Few years ago, some said the Koreans were coming. They were right, because the Hyundais and Kias of one generation ago weren’t good enough to have arrived – coming yes, arrived no. But if you haven’t noticed, things have changed over the past few years – Hyundai-Kia is now the fourth largest carmaker in the world, ahead of all Japanese rivals except for Toyota, and is clearly on the up.

Products like this sixth-generation Hyundai Sonata (codenamed YF) reflect the brand’s current standing. Still good value, still has that long warranty, but now with attributes that appeal not only to the value conscious. Things like quality, class leading figures and design flair were almost never spoken in the same sentence as “Hyundai”, but the YF changes this. We drive Hyundai’s eye opener in Muscat, Oman.

Continue reading the report after the jump.

I have a feeling that Malaysia could be the most challenging market to sell cars in, if you’re not local, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Now, let’s spare a thought for Hyundai.

Your much improved cars are now either on par or class leading in certain areas, mature markets like North America have warmly embraced them, and even highly critical European and British journos have acknowledged and endorsed them. Your brand is huge in rapidly booming and increasingly influential markets like India. On the flipside, in the ASEAN region’s most affluent and sophisticated country, your cars now outsell old favourites like the Corolla, Lancer and Sunny. It seems that you’re capable of winning over every type of market, but not this tiny country called Malaysia. Funny eh?

The reasons behind this scenario needs a thesis of its own, but it is a fact that our proud market discriminates against Korean marques. And to overcome this “handicap” Hyundais are expected to match their Japanese rivals in technical spec, beat them in equipment AND come with a sticker price from one segment below. It’s an unenviable task, and if I were president Chung Mong Koo, I’ll just shrug shoulders and say that Malaysia isn’t worth the effort, as our tiny volume can easily be recouped by an i10 promotion in India!

Thankfully, that was just me daydreaming. Hyundai is not just still here, but is bringing us new cars like the new Tucson and Sonata YF that will manfully take on the field with the abovementioned conditions. It has all the required ammunition, and as we found out in Oman, could deliver a knock out blow to not only the competition, but Malaysia’s perception of Korean cars.

First of all it looks special. The large saloon market is one where carmakers tread with caution, where buyers are slightly older (and more conservative?) than the C-segment. You don’t want to make a car so radical looking that it will scare off your target market (you don’t find Honda trying its spaceship cabin on the Accord, for instance). Which is why we salute Hyundai for making such a bold and distinctive looking Sonata, which is the first in its segment to take on the “four-door coupe” style.

When that’s mentioned, our minds link to the Mercedes-Benz CLS and Volkswagen Passat CC. Casey Hyun, Creative Design Manager in charge of the YF project (and a regular reader of this blog!) tells us that while the team was inspired by the CLS, the Passat CC “absolutely had no bearing on the Sonata’s design”. Work on the YF started in 2006, a year after the Merc debuted but long before the VW was launched.

That curved roofline is the defining feature of the YF’s design, but there are many other details to catch the eye. It’s a highly stylised car, so you’ll find plenty of strakes and lines in the bumpers, hood and flanks. The two bonnet lines continue to flow into the chrome grill, which gives it a 3D-effect of sorts.

The “eyes” of the car are long, sharp and accentuated by two lines that flow into the lower bumper. The Sonata’s profile features an “orchid stroke” that rises from the front fender, spears through the door handles and ends at the boot. More subtle is the strip of chrome that runs along the base of the glasshouse down to the headlights. Mr. Hyun describes the design as “beautiful tension”.

The overall look is so removed from its strict three-box predecessor that it’s hard to believe it’s the same model line. It looks arresting in the metal, and rather special for what essentially is a humble mass market D-segment saloon. A Hyundai as the class leader in design? Previously unthinkable, but the Koreans are exposing Japanese conservatism, model by model.

The static appeal is amplified once you step inside the Sonata. The curvy dashboard has a hint of GM’s “double cockpit” style and it’s all very sleek. Of all the colour combinations we saw in Oman, I liked this pictured grey tone the best, which blends nicely with the subtle lashings of chrome and silver as well as the piano black glossy trim. Hyundai Sime-Darby has ordered an all black scheme; while that’s a safe choice, I personally reckon that it won’t bring out the various elements as well as this picture does.

The slim centre console features a top display shared by the stereo and climate control, which employs a humanoid shape inspired by Volvo. However, unlike the Volvo’s simple operation (press head, body, leg or combo to direct air accordingly), you’ll need to toggle Hyundai’s human till you get the mode you want.

All the buttons are laid out neatly (and stylishly), unlike the Accord’s all-in-one pack. The twin-pod chrome ringed instruments are easy to read and look good, and there are two subdials within the meters. Quality is good as well; the main dash moulding and door caps are in soft plastic and the panels are joined tightly. After the flamboyant exterior, the cabin doesn’t disappoint; there’s certainly more flair here than in the Camry or Accord.

I took the chance to lounge at the back when I wasn’t driving and lounge is the correct word. The Sonata’s 2,795 mm wheelbase is only 5 mm shy of the Accord’s and the Hyundai provides similar amounts of legroom, which translates to “more than enough” – no problems even if those in front have long legs. The two-section sunroof and rear air-con vents mean that the ambiance here is second to none in its class. The Hyundai’s seats are well shaped and comfortable too.

On the move, it’s a serene cabin to be in. Wind noise and tyre roar was absent at highway speeds, although tarmac quality varies between countries, and we’ll have to drive the car in Malaysia to be sure. It was also unfortunate that we weren’t allowed to test the cars at a decent speed although the route included a tempting stretch of twisty roads. What we know is that while turn in is quite sharp, the YF’s steering is light and could do with more sensation, although it’s more natural feeling than the NF’s lifeless helm.

Compared to the boat like NF, the new Sonata has much firmer suspension (front MacPherson struts, rear multi link) and good body control. Body lean is not an issue here and you don’t drastically feel the car’s weight shift during fast lane changes – things that can’t be said about the NF, which I revisited recently. Oman’s smooth roads didn’t tell us much about the Sonata’s ride comfort; our test car had 18-inch wheels, Malaysian spec cars will wear 17-inch rims with 215/55 rubber.

The NF wasn’t one to be hustled around, but it was comfortable and refined, and its 2.4-litre Theta engine/four-speed auto pairing competent and unobtrusive. In the YF, the engine is the latest Theta II family of 2.0 and 2.4-litre powerplants. We only drove the 2.4 in Oman, and this unit puts out 176 bhp and 227 Nm of torque, which compares well with the Accord 2.4’s 178 bhp/222 Nm and shades the Camry’s 165 bhp/224 Nm.

Like the Accord’s K24A, it needs a persistent right foot to get going at low revs, although the Theta II differs by being less charismatic and characterful than the Honda unit, without any high rev flourish. It may feel a bit generic, but it’s no less competent. This Dual CVVT (intake and exhaust) engine’s combined fuel consumption is 8L/100 km or 12.5 km/l.

Similarly, there’s little to complain about the new six-speed auto ‘box. It’s certainly smooth shifting enough and rarely puts a foot wrong in terms of perceptiveness. There are also shift paddles should you want to take matters into your own hands. This in-house developed and manufactured A6MF1 transmission is said to be the most compact and lightest of its kind in the market (12 kg lighter than Hyundai’s old five speeder, with 62 fewer parts), but the best news for consumers is that it’s maintenance free for the life of the vehicle. That’s a 300,000 km warranty for the gearbox we’re looking at.

But for harsh conditions, Hyundai recommends servicing the transmission every 100,000 km. What’s considered as harsh? According to Hyundai Sime-Darby, that’s if you make a trip to Genting Highlands every day. Hyundai bench tested this gearbox by running through the ratios 24 hours a day for one and a half months, so they’re pretty confident of its robustness.

Going back to the scenario in our opener. Hyundai is expected to match the Japanese in spec and kit with a lower price, and the Sonata achieves all that with new found flair. Everything here is either competitive or class leading, so with this new generation of products, the Koreans are more than entitled to compete on a level ground with the class favourites.

But this is Malaysia (remember?), and the Sonata must to be cheaper to survive. Hyundai-Sime Darby won’t commit automotive suicide, and their CBU imported car will undercut the Accord and Camry, just don’t expect the price gap to be as big as the Sonata NF’s. The local media preview is on Thursday, and we’ll bring you the only figure not yet announced so far. Keep your eyes peeled!
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