It looks the part, but is the new Hyundai Sonata sweet music to demanding motorists' ears? David Wilkins conducts his own test performance

Price: £17,495
Engine: 2.4-litre petrol
Performance: 0-62mph in 10.4 seconds, 32.1mpg
CO2: 210g/km
Worth considering: Kia Magentis, Skoda Superb, Vauxhall Signum

A couple of weeks ago, the consulting firm Interbrand published its annual league table of the world's leading brands by value. It was no surprise to see the top positions dominated by famous US companies like Coca-Cola, Microsoft and IBM, but a bit further down the list, something remarkable happened; Japan's Sony, which used to have one of the best names going, was overtaken by the Korean company Samsung. Fifteen years ago, say, such a development would have been unimaginable.

If Samsung is now a brand to be reckoned with, the same cannot quite yet be said of Korea's car badges. Hyundai tackles the issue head-on with its advertising strap-line - "A car first, a badge second" - but unfortunately, in the car world, badges still count, and attitudes towards brands change a lot more slowly than they do in the fast-moving world of consumer electronics.

But let's go along with Hyundai for a moment and look at the product in isolation - in this case the manufacturer's new large saloon. First the styling. This Sonata has clear overtones of the Honda Accord and Audi A4, which means it looks crisp, modern and smart; the rear and side aspects work best.

The interior isn't bad either; it's a lot better than the cabins of other Korean models that have featured on The Verdict lately, such as the Kia Sportage or Hyundai's own Tucson. The only things that jar are the typically Korean emphasis on light grey shades, and the radio, which is a bit of a stretch and looks like an after-market job shoved in a standard slot. The boot is enormous and the rear seats can be folded down in order to accommodate long loads.

Out on the road, this Hyundai isn't particularly exciting, but it is certainly competent. A large-ish four-cylinder engine doesn't sound like a recipe for refinement but the new 2.4-litre unit fitted to the Sonata is smooth, if not exactly musical. Any sense of strain from under the bonnet when the car is worked hard comes instead from the four-speed automatic transmission, which is a ratio or two down on most of the competition.

So much for the car itself; how does the Sonata stack up once we bring badges back into the picture? Well, it is one of the Korean industry's more accomplished products, but it faces a tough competitor in the attractively priced Skoda Superb; a car that carries a previously undistinguished badge that, in Europe at least, is probably further along the road to stardom than Hyundai's. But expect the Hyundai brand to acquire more lustre if the cars continue to improve at the present rate.

David Mair, 44, psychotherapist from Redditch

It seems churlish not to like this car: there was a wonderful sense of space inside, and of power from the engine. The automatic gearbox was remarkably smooth and made for effortless overtaking on motorways. Driving along country roads I was barely aware of gear changes, road noise or the low hum of the engine, and the suspension soaked up bumps very well. However, the bland external design made it indistinguishable from most similar-sized cars on the road and the interior felt plasticky. It would be a great car to hire for a long distance journey, but I would never buy a car like this; for that sort of money I'd want something less middle-of-the road.

Peter Hall, 56, IT programme manager from Solihull

I approached this car with mixed expectations. It looked the part, the build quality was impressive and it was roomy and comfortable. The engine and gearbox combination was smooth and willing, but lacked grunt - the gearbox invariably changed down when I pressed the throttle. The interior design was an amalgam from other cars, the radio looked as though it had been thrown in as an afterthought, and the steering-column stalks looked dated. However, the materials used inside were good, the boot was vast and the brakes very effective. It would score C+ on a school report. People don't buy cars like this any more, and that includes me.

David Windridge, 38, logistics manager from Nuneaton

I would be lying if I said the thought of test driving a Hyundai set my pulse racing, but I don't know a lot about their range, so I had a fairly open mind. The first thing to impress me was its size and pleasant-on-the-eye looks. The cabin is roomy and would easily seat five adults. But the real feeling of space is the boot. This is the most room I have seen devoted to luggage in any saloon car. The only gripe is the opposite-to-usual placing of the indicator and wipers columns. As for the drive, this 2.4 litre automatic transmission Sonata is smooth and efficient. If I was in my fifties and had a caravan at the ready, this would be the car for me.

THE VERDICT: If you would like to take part, e-mail or write to: The Verdict, Features Department, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, giving your address, phone number and details of the car, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26 and have a clean licence.

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