Hyundai again attempts at conquering the D-segment with the reinvigorated Hyundai Sonata, which is making waves worldwide. But, is it good enough to be accepted amongst the elite by the brand conscious Indian consumer?
In the complicated world of the Indian automobile market, mass-market vehicles are the bread-and-butter of a vast majority of automotive manufacturers, and are key to large volumes – and even larger revenues. It also bestows on them a massive customer base, visibility, and acceptance in the market, which many other manufacturers struggle to achieve. A classic case in point is Hyundai – they entered the market in the late-90’s with the Santro, and with a continuing range of good products, worthy price points, as well as excellent sales & service have made a massive impact on the market and are today the second biggest manufacturer in India.
Mass appeal, however, is a double-edged sword, and the shortcoming of being a mass-market manufacturer is that most companies constantly struggle to enter the premium and luxury segments with their image acting as a deterrent. Take the Hyundai Sonata for instance, which, in the past, has seen two attempts to make inroads into the luxury segment through varying strategies. However, on both occasions, despite the car itself being a competent product, it failed to make any sizable impact on the market. The stumbling block, despite Hyundai’s efforts, has been the brand’s mass-market image.
However, in the past few years, much has changed for Hyundai as a brand. Their products have been consistently well accepted by the market, their brand profile has been growing immensely worldwide, and they’ve achieved particular success in the American market, which has made them a force to reckon with internationally – and that too in segments that were traditionally not their forte.
So, with renewed confidence in their brand, Hyundai has padded up once again to attempt to break into the luxury segment. Leading the charge is the new Hyundai Sonata, which is the most comprehensive expression of their Fluidic design language. Therefore, what you get is an attractive and exciting shape, with its stylish, swoopy design, and intersecting lines, making it appear like something right out of a future design manual. Characterized by its large and bold face, the Hyundai Sonata – with its large chrome grille and headlights, assertive side character lines, and bright LED taillights joined together by a chrome strip – has a presence that the older generations of the car lacked.
This generation, however, has presence in oodles with its modern design language being particularly eye catching. It doesn’t look like any previous Hyundai design, save for the very well accepted Fluidic Verna. In fact, it would be apt to say that while its competitors like the Superb and Accord have more of a mute, understated presence, the Hyundai Sonata overshadows them with pure presence and eye-catching looks. On the other hand, from some angles, the car appears to be trying too hard – and it’s possible that the design may not age particularly gracefully.
Out on the road, the Hyundai Sonata displays its true nature of being a car designed to be driven-in, rather than for enthusiastic driving. The modern direct injection 2.4 litre GDI petrol engine has a wide power band, and, given its dual variable valve timing & variable intake system, pulls cleanly from low revs and has remarkably good mid-range grunt. The engine, despite being from the latest generation of Hyundai engines, still feels a little coarse in the upper reaches of its rev band, but otherwise provides good power and more than adequate acceleration for everyday driving. The disappointment comes in the form of the conventional 6-speed automatic gearbox which, unlike the double clutch gearboxes fast becoming the norm, shifts slowly, is lethargic in its responses, and seems to sap some power from the engines 198bhp – which means that the car never really feels as quick as it should. The manual box should help matters from a performance perspective, but, unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to sample one on this occasion.
From a driving perspective, the Hyundai Sonata leans towards absolute comfort as far as the suspension and the steering setup is concerned. The electric power steering feels lifeless and disconnected from the wheels, and there isn’t much feedback on offer to encourage spirited driving. Similarly, the suspension is soft and there’s masses of body roll, which will not enthuse a keen driver. But, for the sahib riding in the back, it’s a blessing in disguise – as the car smoothes out most bad surfaces and provides excellent comfort.
From an equipment and luxury point of view, the Hyundai Sonata comes very well equipped as one would expect from Hyundai. Standard equipment includes 6 airbags, ABS, TCS, ESP, Brake Assist, Dual zone air-conditioning with rear vents, electrically adjustable front seats with memory, 17-inch alloys, and LED taillights, amongst a myriad of other features. One of highlights, though, were the seats – all of which are cooled and ventilated, which is an absolute boon for our weather conditions, as you have cold air blowing into vital areas even on the hottest of summer days! The centre console design has also moved on a generation from Hyundai Sonata’s of old, and offers much better quality – with the layout design too being completely modern.
What the Hyundai Sonata excels at is being an excellent chauffeur-driven car, which is comfortable, efficient, and is a nice place to spend time in. With Hyundai’s acclaimed service support and general product quality (not to mention reliability), this is car that will be painless to own and use everyday – especially with Hyundai offering a class-leading warranty of 4 years or 100,000 kilometers.
The challenges for the Hyundai Sonata, though, lie with three essential issues – one, the competition, which is already very well established. The second is the surprising lack of a diesel engine option from Hyundai, considering diesels have delivered tremendous sales boosts to the i20 and Verna. Hyundai’s presentation at the launch about the higher cost of purchase, and maintenance, of a diesel car offsetting any perceived benefits from the money saved over buying and using a petrol car is technically correct – but, with current consumer sentiment being what it is, that seems a little optimistic. Not to say ironic from a company like Hyundai that makes, and has made, some fantastic diesel models. And it would interesting to see how the same sales executives who push customers to buy diesel powered i20’s and Verna’s can convince them to buy a petrol Hyundai Sonata instead.
The third issue is that of brand image for Hyundai, especially in relation to the established players in the segment. As Hyundai has learned in the past with cars like the Hyundai Sonata, and the current Santa Fe, its brand value is not perceived to be as premium as some of its competitors. Where the older Hyundai Sonata’s might have been perceived as being too plain Jane for a luxury car, the new car suffers from no such perceptions – and Hyundai have leveraged that by offering a value-for-money proposition in comparison to its competitors. At `18.53 Lakhs (ex-showroom Delhi) for the manual version, Hyundai has offered consumers a worthy alternative to the competition at a price that is significantly less.
This creates a situation where the consumer is being offered a quality product for a substantial saving – not to mention that the novelty of a new model will offer a clear alternative to the competition, which have now become quite common on our roads. However, the automatic version of the Hyundai Sonata is much dearer at `20.61 Lakhs – especially keeping in mind that the automatic gearbox is not as good as the competition.
Either way, Hyundai has clearly thrown a googly in the entry level luxury segment – and the new Hyundai Sonata is sure to cause a stir. How many customers will accept the Hyundai badge in this segment, however, remains to be seen? And only time will tell!