Hyundai Sonata 2nd Generation
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 1
For Korean car maker Hyundai, the Sonata represented their first real foray into the manufacture of a world-class car at a competitive price. It also heralded Hyundai's arrival as a maker of fully fledged passenger cars. Early in the 1980s, Hyundai realised it could not hope to exist profitably on world markets with what amounted to a two model line-up.
The answer was obvious - they needed to build a bigger car with more luxurious pretensions and then sell it in large numbers. And to sell in large numbers, the Sonata needed to be capable enough that it could take on the world's cars and, if not actually beating them, at least being able to hold its own and co-exist with them.
In some respects, the Sonata actually had to be better than the competition, given the average Aussie's perception at the time that a Hyundai, any Hyundai, was a bargain basement little buzz-box that went about its business in the most frugal way possible. So at launch, that was the Sonata's biggest hurdle - it needed to change the way people think.
Even though today the design is very dated - at launch the Sonata was a hundred times removed from the other Australian Hyundai, the Excel. Maybe looks were deceiving, but even by the standards of 1989
it was obvious that Hyundai had put some thought into the packaging. The styling was never going to set the world on fire and it was pretty obvious to most observers that it would not look current by the mid 1990s, but even the most sceptical had to admit that the Sonata was at least moderately attractive. Once again, coming back to the overall Hyundai philosophy, it was no ravishing beauty, but it did its level best not to offend anyone.
Aesthetically, arguably the biggest problem was with the rear end styling where the heavy rear bumper in body
colour tended to make the whole profile look a little tail-heavy. From the front, the picture was much better and the swoopy headlights - reminiscent of a European Opel - and small grille added up to a pretty much late 80s school of thought. Inside too, it was obvious the Koreans had done their homework even into the Australian market because the Sonata displayed none of the Excel's nasty traits.
It was reasonably comfortable too with generous support from the front seats and a driving position that would suit most people. The rear seat was a little less inspiring and while easily accepting three children, was at the limits of human tolerance once three adults tried the same. Not that there was a lack of room. It's just that the seat was pretty average. And that was a shame, because better interior room was very important to the marketing of the larger Hyundai. After all, the wheelbase was longer than that of a Magna and there was more rear leg-room as well as more generous space in the front thanks to seats that have more travel. Such a shame then that it was spoiled by an uncomfortable rear seat.
If there was nothing terribly radical about the way the Sonata looked, there were definitely no surprises in terms of mechanical specification. Suspension at the front was independent with MacPherson struts and coil springs
while the rear was an equally conventional three-link beam axle with coils. Steering was power assisted rack and pinion with a linear assistance rate. Braking, too, was utterly predictable with ventilated discs at the front and drums at the rear. The whole thing weighed in at a not exactly lightweight 1235kg for the GL automatic. Powering the Sonata was a mildly revamped version of Mitsubishi's 2.4 litre four cylinder engine
. The engines were built at Hyundai' Ulsan plant but drew heavily on Mitsubishi technology and design and the motor was virtually a straight lift, built under license from the Japanese company. This engine
was a very close relative to the same engine
that powered Australian versions of the Mitsubishi Starwagon.
Hyundai has made some changes to the twin balance shafts to smooth the big four's inherent throbbing and in making the motor produce the bulk its power and torque within the 2500rpm-5000rpm band. The inline four was mounted transversely and ran a single overhead cam and multi-port fuel injection. The engine
was under-square with a bore/stroke relationship of 86.5mm/100mm for a total swept area / 2351cc (classifying the engine
rather loose.; as a 2.4 litre). Compression ratio was a pedestrian 8.6:1. Maximum power came on at 5000rpm with a peak of 82kW (decidedly ordinary for a 2.4 litre car) while the engine
managed 193Nm at a useful 3500rpm. Transmission choices were limited to either a five speed manual transaxle or four speed automatic. On Atmo equipped cars, third gear was direct while fourth acted as an overdrive
- which could be locked out via a console-mounted button.
Behind the Wheel
As soon as you sat in the Sonata, you knew it was a pretty large machine. The doors and dashboard didn't seem to encroach in any direction although this might have had something to do with the rather cold feel of the GL's plastic door trims and vinyl roof lining. Particularly pleasing was the dashboard which had large instruments with clear markings and a remarkably fuss-free binnacle. In looking for inspiration, we think the Korean's probably looked at the Saab 9000 - but we could be wrong. As well as a fairly quiet ride the Sonata also scored points for a reasonably solid build. Doors shut with a fair thunk and none of the switchgear felt flimsy or too light. The engine
too, did not intrude overly with unwanted noise or vibration although revving the motor out to the redline would produce some harshness that was felt more than heard. The LS with its superior sound deadening was probably better in this respect but we have not had the opportunity to try this so perhaps a previous owner can pitch in below - in our Reader Reviews section. In any case, when compared with the Excel, it was obvious that Hyundai had done its NVH homework.
There was never any question that the Sonata was going to be overpowered nor did it ever really seem lacking beneath the bonnet. It was probably best described as adequate. That's all. The power was developed at sensible revs and tied in well enough with the automatic transmission
. But with limited power available, the manual box was always going to be the pick of the transmissions. The steering
provided reasonable feel and accuracy although turn-in was a little tardy at highway speeds, weighting being something of a premium. The suspension
was arguably the Sonata's biggest limiting factor both in terms of customer reaction and from a dynamic ability point of view. The Sonata tracked securely enough and body
roll was moderately well controlled but the ride was soft and plush at the expense of control. In giving the Sonata the luxury feel Hyundai was so keen to ensure, they ended up with an under-damped chassis. And that is why early models of the Sonata had a tendency to waffle and wobble over short, high frequency rumps. Hyundai did adjust the suspension
tune, but this really should have been sorted when the car was launched in Australia.
And at launch there were only two Sonata variants available - the GL and various trim levels of the GLS - all available with the 2.4 litre four cylinder engine
. By the end of 1989
a V6 version had joined the line-up, using what was essentially Mitsubishi's three-litre V6 - as-used in the Pajero Superwagon. The initial price of the GL Sonata automatic was A$21,100. The manual GL was a little cheaper at $19,500, while the GLS with the Level III options pack would set you back $28,650. To many that seemed like an awful lot of money to be paying for a Hyundai, but the Sonata was but a distant relative to things like the Excel. In actual fact the sticker price represented good value - if you were able to overlook the underdeveloped suspension
. The car Hyundai probably had in their sights was the Magna - and not simply because it was using a fair amount of the Mitsubishi engineering. Many thought it would never succeed. And you don't need us to tell you how the story ended.