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Hyundai Sonata Embera CRDi


Underdogs. Wild-cards. What is it about these offbeat geniuses that makes us dig a tiny corner for them in our hearts? Take Goran Ivanisevic, for instance. The hyper Croatian tennis player was a write-off after his three failed attempts at the Wimbledon crown. Millions exerted their lachrymal glands as he went down to the likes of Agassi and Sampras in the 1990s. The man who had the ‘fastest serve in the world’ would bury his head in a sweat/tear drenched towel as the crowd applauded the American(s). Cut to 2001 and he put a certain Aussie in his place in a fist-clenching five-set final. Relieved? He surely must be. But the bit that dusts history books? The first player to win Wimbledon on a wild-card entry.

As I entered the Coimbatore airport parking lot for one last time in the new Hyundai Sonata Embera CRDi (er, that’s long), my memories jogged back to the match that still gives me goosebumps. Strange coincidence or deja vu, the Sonata and Goran seemed to have trod the same path. In India, the Sonata had a great initial start. Then petered. Vanished. Re-emerged as the capable Sonata Embera. And now, in what seems like putting ‘all hands on deck’, Hyundai has probably given the Sonata its biggest shot in the engine bay till date. But does it have what it takes to shake the Indian D-segment Centre Court?
The route was scenic, dastardly and utterly gripping. From manic Bangalore (for the politically incorrect) to scenic Bandipur, to nippy Ootacamund and then sultry Coimbatore, the route had the perfect set of twists, straights and keratin-pulling bumper-to-bumper traffic. The situation reached fever pitch as we took longer than ever to exit the cyber city, making me wonder whether the Metro projects in Bangalore and back home in Mumbai will have the same positive effect as the one in Delhi. The civic administration had to take a back seat as the Ulsan-made powerplant rumbled the 1.5-tonne sedan out of the city and onto SH-17 towards Mysore.

This much touted stretch has a blend of fast sweeping corners, arrow head straights and the odd bump. Dotted by lush green fields and single storied houses, it is easy to get distracted by the scenery and forget the oncoming motorcyclist or car driver who thinks it’s his birth right to be on the wrong side of the divider. Hard on the brakes at every gap wasn’t exactly wise, but the all-round discs linked to an ABS system held the car well, even if it did occasionally let its rump get a little jiggy. Nothing disconcerting. In concerto with a six-speed manual, the 2000cc diesel made for an excellent cruiser on the 70 km portion until the bypass turn off towards Bandipur. The VGT unit, like the one in the Verna, helps develop good low speed and high speed torque on paper, thanks to the adjustable vanes on the turbine. With the full 33 kgm of torque available at 2000 rpm, the car, like the Verna propels you into the rich flat band, but unlike the Verna, it doesn’t pin your head to the headrest. And on paper, it should ideally behave like a 911 Turbo. But this isn’t even a Tuscani, for crying out loud, it’s a family sedan. A little flawed then, with low end torque being a trifle too low, and it’s only when the turbo starts spooling around the 1750 rpm mark that you see a sense of urgency.

Urgent were also the gastronomic requirements as we spent a quick lunch at Bandipur reserve. This tight lane and a half-wide road snakes through the reserve, with leaping monkeys and spotted deer making sure you stay at a heightened state of alertness. Not that you will enjoy the ride, thanks to the road’s broken state at several patches and what gets worse are the potholes right at the apex of blind corners, spreading across half the road. Colin McRae antics had to take a break, then. Hyundai haven’t changed the suspension or brake settings and with that heavier engine up ahead, the ride quality only improves. The double wishbone suspension and the fully independent rear setup on gas shocks all around work well to find a sweet spot. Low speed ride was a bit stiff but became better as speed increased. Increased speed meant we were out of Karnataka and into Tamil Nadu and the Mudumalai reserve in a jiffy. This road is even narrower and pockmarked with even more potholes. Sticking behind slow moving vehicles meant one hand stayed on the steering wheel while the other tried to curb the yawns. This gave me time to give the interiors a once over. For some reason, Hyundai seemed to have taken the concept of committee designs rather seriously. The upper expanse is a dull grey while the lower half is a creme-filled slab with mock wood treatment to the centre console and a rather inexpensive looking aluminium strip separating the two halves. Talk about keeping everyone on the committee happy! The steering wheel is a tad too big too but feels well weighted, with decent feedback despite the size of the car.

Out of Mudumalai, we were greeted with a freshly laid two-lane tarmac and a 30-kilometre dash into Ooty. As we climbed up, the drop in temperature had me switching the setting from auto-climate to a warmer temperature. Lined with tight hairpins, I expected the car to easily take the turns in second gear, what with diesels being generally tractable. But for some reason, it would bog down and would necessitate shifting to first, even when the hairpins had a gradual climb. Maybe Hyundai could do with a change to the settings.

As evening turned to night and the night to a new morning, the last downhill stretch from Ooty to Coimbatore was a 90-kilometre journey, with an imminent rush to catch the flight out of Coimbatore on time. I have to admit, these ‘rush’ hour jobs to catch a flight on time have made my drives really memorable. With tight left handers and sweeping right handers, the Sonata had good grip levels, even if it understeered a bit thanks to it being a bit nose heavy. And if you overdid it into a corner and corrected it a bit more than necessary, things got a little bit exciting. Sometimes not having traction control can be a good thing.I got to the airport on time. Yes, the Coimbatore traffic threatened to ensure I spent more time in the city, but not today. As I walked out of the car and spent my last moments glancing at the silhouette, the striking muscular lines, the crease on the bonnet and the twin exhaust left me a little wanting for words. It is understated alright, maybe a tad too much. But so is its competitor, the Skoda Laura, even if it still ends up looking a rather handsome machine and outsells the Embera 2.4 petrol four to one. Yet, it has that 141 bhp of peak power that puts it a notch above the 105 bhp techno-fest that is the Laura, just like Goran’s 200 kph-plus serve. At Rs 14.75 lakh, ex-showroom, New Delhi, it is only a lakh and a half rupees above the petrol’s list price. If Hyundai does pull it off, they can sit back, smile and be satisfied. Just like Goran over five years ago.