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So, who is driving?

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You could read the following few lines and be done with this article. Even if you have not driven either of these two cars, the conclusion is foregone. The Skoda Laura 2.0 TDI with the DSG is the driver's car here, and if you are a chauffeur-driven sethji, the Hyundai Sonata Transform 2.0 CRDI Automatic should be at the top of your list. Game, set and match. It is that simple and if you turn to the end of the story, there are no surprises in store for you either. But since you are reading anyway (ostensibly not to make a purchase decision!), let me tell you what these two cars are like.


STYLE & DESIGN

The Korean wants to be European and the European wants to be Korean. Seriously. Hyundai has left behind its Korean design roots and its luxury sedan is more conservative and sober. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Hyundai must be on cloud nine. Once upon a time, people laughed at the last generation Sonata for the design goulash it was, having 'borrowed' cues from various other cars. Today, the tables have turned. Look at the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class' rear end and that of the Sonata's; it's the Korean carmaker that's now laughing. As far as the Sonata's overall appearance goes, the Transform edition has just made some elements look bolder than its earlier Embera version. But that has not taken away the crisp lines of the car and the car doesn't look out of place whether seen in Asia or Europe. The Sonata is also about size and it fills up space very well, impressing neighbours et al.

When I first saw the Laura facelift at the Paris show last September, my immediate reaction was 'What have they done to it?' You know, those new headlamps wouldn't look out of place in a Korean car - er, one of those older Korean cars - and the new face of the Laura doesn't go well with the rest of its ruler-straight lines. Today, not many manufacturers manage to give their cars that chiselled-out-of-a-hunk-of-steel look that Skoda does and the Czech firm should not lose it. Okay, I admit the headlights make the Laura stand apart from the rest of the Skodas, still I am sure they could have made it slightly less 'Asian.' Other than a revised set of tail-lamps that showcase that C shape when lit at night (a Skoda hallmark), there's not much significantly different about the revamped Laura. Though it does not look as big as the Sonata (after all, it's the new-gen Octavia), the Laura looks much more sporty and youthful and of course, is less barge-like - and that goes nicely with its overall character.

Sonata Transform: «««¶¶

Laura: ««««¶ 

INTERIORS

The 'Transformation' of the Sonata has meant that it has got a new dashboard treatment that's a significant improvement over the Embera. The layout is clean and it has a Toyota-ish feel to it, especially because of those blue highlights. Even the quality of the wood and plastics show a remarkable improvement. It takes time to get used to the functions and placement of the various controls on the dash and the central console, and that's simply because it's not very intuitive. Human beings eventually adjust to such things over time (look at me for example, I never thought I could work on a laptop) and I am sure you can get used to the Transform controls, but one look at the Laura's dash and you'll know what I am talking about. Both cars offer electrical 8-way adjustment for the driver's seats. It's another thing that it is wasted on the Sonata because I don't see the owner of this car sitting on that seat for too long. Well, with that sort of legroom at the back, what do you expect? We had keyless entry with this car - if you want, you can use it in the conventional way, but if you don't, instead of the Start-Stop button, you get a twisting knob like the kind you'd find in the mixie your mummy uses for making chutney. Nothing wrong, but it's rather unusual to combine the action of twisting a key without actually using one. Oh, the one issue I have in this car is with the handbrake lever, which is tall and when engaged, it almost digs into your armpit.

The Laura interiors are overwhelmingly dark and are as sober as a bitter Kafka-esque winter in Mlada Boleslav. But you can't find fault with the guys in the Purchase Department in the Volkswagen Group; great quality of plastics and controls means you can fiddle around with them till the Euro XIV norms come along. The facelifted Laura's interiors are classic Skoda with more thought having gone into them. The way the controls are laid out means you don't take as long as the Sonata to get settled in. The AC controls are all in one zone, the music system functions are all bunched together and the touch screen is a great feature to have in all cars. What surprised me most was that despite that driver's seat featuring 8-way controls and the steering offering adjustment for rake as well as reach, I was not comfortable in the Laura. This is highly unusual and it couldn't be me, right? I mean I have sat in so many cars but in this one... mumble mumble.

Sonata Transform: «««¶¶

Laura: ««««¶   DRIVETRAIN & PERFORMANCE

 

See I told you, how different these cars have turned out to be so far. And in this department, it gets even more obvious. First, the essential specs. The Transform is powered by a 1991cc inline-four common-rail turbodiesel that, with the help of a VGT, generates 150 bhp at - now read this - 3850 rpm and 32.1 kgm of torque at 2000 rpm. And the Laura's 1968cc Pumpe-Duse turbodiesel inline-four develops 140 bhp at 4000 rpm and 32.3 kgm at 1750 rpm. The Hyundai gets a four-speed automatic with manual override, while it's a 6-speed DSG that transfers the power to the front wheels in the Laura. Both engine specs look evenly matched, but the way the two powertrains behave is something else altogether.

The Sonata is much more eager at low revs and there is an immediacy to it that takes you by surprise. The car looks laid back, but it's surprisingly so eager to move on that you'd think both the powertrains have been switched. The engine is grunty and has enough oomph in it to propel the barge to 100 kph in 11.04 seconds. It's not too bad actually, and it's hampered only by that four-speed gearbox. I am sure the six-speed manual will make it slightly quicker. The Laura however is the faster and the quicker of the two, taking 9.91 seconds to attain the century mark. You can check the rest of the figures in the Auto Data section, but for now, let me tell you about how the drivetrain performs in real life conditions.

The quickness that the Sonata has translates to better driveability in city conditions. At low rpm and at low speeds, the car does not balk and goes up to 100 kph effortlessly. The gearbox is however the weak link in the overall setup; it is industrial in its nature and application. In other words, it's not intuitive (again!), which means that it upshifts and downshifts on its own whim and this affects its performance at higher speeds. Thankfully, the gearbox comes with a manual override, so you can intervene, but what's the use of buying an automatic then? What it does best is cruise at maybe 110 kph with the needle nestling at about 2000-odd rpm. The Laura is just the opposite. It hates hanging around at low speeds, suffering from turbo lag and the DSG's mood. This affects the Laura's urban driveability tremendously. Up to 2000 rpm, it feels dead, but once beyond that, it becomes manic. Every little part in the whole powertrain suddenly wakes up and it's your turn to say whoa! The DSG comes alive and it shifts beautifully, utilising every bit of the power output. Such pleasure should not be handed over to chauffeurs.

Sonata Transform: «««¶¶

Laura: ««««¶ 

RIDE & HANDLING

Well, what do you expect? Don't you know this already? Yes, the Laura's ride is firm to the point that you'd wonder whether it has any sort of damping at all, while it's just the opposite with the Hyundai. When you reach home after driving the Laura and spew out a random number, you can be sure that you have been subconsciously counting the concrete expansion joints the Laura has traversed. And it hates bad patches, transferring all that's below the rubber right onto your rear end. The Sonata Transform that way is a better bet if you want a comfortable ride. It absorbs road conditions pretty well and is dramatically improved from its predecessor. It shows that Hyundai has been doing its homework.

But where Hyundai falls short is in the handling department. The Sonata's chassis is not as dynamic as the Laura's. You can feel the rear end of the car follow you on the curves and you don't feel one with it. The steering also lacks feedback. But it's unfair to expect a car that's supposed to pamper you to drive like a BMW as well, so it's all right. The Laura loves curves and its chassis and suspension setup is designed to allow you to corner hard. The car feels nimble and if you don't care about your rear passengers being thrown around, this is a great car to head to the hills in. Its weakness is however the steering setup that has the potential to provide more feedback; it doesn't stiffen up as much as you expect it to, but it is leagues ahead of the Sonata Transform in this aspect.

Sonata Transform: «««¶¶

Laura: ««««¶    VERDICT

 

Well, should I repeat myself here? Not necessary, right? Both the cars are front-wheel driven, have diesel engines paired with automatic transmissions but they couldn't be more different. The Sonata Transform 2.0 CRDI automatic is cheaper than the Laura (Rs 16.65 lakh vs the Laura's Rs 18.02 lakh, ex-showroom Mumbai), and that way, offers more value. But it makes sense to also see what comes as standard in both cars, as there are a lot of features including safety kit, which I have not highlighted. Still, the verdict remains that the Laura's for the self-driven and those who are looking at a good value chauffeur-driven car can't go wrong with the Sonata Transform. As for me, I would probably put a bit more and go for a Superb 1.8 TSI. Surprised?