Hyundai Sonata: The camera lies

It costs less than £17,000 and looks like an Audi. But before you get excited, that's where the comparison ends, says Michael Booth

Price on the road £16,495
Maximum speed 132mph (0-60mph in 8.8 seconds)
Combined fuel consumption 33 mpg
For more information 01494 428600

The first time I saw the new Hyundai Sonata, I assumed it was a Honda, or perhaps an Audi, and I would imagine that is precisely the affect the company was aiming for. After all, it would be a fairly tragic individual who hankered after a Hyundai, but I've done a bit of Honda hankering myself, in my time.

The last Sonata looked a bit like Marty Feldman from the front, so the sombre, square-cut lines of the new one are something of a relief. In the conservative world of mid-range family saloons, it doesn't really do to look like a dead, bug-eyed comedian. Nor does an awful name such as Sonata help, but the new one is at least handsome in that slightly menacing way that all saloons seem to be these days.

It is larger than its largely unloved predecessor too, and its interior is supposedly designed more with Europeans in mind. (Meaning what? Improved cheese storage? Free Zuccero CDs?) Currently it is only available with the 2.4-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine, but a 2.2-litre diesel is on its way. I already know this to be a decent engine, smooth and gutsy, so it all sounded rather promising - a clear signal of intent from a company aiming to conquer the US and European markets, on its stated course to becoming the world's fifth largest car manufacturer by the end of the decade. But having now driven one, I suspect it will have a harder time flogging Sonatas here than in America.

To begin with, it will sell for under £10,000 in the US. Americans have an entirely different approach to badge prestige and tend to be more open to budget Asian brands - hence the runaway success there of Lexus (originally pitched as a budget Mercedes). Also, US cars are uniformly atrocious (and they don't seem to be getting any better), so those Americans used only to the domestic product will find the Sonata's cheap plastics, dreary interior and poor driving dynamics merely par for the course.

The majority of Europeans in the market for a four-door saloon will view the Sonata differently. It's one thing to build a car that looks like a Honda, but quite another kettle of engineers to make it drive like one. The Sonata's controls lack the consistency and smoothness of its more expensive Asian rivals - in fact, it's difficult to drive the thing smoothly at low speeds because the throttle and clutch pedals are so jerky. The steering is best described as "limp", with no feedback and no sense of precision. The suspension isn't much better either, managing to be both too firm and too wobbly at the same time.

Traditionally, less prestigious manufacturers have compensated by loading their cars with gadgets, and the Sonata is no different. It is extremely well equipped for the money, but when you factor in depreciation (all larger Asian cars tend to plummet in value), you will probably do better to spend your money on a more mainstream brand, and do without the electric seats.

It's easy to be snide (heck, it's how I make my living) so I should add that these were precisely the kind of criticisms we used to level at Japanese makes 25 or 30 years ago. Make no mistake, despite the Daewoo hiccup (it is now run by Chevrolet, which is about as ignominious an end as you can get), the rise of Hyundai, Kia and, to a lesser extent, even good old SsangYong, is inevitable. The Koreans are coming. I just hope they start making better cars than this.

It's a Classic: Ford Cortina MK IV

The advent of the compact MPV, the ascendancy of the mini-SUV and emergence of all manner of other automotive niches on the drawing boards of the world's car designers mean that medium-sized, three-box saloons like the Sonata are beginning to look dreadfully outdated. It's not all that different from how cars looked when I was a kid - cars such as the Ford Cortina, for instance. There were many incarnations of the Cortina but for some reason the MK IV is the one I always think of (must be to do with my age). Simple, cheap to run and quite pleasantly if unimaginatively styled, the MK IV was launched in 1976 and continued the noble Cortina tradition. Unlike the Mini - which was equally at home on council estates, Soho back streets and the driveways of stately homes - the Cortina was firmly routed in the milieu of the middle class. It was never cool, it didn't revolutionise anything, it just got quietly on with its business of offering comfortable, affordable and reasonably reliable motoring to readers of the Daily Express.


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