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Sonata plays a sweet new tune

It’s always interesting to watch how Korea’s twin car makers, Kia and Hyundai, each manage to carve out their own place in the market with near-identical ranges.

In every model category, Hyundai generally has as its closest competitor a Kia which pretty much rolls off the same production line with some cosmetic tweaks.

Hyundai’s baby SUV Venue, for instance, lines up against Kia’s Stonic. The former maker’s cool Kona goes head to head with the latter’s Seltos. Kia’s sparkling Sportage and its rival Tucson face off in one of the most competitive market segments, while Hyundai’s bigger SUVs, the Santa Fe and Palisade, offer stout competition to the Sorento and Carnival.

It brings back memories of the old “button plan” in the Australian auto market – so-called because under then-industry minister John Button, local manufacturers were encouraged (or ordered), to produce cars that could be produced in bigger volumes, with less choice, and be sold in the showrooms of their foreign rivals – and vice versa.

That’s how a Holden Commodore could be bought as a Toyota Lexcen, even though they were all but identical. Same with the Holden Astra and the Nissan Pulsar, while Ford’s Laser came to the same party as a Mazda 323, but wearing a blue-oval badge.

Fortunately it was a fairly short-lived chapter in Australia’s once great car-making industry.

But back to the Koreans who, it’s fair to say, have made a much better fist of this twins-beneath-the-skin trick.

Hyundai was the first Korean marque to make its mark in Australia and, since the arrival of its cousin Kia, has mostly been the more conservative of the two brands.

That divide is perhaps best illustrated in the large sedan category, where Hyundai’s impressive Sonata takes on Kia’s flagship model, the sporty and cultish Stinger.

The Sonata, tested here, is a handsome and desirable big hatchback – one that would satisfy families looking for an alternative to Holden’s Commodore.

It is offered in one trim-level – the N-Line – and brings plenty of sophistication and comfort for a price tag just over $50,000.

The Stinger is offered with two engine choices – one with the same turbo-charged, four-cylinder engine as the Sonata and another with its firecracker 3.3-litre, twin-turbocharged V6.

There’s very little wrong with the 2.5-litre, turbocharged 4-cylinder engine in the Sonata, which produces a very respectable 213kW, 422Nm.

For a model that’s supposedly a bit more buttoned down than the Stinger, the Sonata will also turn its share of heads with sleek, shapely lines and big alloy wheels.

Considering the Sonata first broke ground in Australia back in 1985 and was only joined by the Stinger in recent years, it has had much of this mid-to-large size market to itself – save for the very conservative likes of Toyota’s Camry.

Now in its eighth generation, the Sonata will only be offered in Australia with the so-called N-Line trim package, Hyundai’s way of adding some style and performance to match its Kia rivals with a sportier, snappier finish.

The N-Line is not to be confused with the high-performance “N” models, such as the i30N, which deliver true high-performance to match the likes of VW’s Golf.

But the Sonata N-Line certainly looks and feels like a worthy flagship to Hyundai’s large-car fleet.

It also gets a touch of luxury which feels as if it could have been borrowed from another Korian-sourced model, the luxurious Genesis G70 whose cockpit layout it mimics.

And like the Genesis, the Sonata gets such niceties as a mesh privacy screens for the three rear windows, including an automated blind which opens or folds away to maximise rear vision when reversing.

Sonata’a handling from its front-wheel-drive configuration is sharp but not harsh, although road noise is a little more prominent than preferred.

The eight-speed dual clutch transmission gets that force-fed power efficiently to the ground, and despite driving through the front wheels only there is no tendency to torque steer or push wide into corners.

Inside the Sonata is stylish, businesslike and nicely thought out.

The equipment list is generous and runs to Nappa leather and suede sports seats, launch control, paddle shifters, rev-matching, four driving modes (Sport, Sport+, Custom, N Power Shift) and 19-inch alloy wheels with Continental tyres are all standard.

A sole dislike is the push-button gear shifter which feels like it’s trying a bit too hard.

The driver is assisted by the likes of a vivid digital instrument display and accompanying infotainment screen.

There’s an easy-to-read head-up display that keeps the driver comfortably informed without having to take eyes off the road.

Performance-wise It’s not a Stinger, but it’s not meant to be – and few family buyers, if any, are even likely to fully test its snappy acceleration and cultivated drive train.

While it’s happy to be coddled around in city traffic, in Sports mode the Sonata takes on a more menacing thrum from the exhausts, highlighting a performance factor which is more than convincing and plenty quick enough for most families.


* HOW BIG? The Sonata has grown steadily over its eight generations, and this one would more than satisfy the needs of an ex-Commodore or Falcon buyer looking for a new marque.

* HOW FAST? With 213kW and 422Nm it gets off the mark impressively and will reach the speed limit in less than six seconds.

* HOW THIRSTY? Hyundai claims 8.1 litres as an average consumption, which is pretty decent for a car capable of seating five in impressive comfort.

* HOW MUCH? The Sonata hits dealerships with a base price of $50,990.

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