-grade range. Elite gets the boosted engine, which is way too much fun not to have, and enough goodies to make you feel like you’ve bought a more expensive vehicle. The driving enjoyment you can have for $36,990 is shaded only slightly by the flexibility, space and practicality of the sedan platform.
That said if you’re on a tight budget you won’t be disappointed with the Active model and its naturally aspirated engine. If your pockets are deeper, the top spec Premium model is also worth the stretch and flatters with extra features. And no matter which you buy, Hyundai offers its lifetime capped-price service programme as well as a five-year unlimited-kilometre warranty and 10 years roadside assist.
The new Hyundai Sonata is an impressive all-rounder, with way more interior space than you expect and driving dynamics that some far more expensive cars can’t quite match. It proves that a vehicle that you never expected anything from can still impress you.