Wheels pitches 10 of the biggest sellers in the medium-to-large car segment to see which is the best of the current crop. Here’s number 8, the Hyundai Sonata.
Can’t wait to see the final score? Jump to the verdict now.
LET’S not mince words. The ‘LF’ in Hyundai’s LF-series Sonata could easily stand for ‘Leap Forward’ because, compared to the dynamically lousy i45 that preceded it, this seventh-generation Korean mid-sizer is leagues ahead.
Reflecting its progress is the styling, transitioning from the Hyundai i45’s interesting, if intense, ‘Fluidic Sculpture’ theme to a rather sober fastback silhouette, underlining a newfound maturity that permeates throughout this freshly focused four-door.
There’s a reassuring thud the instant a door closes shut, setting a tone of sensibility that’s reflected in the Hyundai’s cabin, which could be mistaken for being German (Opel, sadly, not Audi), right down to pleasing fit and finish.
Few rivals are as practical or generously spacious, the Sonata offering abundant room for feet, legs, knees and shoulders – though the Premium’s panoramic sunroof does eat into rear headroom – backed up by well-padded seating and an expansive view.
The sunroof is standard, along with bi-xenon headlights, parking sensors at both ends, eight-way electrically adjustable and heated/ventilated front seats, rear-door sunblinds, electric folding mirrors, touchscreen sat-nav, rear-view camera, keyless entry/start, leather, dual-zone climate, and 18-inch alloys. Sonata Premium heaves with kit.
Yet it somehow leaves us lukewarm. This is by-the-numbers stuff that neither offends nor inspires. Accommodating driving position? Check. Comprehensive instrumentation? Check. Ample ventilation? Check. From the hexagonally shaped centre console with its stupendously simple switchgear – too much so in the case of its very junior touchscreen graphics – everything is where it should be. What could be handier when driving away from a rental depot in some far-flung foreign port?
Be sure to check the speed limits first, though, because the oomph from Sonata’s 180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo is startling, and prone to front axle tramp and torque-steer in the wet owing to Hankook Ventus tyres unsuited to its level of performance.
On smooth, dry roads, the latest Sonata is a very satisfying drive. It handles more fluidly than its closely related Kia cousin, with beautifully measured steering response for newfound handling poise and control completely alien to any former Hyundai mid-sizer.
Sonata has greater dynamic finesse than Kia’s Optima, too. Strong suits are a keener turn-in, a sweeter transition between steering input and body reaction, more consistent balance, a firmer brake pedal with less travel, and a more effective Sport mode delivering less overly sensitive throttle response and crisper, less muddy steering.
But much of that refinement ebbs away once the surface deteriorates. Its steering rack rattles and its ride is consistently busy, and occasionally too bumpy over rougher stuff. Like the Kia, its brake pedal is prone to momentary hesitation during panic stops, but its inferior tyres are reflected in the second-longest braking distance in our 100km/h-0 test.
Despite unexpectedly accomplished dry-road steering and handling, and its undoubted performance, space and equipment, Sonata lacks the all-round appeal of its more youthful Kia cousin. Thankfully, an MY17 update wearing the same Michelin Pilot Sports as the Kia Optima GT (and featuring fresh driver-assist tech and adaptive cruise for a $45,490 ask) will go a long way towards bridging the gap.
While Hyundai’s mid-sizer is seriously better than any preceding version, it’s no Passat-beater. But as a work-in-progress, Sonata is on the right track.
Less than Stellar career
Believe it or not, Sonata shares some heritage with Ford’s Mondeo, since Hyundai started out building the Mk2 Ford Cortina under licence in 1967. That eventually became the pretty Giugiaro-penned Stellar (1983; above) based on the TE/TF Cortina (as the latter morphed into the European Sierra), with the Sonata badge initially used only on upmarket versions from 1985. Australia saw the Y2 Sonata, which ditched the Stellar prefix and switched to front-drive Mitsubishi Galant mechanicals in 1989, while in Europe the front-drive Mondeo replaced the rear-drive Sierra in ’93.
Want to compare the field? Check out all the Family sedan finalists.
Engine: 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v turbo
Power: 180kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 350Nm @ 1400-4000rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B): 4855/1865/1475/2805mm
Cargo capacity: 510 litres
Tyres: Hankook Ventus S1 Noble 2 225/45ZR18 95W
Test fuel cons: 10.9L/100km
0-400m: 15.0sec @ 155.2km/h
3yr resale: 45%
Plus: Solid; swift; spacious; sensible; generously equipped
Minus: Unruly wet-road behaviour; busy ride