Hyundai Sonata

For some time now, Korean cars have been cheap and reliable - but one thing they've lacked is style. Well, Hyundai's all-new Sonata is bidding to change that with European design cues and a higher-class package.

The Sonata just costs too much. At £17,495, it is competing against some talented rivals. While a huge improvement over its predecessor, it hasn't moved on far enough to challenge mainstream competitors. The engine is now more efficient, and the cabin huge and well equipped - but that still does not make the new Hyundai a wise buy.

For some time now, Korean cars have been cheap and reliable - but one thing they've lacked is style. Well, Hyundai's all-new Sonata is bidding to change that with European design cues and a higher-class package.

The first right-hand-drive example has just arrived to prove its mettle on British roads. Anyone who is familiar with the outgoing car will immediately notice how much sharper its replacement looks. Yet although the accurate lines are said to draw inspiration from the Audi A6, the Hyundai still blends into the crowd. So the question is, can the fresh four-door stand out from the opposition on the road?

Equipped with an all-new engine, the Sonata benefits from variable valve timing for better performance and economy when cruising. The 2.4-litre automatic tested here will account for 80 per cent of UK sales, at least until the diesel variant arrives next year.

Unfortunately, the 2.4 isn't the most refined petrol unit we've ever driven. The sluggish auto doesn't help, but if you really push the Sonata its powerplant feels strained at high revs.

Even at cruising speeds, the self-shifter has a habit of hunting for gears, and plenty of noise makes its way into the cabin. It's a shame Hyundai went to the trouble of developing a new engine, only to fit an old four-speed transmission.

Still, the car will be fast enough for most, with a 0-62mph sprint time of 9.9 seconds and a 126mph maximum speed. But fuel economy will soon dip if the driver uses all the available performance. A return of 35.3mpg on the combined cycle will disappoint cost-conscious buyers, although competitors deliver similar consumption figures.

The ride quality could be better, too. Damping is poor, which means the Sonata crashes over bumps and always feels unsettled. What makes matters worse is that the handling is little better, as the Hyundai lacks front-end grip and the steering is vague.

Where the Sonata does score better is inside the cabin. Rear space is impressive, and in the front the centre console layout is clean and simple. Even the plastics, previously a Hyundai weakness, are now of a good quality. Most of the hard surfaces are gone and the dashboard feels well built.

Because our car was one of the first to roll off the production line, it was missing a radio. However, the manufacturer is likely to install one of the stock units that appear in its other models as standard when the Sonata goes on sale in the UK next month.

There is no doubt the newcomer is a vast improvement over its predecessor - but the benefits do come at a price. The fresh model, with its 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, now costs the same as the old V6 variant, and as such sits in direct competition with some accomplished rivals. It's still good value for a four-door saloon, but no longer undercuts opponents by such a large margin as it did before.

The Sonata has been designed to appeal to a host of markets, yet somehow it finishes short of the mark. It looks good and is likely to be reliable, but similarly priced rivals will still offer a better long-term ownership proposition.

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