Thanks to our impeccably punctual air traffic, we were already running a little behind schedule for the drive organised by Hyundai. But that’s hardly a bother, as it only meant that we just had to test-drive the cars a little faster. The East Coast Road linking Chennai with Pondicherry (Puducherry, if you want to be politically correct) is a brilliant stretch of tarmac. Hugging the Bay of Bengal for most of the 160 km, the ECR is about as international looking as Indian roads get. Driving fast on this road with a well-appointed luxury car was certainly not a bother. The car in question? The new Hyundai Sonata Transform.
Yes, the car that we knew all this while as the fifth-generation Sonata Embera has a new look and a new name. Okay, it may look the same as the one it replaces, but keep staring at it and you’ll notice the subtle changes that slowly start making themselves prominent. Larger headlights, a broad bumper and a chrome radiator grille in addition to new alloy wheels with 215/60 R16 tubeless rubber are the prominent exterior changes, while I will come to the interior revisions later. What’s however most important are the engine changes in both the petrol and diesel versions... More power? Yup. But only 8 bhp each!
As I mentioned earlier, the ECR is a good driver’s road, but when a vast blue ocean runs parallel to the road, it takes a lot of effort from you to not to look at it. But with 148 bhp on tap from the 2.0 CRDi automatic that I was piloting, the kilometres were getting covered in no time at all. The 1991cc develops that figure at 3850 rpm, while it is pretty torquey, with 32.1 kgm arriving at 2000 rpm. All that torque plus the presence of a VGT makes the Sonata Transform driveable and responsive. VGT? A Variable Geometry Turbine means that the vanes of the turbocharger swivel unlike in conventional turbochargers where the vanes are fixed. The net effect, to you and me, is that the turbo action is quicker and the lag comes down considerably. The Sonata Transform comes with a six-speed manual option too, which I think is a bit of overkill for this engine. But with the four-speed automatic that I was driving, the going is easy and chilled out. The automatic is a good match to the engine and I would any day prefer this one to the manual.
The noise and vibes from the engine barely make it inside. It is a mark of today’s generation of Hyundais that they are built well, and consequently, the cabin is a spacious and good place to be in. And now that brings me to the main changes in the Transform’s interiors. The cabin area has a nice blend of chrome and wood which has been used stylishly, and there are plenty of cubby-holes to store your stuff. The centre console design is now better integrated and certainly looks more sophisticated than in the Embera. New dials and freshly designed knobs and door handles make an appearance here, and Hyundai claims that the materials used in the components are now better in terms of feel and durability. Oh, and I liked the gorgeous blue LED lighting for the LCD displays.
Another significant improvement is that the Transform now features a dual automatic temperature control system – it would have been better if the Transform had rear vents too, as I see this car being chauffeur-driven most of the time. The all-new centre console has an integrated audio system which comes with a complete MP3 compatible system and controls on the steering wheel. In addition to this, you also get a line-in option for the auxiliary input and a USB port to plug in a pen drive or your iPod.
Oh, I am not done yet. The top-of-the-line diesel automatic variant comes with keyless entry and ignition as well. What’s however standard across all the variants are the safety features like ABS with EBD (electronic brakeforce distribution) and airbags. If you are willing to pay more, Hyundai will give you front side airbags and curtain airbags too. Not to forget, the auto door unlock system in an event of an accident has also been added.
Though I would have liked to go on driving the diesel automatic, it was time to sample the petrol Sonata Transform. The 2359cc motor was always a refined engine to begin with, and the extra eight horses are always welcome. The inline-four now produces 173 bhp at 6000 revs and 23.8 kgm of torque at 4000 rpm. The second generation Theta II engine has been through some minor tweaks. The incorporation of Dual VTVT means the car becomes a bit more driveable in terms of responsiveness and is a little more frugal in its drinking habits. What Hyundai calls VTVT is of course variable valve timing, and Dual VTVT means that both the exhaust and the intake feature variable valve timing. Plus the addition of a variable induction system (VIS) means the performance of the engine gets a boost. Basically, all that translated to a car that was smooth in acceleration and pretty quick too... and the noise coming from the twin tailpipes at the rear made it sound good too. The engine is paired with a five-speed manual, but the gear ratios hampered driveability a little bit. I wished the four-speed automatic would have been offered with the petrol Sonata Transform too.
The Sonata Embera was always a well-engineered luxury car, and offered surprisingly good levels of ride quality and handling capability, especially when compared to its predecessor. Now in the Transform edition, Hyundai claims that they have made some tiny changes to make it dynamically better on the roads. The car feels much more planted on the road and is confident at high speeds. However, it is not a driver’s car and the steering feedback leaves a lot to be desired. It is more of a machine for the owner who prefers the rear seat... I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
While Hyundai has been incredibly successful in India, they still have not been able to make the grade when it comes to bigger cars in the minds of the customer. Their competence in small and medium-sized cars is unquestioned, but it is an uphill task for the brand to be seen on upmarket cars, despite competent products like the Sonata. So maybe the competitive pricing of the new Transform (Rs 14.5 lakh for the 2.4 petrol, Rs 15.5 lakh for the 2.0 CRDi manual and Rs 16.5 lakh for the diesel automatic) will do the trick.