Model: 2005 Hyundai Sonata Elite
Price as tested: $34,840 (metallic paint $350)
Distance covered: 340kms
Road tester: Russell Williamson
Date tested: April 2006
When Hyundai first launched the Sonata back in 1989, it was its first serious attempt to try and take the brand a little more upmarket and let Australians know that the company had more models in its arsenal than the small Excel. But like the Excel, the Sonata was seemingly a car built down to a price -- only problem being that it wasn't that cheap. In the medium car segment in which it competed against the likes of four-cylinder Camrys and Magnas, it was more expensive than both but an also-ran in most other areas.
But four generations on, Hyundai's Sonata has most definitely grown up and improved to a point where it is able to mix it with the competition and hold its head high in many regards. (To read our lauch review of the latest Sonata click here.)
First up, the styling of the car has developed substantially whereby you could manage using the word attractive in connection with its looks. It may not be particularly distinctive and still, like many of its rivals, blends in the broad automotive blur but it is well-proportioned and finished.
And the quality of the fit and finish continues inside as well. Once again it isn't likely to win any design innovation awards but everything seems well screwed together and sits in its logical position. Well, almost, as to facilitate its one concession to "design" -- the horizontally split dash -- the audio system sits above the central air vents in a vertical flip around to the standard layout for a centre console. Sitting on top of the dash, the six-stack CD audio system offers a good quality sound through its six speakers, caters for new and old technology being compatible with MP3/WMA files while incorporating a cassette deck and also features steering wheel controls.
For its $35,000 sticker, the top-of-the-range Elite model also carries a long list of standard equipment with the only option being metallic paint that costs an extra $350. For the base price you get automatic air-conditioning, remote locking, power windows, mirrors and driver's seat adjustment, cruise control, rear parking sensors and full leather trim.
Standard safety kit too is substantial and includes anti-lock brakes, ESP stability control, six airbags, active front head restraints and front seatbelt pretensioners.
Slipping into the driver's seat, there is plenty of space and getting a good driving position is easy with eight-way adjustment for the seat and a steering column that adjusts for both rake and reach. The seats are plush and comfortable although they could do with some more side support in the backrest.
There is also plenty of room in the rear for two adults with surprisingly generous head and legroom. Hyundai claims the car is a match for what you might traditionally think of as big cars like the new Mitsubishi 380 and Ford Falcon and without measuring internals back to back, the company claims just might be right.
There is also a big boot with a full-size spare underfloor and a 60/40-split rear seat back to add to the cargo capacity.
As the range-topping model, the Sonata Elite's driveline is a one-spec affair with the 3.3-litre V6 mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. The 173kW/304Nm V6 is all-new and it shows. Fire it up and it is smooth, refined and fairly powerful off the line. Despite the engine not reaching its peak outputs until 3500rpm (torque) and 6000rpm (power), the Sonata offers a decent spread of torque throughout the rev band making this a very flexible engine. The shift quality of the five-speed auto is good although it does have a tendency to drop gears too quickly, which means it will hunt around a little on hilly terrain. It does offer a sequential manual shift option but this seemed a little slow to react to a flick of the shift lever.
With a decent amount of grunt running through the front wheels, on occasions when under particularly hard acceleration there was hint of torque steer but it was really nothing to be too concerned about.
What is a little disconcerting however was the fuel consumption. Admittedly most of our 340-odd kilometres were covered in largely city driving -- at an average speed of 35kmh according to the car's trip computer -- but we managed to consume the unleaded at a rate of 13.9l/100km. This is against Hyundai's official combined test figure of 10.1l/100km.
One of the areas where Hyundai has consistently struggled in past has been its ride and handling compromise with few of its previous efforts at bigger than small cars offering particularly good or refined levels of either.
The new Sonata however, would appear to have succeeded in providing a new benchmark for the company in driving dynamics and at last it is able to hold its own among its rivals. It might not be as sharp as the Mitsubishi 380, Mazda6 or Honda Accord Euro but neither is the car seriously let down in any way.
The ride quality is nice and compliant without being too soft and the car feels stable and controlled over most surfaces. At the same time, it sits reasonably flat through corners when pushed and thanks to the quality 225/50 17-inch Dunlop tyres, retains plenty of grip. This is a marked contrast to its bigger Grandeur kin, which apart from its unwieldy suspension tune, uses very ordinary Kumho boots.
The Sonata's steering, however, still requires work being light and lifeless and although the chassis remains well composed and you can't feel any great intrusion from rough and tough roads, you do occasionally hear it with the odd bump and grind emanating from below.
Apart from this and a bit of tyre roar on coarse chip surfaces, the noise levels in the cabin are commendably low making it a very pleasant environment to be.
There are still some areas in which the Sonata can be improved but the new model is Hyundai's greatest leap forward yet and points to a car company that has developed enough to no longer have to simply sell on price.