Road Test A resurgent South Korean marque at last has the style and substance to top its Japanese rivals.
Hyundai's lacklustre Sonata is fighting back - and winning
Long the distant also-ran in the race to be king of the econocar world, Hyundai has surprisingly upped its game in the past couple of years.
There was a time not that long ago when the South Korean marque's Japanese rivals, Nissan, Toyota and Honda, ran rings around the styleless Sonata. It was a battle of the bland, as both Toyota's Camry and Honda's Accord were (and still are) painfully boring. Families on a budget could be forgiven for believing that this was as good as it got in terms of affordable and reliable motoring while handing over their hard-earned cash.
But then the chiefs at Hyundai hatched a plan to turn the midsize car segment upside down. "Let's build a car that actually appeals to the eye as much as it appeals to the wallet," they said. And then they did.
Last year, the new-look Sonata made its entrance, and its swooping lines, angled headlamps and chrome-like grille had the auto world in raptures; it looked modern and like the car was in motion, even when it was stationary. Fast-forward a year and the success of the 2011 version has only been added to. We've got the same design and general appeal for 2012, only with a panoramic sunroof option and even better fuel consumption at 7.7L/100km.
Having not driven the redesigned Sonata before (and, thankfully, any of its horrid predecessors), it is with intrigue that I approach the Hyundai dealership in Deira. Does this car really have what it takes to become number one in the midsize segment?
There's no doubt it's a looker, despite the rather plain metallic silver colour of this particular test car. Its sleek roofline and menacing stance make it immediately stand out from the crowd, a quality that's so rare when it comes to affordable motoring. In fact, I'd go as far as to say it's the nicest looking car to come onto the mass market since the 2008 introductions of the most recent Volkswagen Scirocco and Renault Megane. The one negative with the Sonata's exterior styling, however, is the featureless alloy wheels that don't add to the look at all.
The driver's door closes with a reassuringly sturdy clunk and, scanning the interior, it's apparent that you're getting a lot of tech for your dirhams. In this top-spec model there's a touch-screen infotainment system, electrically adjustable seats, Bluetooth connectivity, keyless entry, cruise control, paddle shifters and much more. But the best bit is that many of these features come as standard, making the new Sonata one of the most kitted-out cars you can find. OK, there are a lot of hard, black plastics on show, but when you consider what else you're getting thrown in, that can be forgiven.
There's also a fair bit of storage space up front - I counted no fewer than four cup holders in sight - and the compartment underneath the MP3-compatible stereo seems to be some sort of endless black hole. Pushing the button to start (another standard feature) and the engine is tickled into life, though it is seldom heard again unless, of course, the paddle shifters are getting a workout on open sections of Sheikh Zayed Road. The 2.4L engine is very quiet and it seems to devour my throttle inputs with ease, as I monitor the rev counter on the cool blue instrument panel.
The Sonata can accelerate from standstill to 100kph in 9.5 seconds, utilising its 178 horses at 6,000rpm but, while it's relatively pacy for a midsize car, it's the ease and comfort of driving that most impressed me.
Compared to my daily driver, a 2002 Mercedes C180, it's effortless. Put your foot down and the Sonata powers through the gears with next to no lag and the suspension seems to mop up every little bump in the road, giving occupants an almost therapeutic experience amid the surrounding madness.
Getting to a steady high speed on the motorway, though, and I discover one of the car's few flaws - wind noise. Despite its chunky frame, there's a distinct whir when you get above 120kph. Nothing that a good bassline can't mask, of course, but it does grate enough to provoke conversation about it.
Once I've turned the iPod up though, I'm reassured about the Sonata once more as I see the numerous air bag badges around the car. On the top two models there are six in total, dotted here, there and everywhere, but there's only one driver's air bag on the lower specs; try selling that one to your better half.
Regardless of the number of air bags, the car's overall safety is another of its selling points, with the 2011 model having gained top marks in the US NHTSA test and the Australian NCAP test, in part due to its traction control and anti-lock braking systems.
I have the new Sonata for five days and, in this time, I find it difficult to pick many holes in its armour. Aside from the wind noise and my inability to operate the mapping system successfully (and I can assure you, I'm no technophobe), my only other complaint would be that the headroom is sacrificed for that elegant, swooping roof. When the albeit stupidly spiky hair of a 1.7m-tall man scrapes the roof of the car, there's definitely some space lacking. Thankfully, with a bit of seat adjustment and through opening the inner sunroof slider, I get comfortable without any styling catastrophes, but I can only imagine the hassle for a 1.8m-plus driver.
Overall, the Sonata seems to tick all the boxes in terms of style, power, comfort, space and affordability. In fact, it's one of the few cars that could help my wife and I find a compromise between my desire for a two-door sports car and her demand for a big SUV.
It's this all-round appeal that separates the Sonata from its Japanese peers and gives Hyundai a newfound gravitas.