New Hyundai Sonata: No Great Shakes

It may not be at the pinnacle of the executive-car niche, but there is no denying that Hyundai's Sonata now looks like something of an eye-catcher, which it wasn't previously. The Sonata has received a radical mid-life facelift that leaves every front and rear exterior panel reshaped and, consequently, reinforces the Sonata's position as an executive sedan. The revision is also meant to improve the car's driving quality and enhance the interior storage space.

At first sight the crazily-shaped headlamps and grill come as a shock but, after a while, you start to get used to them and might even consider them handsome.

A 3-liter, V6 engine sounds impressive but, unfortunately, it's something of an empty promise. Why? Due to the unusually low power output of just 143bhp, the Sonata V6 feels more like a 2.5-liter -- and not a particularly sparkling one at that.

But V6 engines aren't just about performance. They're about refinement, too. And, sure enough, firing up this one brings a delightfully smooth growl along with a tickover that's so silent you could easily assume that the car has stalled. Regrettably, that refinement is not matched under a wide throttle: accelerate hard and the flattering growl becomes a rather crude and ugly bark, and a much louder one than we would like in a $27,000 sedan with upmarket pretensions.

Overall, though, its performance is satisfactory - even brisk if you're prepared to work the V6's rev-band (as this is not your typically effortless V6). Revs and down-changes are the order of the day, and that's where another weakness may be found. The Sonata's standard automatic transmission, a replica of a long-gone European unit, is a disappointment. It moves awkwardly and can have a very messy result in heavy traffic.

Although electronic control of the four-speeder helps slur gear shifts for a smoother drive, it only does so occasionally and, quite often, changes are jerky.

In terms of handling and steering, the car is quite agile. The quality of the ride, however, doesn't match its executive aspirations. On poor-quality urban roads, the Hyundai's suspension feels positively troubled and sounds overworked. In this price-range it is rare to actually hear the suspension working, but you hear it just the same in the Sonata. In this respect, the lower-powered 2-liter versions are better because the suspension is more softly set. It must be said, however, that once you are out on the highway, the car drives very smoothly. In fact, the Sonata is in its element when cruising effortlessly mile after mile at the legal limit - particularly if you let the cruise control take the strain.

After such disappointments you might wonder whether the Sonata V6 has any real virtues. In fact, it does - enough to barely redress the balance. It has an attractive, solidly assembled interior. There's a clear facia with sensible, well-placed controls and switchgear in addition to superbly comfortable, multi-adjustable leather seats. The driving position is excellent and offers terrific all-round vision. Standard equipment includes such long-distance niceties as air conditioning, a six-speaker CD stereo unit, adjustable driver's lumbar support, seat squab tilt, remote central locking and four electric windows.

Figure in cabin space that's more than a match for Ford's executive Scorpio (particularly in terms of leg room and head room for rear passengers), along with a huge trunk, and you can start to appreciate the attraction of this moderately expensive Korean package.

And despite the staid performance, indifferent ride and questionable transmission, the latest Sonata V6 is still a surprisingly decent companion on the road.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.