First drive: Hyundai Sonata 2011 on rental run
One look at this visual stunner and the Toyota-obsessed crowd out here, for some reason, go ga-ga over this fluidic sculpture thinking it’s a Lexus. Park this elegant piece of machinery next to an Avalon or Lexus ES, and the next moment will be a moment of realisation for the public with the truth finally striking their heads with one question – “Does Toyota even know how to design cars?” But every moment spent in the new 2011 Hyundai Sonata is “almost” awesome. Yes, still almost! It is definitely not the overall best mid-sizer out there. But that said, a tad more revisions and the new Sonata will beat the competition easily.
I’ve had the opportunity to drive the car, possibly among the first from the general public, probably apart from magazine test drivers. What I had with me was a rented mid-option Sonata that comes with features like 17-inch alloys, panoramic roof, electrically-folding mirrors and auto-headlamps for a price which alone outshines the competition. I tested the car by taking it for a spin on the Sharjah–Kalba road along with a buddy.
The very excitement I had when I saw this car from outside lived up as much even when I stepped inside. The interiors are equally beautiful and a treat for the eye. There is soft-touch plastic material on the top dash panels, except for the dome covering the gauges, which is hard plastic. The centre and lower dash panels are hard plastics, but all that are definitely of quality levels that Toyota should envy. The upper door panels are of soft-touch plastics, though due to the design, some of the lower door panels which are of hard plastics extend way upwards. Overall, fit and finish seem excellent.
The driver, passenger and rear passenger seats were all very comfortable and gave good support for the back – the seats alone made life in this car a very comfortable affair. Legroom for the driver and front passenger is ample enough while it is above average in the rear. Headroom is ample in both front and rear zones. A/C is very strong and easily kept up with 40-degree outside temperatures with absolutely no tinting done on the windows. The A/C has rear vents to keep the rear passengers cool. The very moment I turned the key to ignition, I was welcomed by some cute graphics showing “Sonata” on a tiny information screen located in between the speedo and rpm gauges. To summarise, the interior is just flawless.
Once on the road, the Sonata is quiet and exhibits exceptional comfort levels that would put a Camry to shame. There is a slight drone from the engine under hard throttle and wind noise starts becoming obvious at above 110 kph. Comfort is what Sonata is all about. The car is extremely smooth on the roads absorbing every road imperfection with absolute perfection. The smoothness and seating comfort coupled with a fairly noiseless interior make any long drive in this car a joy to cherish. Drive it for 600 km continuously and the driver or passengers travelling in this beauty shall never complain even about a wee bit of tiredness or discomfort. I personally felt the experience more Lexus-like, sans their leather.
However, all is not well. The suspension in the Sonata, which is tuned for extreme comfort, somewhat kills the handling aspect of the car. The senses one loses due to indulgence in the car’s looks and comfort will soon be regained once the straightness of the road transform into tight bends. The suspensions are so soft that rocking the steering while driving straight is a jiggly affair. Drive into a roundabout like you do in a Ford Mondeo and all that visual treat becomes history! At the limit, the rear of the Sonata has a tendency to slide outwards. This is not to say that it is bad; handling is fair…just fair! The car also exhibits moderate body roll. Steering feedback is negligible. Limits of Sonata are definitely better than the Camry; more or less on par with Altima, not as good as Accord or Mazda 6, and nowhere near the Ford Mondeo. Probably the 18-inch wheels on the top-spec model may improve the handling characteristics by a tad.
The engine advertised for 178 hp and 229 Nm of torque does not live up to expectations and this reminded me of the new Accord. It takes a good 10 seconds to hit 100 kph from standstill with no sign of any enthusiasm, and affairs over 160 kph make the engine seem underpowered. However, the engine which has done only about 2200 km cannot be performance tested for actual figures, the unit being too new for it. Fuel economy is good though.
The 6-speed gearbox is one of the most confused units out on market. Even a slight incline on the road and the gearbox immediately goes into an upshift-downshift cycle, cycling between as much as 3 gears at a time! However, the shifts are very smooth and unnoticeable. There is a manual mode available which is just there for holding gears on uneven roads rather than an option for speed demons, as even in manual mode the car automatically upshifts gears just before the red line, which is at about 6500 rpm. There are F1-style paddle shifters too, probably for the married ex-enthusiasts to watch and reminisce about the good old days. That said, the manual mode is responsive in upshifts and downshifts with only a negligible delay.
In real life, the above-mentioned demerits do not matter a lot. The new Sonata is indeed Hyundai’s answer to the Japanese Top Three and it is capable of taking the competition with ease. If this is the pace at which Hyundai moves on, then they are definitely on the verge of kicking the popular boys out of the game. In terms of comfort, practicality, affordability, maintenance costs and appearance, the Sonata has already posed a major threat to the leading brands. A few more minor improvements and the Sonata has the potential to be the class leader. I feel it is already one of the best family cars in the market.
Photos by Vivek Menon.