Hyundai steps up with sweet saloons

| Image 1 of 3 |
The Hyundai Genesis features superb interior fit and finish and impeccable safety credentials. Photos David Thomson

Now firmly entrenched as one of this country's big four for passenger-car sales, Hyundai's current Kiwi car range extends to 12 different models. David Thomson checks the mid-sized Sonata sedan and luxury-focused Genesis on local roads.

With so many buyers turning to sports utility-style vehicles, securing a substantial sales boost for conventional mid-sized saloons, hatches and wagons has been a tough task for car companies in recent years.

Hyundai is the most obvious one to have defied the odds in 2015, with its registrations in this segment up by almost 20% on a year ago. With interest in its i40 model on the wane, all credit for that increase rests with the new Sonata, which replaced the i45 as the company's premium model in the mid-sized segment earlier this year.

Two of the new Sonata variants - the fleet-friendly $45,990 2.4-litre Auto and more highly specified $49,990 Auto Elite - are utterly mainstream mid-sized options that will appeal to the fleet and private buyer respectively.

A more intriguing option is the flagship 2.0-litre Petrol Elite Limited, which tops the range with a $55,990 price tag.

Just why one would pay $6000 more for the Limited isn't immediately obvious: yes, a close inspection reveals extra features including bi-xenon headlights and a panorama sunroof outside, but at a glance it looks close to identical to the cleanly styled but low-key 2.4 Elite, right down to sharing the same 18-inch alloy 235/45 tyres.

Similarly, a comparison of a cabin that is big on space but conventional in style reveals precious little that is different, aside from ventilated power seats and satellite navigation. These features add to the Elite standards of leather trim, heated steering wheel, dual-zone climate, cruise control electric parking brake, premium audio, and a common active safety package that includes blind spot detection, lane change assist, rear cross traffic alert and a reversing camera.

So, the Sonata Limited is well enough equipped, but does this equate to $6000 of additional value?

No, for the real deal-clincher in this case sits under the skin: firstly, whereas the 2.4-litre Sonata variants feature class-competitive 138kW/241Nm engines, the 2.0-litre uses turbo-charging to deliver a far more compelling 180kW/350Nm power punch. Factor in some judicious suspension fine-tuning, carried out by Australian engineers who clearly understand the requirements of enthusiastic drivers on both sides of the Tasman, and the result is a Sonata that accelerates and handles with refreshing aplomb.

Selecting sport mode (rather than normal or eco) is a prerequisite for experiencing this machine at its dynamic best. This setting enhances throttle response, adds weight to the steering and sharpens the six-speed automatic transmission's gear-shifts.

Thus enlivened, the test car was quick and entertaining off the mark, even to the extent of generating torque steer and occasionally breaking traction under hard acceleration in the lower gears. Looking down the list of obvious Sonata mid-sized class rivals, there's simply nothing that goes this hard.

Strong performance in a straight line, whether off the mark or through the gears, is matched by fluid, well-balanced handling and decent reserves of cornering grip. This is achieved without sacrificing decent ride quality, while maintaining the standard Sonata's record for low levels of wind and road noise.

If this range-topping Sonata represents a fine outcome of Hyundai successfully tweaking a fundamentally sound design, the company's new Genesis model shows the Korean company pushing its vision a whole lot further to include an internationally competitive large luxury saloon.

The list of non-European carmakers that have tried to land respectably in this premium space is a long one. As for the list of those that have succeeded, it really boils down to Toyota alone, through its Lexus brand.

Appraised initially by Richard Bosselman on these pages earlier in the year, the new Genesis, which lists at $99,990, came Drivesouth's way for a second time so I could provide a follow-up view. 

And the Genesis is a decent enough effort to command respect. 

It is attractively proportioned outside, with Genesis badging (a winged crest reminiscent of the Aston Martin emblem) replacing the Hyundai label at the front. Inside, there's all the space you would expect of a car that is close to 5m long, though rear headroom is compromised by its plunging roofline.

The cabin fit-out is suitably plush, with soft-touch surfaces, extensive leather trimming and ample woodgrain and chrome highlighting. Fit and finish is first-rate too, although, unlike in the established players in this class, a clutter-reducing central rotary control knob is not available and, as a result, it feels old-school in its proliferation of switches and buttons.

A comprehensive equipment list includes class standards such as self-parking, radar cruise control, a top-end sound system (17 speakers in all), along with heated and power adjusting seats front and rear.

There is genuine innovation too, in the form of an autonomous braking system that intervenes at speeds of up to 80kmh if required and brings the car to a complete halt, and a climate-control sensor that automatically sounds a warning and injects fresh air into the cabin if it detects carbon dioxide levels rising to a level that may induce drowsiness.

These and other safety features have helped the new Genesis to the highest score recorded in the Australian NCAP safety assessment programme.

The car's keyless entry system incorporates an innovative hands-free boot-opener; stand in front of the boot for three seconds with the key fob in your pocket, and the boot opens automatically.

A 232kW/397Nm 3.8-litre V6 engine sits under the bonnet, delivering power to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. Acceleration is stronger than you might expect, but the engine's creamy power delivery and slurred gear-shifts are more obviously focused on serving up smooth, refined progress.

Wind and road roar are every bit as well contained as mechanical noise. Similarly, the suspension is tuned fairly softly, to isolate the car's occupants from the road rather than connect them to it. All of this makes the Genesis a relaxed and supremely comfortable around-town or highway machine.  

Though grip is strong, and steering accurate and reasonably weighted, it is not as adept at mastering the twists and turns. As a result, Hyundai still has a way to go in matching the accomplishments of the established luxury saloon masters in blending high levels of appointment and refinement with a sizeable serving of dynamic panache.

The key question for the future does not concern Hyundai's inherent ability to close this gap; cars like the Sonata with which this test opened demonstrate that ability exists within the Korean firm.

Rather, and even without thinking of the massive investment cost, the question mark hovers over the daunting commitment to the painstaking incremental improvement required to bridge that gap.

At least with the current Genesis, Hyundai has a fine basis from which to proceed.

 

Hyundai steps up with sweet saloons
At a Glance
HYUNDAI GENESIS

Rating: 3 Star

For: Refinement, superb interior fit and finish, impeccable safety credentials

Against: Offers limited dynamic rewards for the keen driver

Verdict: A fine effort that hints at even better things to come

SPECIFICATIONS

Price: $99,990

Engine: 3778cc V6 petrol, max power 232kW@6000rpm, max torque 397Nm@5000rpm

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Brakes and stability systems: Disc, ABS, BA, ESC, TCS, VSM, hill-start assist

Safety: Five-star Ancap crash test rating

Wheels, tyres: Alloy wheels, 245/R40 R19 front, 275/35 R19 rear tyres

Fuel and economy: Petrol, 11.2 litres per 100km on ADR combined cycle, capacity 77 litres

Dimensions: Length 4990mm, width 1890mm, height 1480mm

HYUNDAI SONATA 2.0 ELITE LIMITED

Rating: 4 star

For: Strong performance, great blend of ride and handling prowess, roomy cabin

Against: Low-key look, inside and out

Verdict: A spacious, well-equipped saloon that rewards the keen driver

SPECIFICATIONS

Price: $55,990

Engine: 2359cc four-cylinder turbocharged petrol, max power 180kW@6,000rpm, max torque 350Nm@1400-4000rpm

Transmission: Six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive

Brakes and stability systems: Disc, ABS, BA, ESC, TCS

Safety: Five-star Australian NCAP crash test rating

Wheels, tyres: Alloy wheels, 235/55 R18 tyres

Fuel and economy: Petrol, 9.2 litres per 100km on ADR combined cycle, capacity 70 litres

Dimensions: Length 4855mm, width 1865mm, height 1475mm