Hyundai is the new Honda. It’s been said time and time again. And this time, I’m inclined to believe it.
For several years now, South Korea’s been pumping out relatively remarkable yet ordinary cars—essentially making them the Japan of a decade or two ago. Meanwhile in Japan, Toyota’s still making a four-speed auto and plunging along sans-direct injection, putting them in the malaise of the American brands in the late ‘90s and early 2000's. That makes the American brands the Korean brands of a decade ago, still trying to prove themselves, but pushing relatively decent products. How true is this reversal of roles? Very, as I discovered through a humble little red Hyundai this past weekend.
In the past, the only Korean car I’ve ever experienced was a last-generation Kia Sedona rented in 2013. That car, just like this Hyundai, made a positive impression on me. Perhaps it’s the notion of rooting for the underdog or something along those lines, but both that Sedona as well as this Sonata were incredibly endearing in my eyes, offering a bit of charisma against the blandness of the Nissan range or Dodge Grand Caravans.
It helps, too, that at least in my eyes, this Sonata is a very good looking car. Much, much better than the catfish-faced last generation and more elegant than the overdone Altima or Accord. That elegance extends to the interior, where it is more aesthetically thought-out than the Camries, Altimas, or Malibus that were on offer at the rental lot.
At first, the Sonata was just like any other generic car, but as we spent more time with it, little quirks came up which endeared me to the car itself. The (very Korean) startup and shutdown chime; the somewhat esoteric blue dashboard lighting; the fact that the valet key looks like it belongs in a 1998 Accent; the mildly muffled horn when you lock it that sounds a bit like the eager bark of a puppy; all these little things that give a car just a bit of character without making it hard to live with.
Helping the little Sonata’s case was the fact that we took it everywhere, beat on it pretty hard, and it still ticked on cheerfully and dutifully, even at a (comparatively) high mileage of 35K on a rental. Through miles of dirt and dust and 124 degree temperatures, the red Hyundai never even broke a sweat, even keeping the interior perpetually icy cold.
Compared to the last family sedan we had as a rental, a loaner top-spec Accord, the Hyundai felt a lot more real, more livable, and just more likable. Sure, the reliability of Hyundai’s GDI engines is yet to be fully discerned, but the little four was plenty punchy while returning 30+ mpg. Who needs Earth Dreams anyway? Moreover, the transmission was on point for the most part, giving punch when needed but keeping revs down while cruising (unlike certain FCA gearboxes...)
Essentially what I’m getting at is that as a regular car, this beats the Accord (and of course, the Camry). The interior is more livable, the car is eager and enthusiastic, and it is visually appealing, at least to me. The Accord and Camry provide a badge and perhaps more reliability, but the cars just aren’t as user friendly with confounding infotainment, technological overload, and half-hearted mechanicals (bog-standard four-cylinders and CVT gearboxes). I’m sure the manual Accord solves much of that, but that’s but one star in a rather dismal fleet.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Sonata feels honest. It is a sedan meant to be a family transportation device, not a pseudo-sports/luxury saloon. Yet, despite that, it demonstrates some level of thoughtfulness and attention to detail throughout that jazzes up its character a bit and makes it more interesting. Sure this was a base model and a bit of that honesty may go away as you go up the line, but fundamentally it is a good car, just like the Mazda 6, and I would proudly own one myself. It may have taken a while to say it, but I like Hyundais, and this little red Sonata is living proof.
So if you’re looking for your next beigemobile, perhaps stray away from the malaise of the Japanese (except Mazda), consider the advancements made by the Americans, and appreciate how far Korea has come in automotive quality and refinement. The Sonata of ten years ago was a cut-rate Camry. The Sonata of today is a role-model for the Camry.
Farewell little red Hyundai; you have forever changed my perspective on Korean cars, and I think all the better for it.