S. Muralidhar

TRENDS IN the automobile industry are not as fickle as in the world of fashion. Yet, the world of wheels is not immune to some cyclicality of trends dictated by evolving local tastes and market realities. The latest one being played out on either side of the globe is a contrarian trends for manufacturers.

The trends are remarkably divergent, but relevant from each manufacturer's perspective, and the urge to emulate these trends are consuming the research and development budgets of car companies.

For decades now, American and European car companies have been passionate only about design and performance, even as Asian manufacturers have been consumed by the need to produce reliable, fuel-efficient automobiles. Now, the trends are reversing. The Americans and the Europeans are now slugging it out to stretch their vehicles' fuel efficiency and improve the reliability of some of the new technologies they have introduced in their cars.

The rising price of oil has only accelerated this trend in the West. On the other hand, the Japanese and other Asian manufacturers, after setting the benchmarks in fuel-efficiency and reliability, are bringing some excitement to their designs.

Hyundai Motor, the largest Asian auto company, is now a global contender that has, in the last few years, been at the forefront of this trend reversal. After pulling off a remarkable success in the extremely difficult US car market, it is now considered a manufacturer of high quality cars and no mere Korean Chaebol, which thrived only on domestic demand.

Indeed it was a difficult battle for Hyundai, which, unlike the established nameplates from Japan, faced challenges on two fronts to meet and better the benchmark in each passenger car segment and, then, in each parameter including quality, efficiency, performance and design.

The new Sonata is widely considered to be the culmination of Hyundai's efforts at breaking into the big league. The new 2005 Sonata has received rave reviews in the markets it has been launched in. The Indian version was rolled out earlier this week. It has a lot going for it, including the killer pricing, but can the new Sonata Embera take on the well-entrenched Honda Accord or the Toyota Camry, which have established entry-level luxury car credentials.

With the older version's novelty value, which helped it initially notch up good sales numbers, almost gone and with Hyundai's image as a capable luxury carmaker yet to be established, can the new Sonata Embera work its magic on Indian customers?

Universal appeal

Let us step back a bit about that newfound focus on design for Asian car manufacturers. Hyundai has been known to manufacture cars that were a bit quirkier in design.

The design of the first on-road versions of the Atoz and even the Elantra and the Sonata seemed to border on the excess. In many respects the evolution of the Sonata's design captures Hyundai's progress in achieving international appeal for its cars' design.

The older version of the Sonata had its eccentric bits, but overall its design was unique and for customers in the entry-level luxury segment who were used to more drab designs (then), this Hyundai car was curiously appealing. The older Sonata probably did sell due to its unique design and the novelty value that Hyundai managed to build around the brand by associating the car with royalty and high-class society. Of course, the car itself was focused at a class that would be chauffeur-driven.

The new Sonata reflects Hyundai's gradual migration towards more universally acceptable designs. The new design is elegantly plain compared to the predecessor's awkward chic.

So, the Sonata's signature, Jaguar-style, merged twin headlamp is gone, as also the large bonnet grille with horizontal slats. Instead there is a simpler rectangular pair of clear-lens headlamps that incorporates a series of projection type reflectors and bulbs. The bonnet slab ends at the top of the grille and features a prominent V-line ridge. As a result, the Sonata is more an Audi understated, yet appealing. Other front-end features include the chrome lipping for the grille, trapezoidal fog lamps and chrome-embellished rub strips on the bumper.

The new tail lamps look uncannily like the Honda Accord's Hyundai's toughest competitor in this segment. The wrap-around tail lamps on the slightly larger boot match the lines in the front of the car and gel with the Sonata's internationalised looks. The highlight of the new Sonata's rear is, of course, the sporty twin exhaust pipe ends with chrome lipping.

At the sides, mildly flared wheel arches and the 16-inch alloy wheels that feature high-profile tubeless tyres give the new Sonata a sturdy, well-finished profile.

Overall, the new Sonata's clean, soft, symmetric exterior lines may offer a big boost to the car's acceptability, but also take it closer to losing out the advantage that the predecessor's uniqueness of design brought for a car in this segment.

Simple luxury

The Embera, is 53mm longer, 12 mm wider and 53mm taller than the current Sonata. The new version is also a bit wider and taller than the Honda Accord. It also gets a ground clearance of 170 mm making it perfect for bumpy Indian roads. The Embera can tank up five litres more than the current Sonata's 65 litres.

The interior of the Embera features a two-tone colour theme in beige and black. An in-dash music system and six-CD changer, tilt and telescopic steering, leather upholstery and an elegant strip of fake wood trim running across the length of the dashboard are some of the other features. A number of storage options is also offered, including cup holders and an ashtray.

The dashboard and the centre console are neatly laid out, but the excessively vertical orientation, compared to the Accord's gradually sloping down console, may not give the driver a cozy feel.

Also, though the plastic quality is top notch, the large flat area on the dashboard tends to visually lower the car's luxury feel. Safety features include anti-lock braking, dual airbags in the front and seatbelt pre-tensioners.

Ride quality and performance

At the heart of the Embera is a new engine, Hyundai's high-power 2.4 litre, four cylinder, all-aluminum VTVT (Variable Timing Valve Train) power-train. Mated to either a five-speed manual or a four-speed H-matic automatic transmission, the new engine features variable valve timing and control technology that is similar sounding to the Honda Accord's i-VTEC.

The new Sonata's engine generates a segment leading power of 165 PS at 5,800 rpm and the valve timing technology ensures quick response and acceleration.

With a maximum available torque of 23.6 KgM at 4,250 rpm, the car also offers loads of torque at low ends of the rpm-band and quick pick-up.

The five-speed manual gear box is much more tractable and engaging to drive compared to the four-speed H-matic auto transmission, even though the latter allows manual inputs when set in triptronic mode.

Hyundai says that the newly designed lightweight engine block has helped achieve fuel efficiency levels better than the current best in the market. Mileage numbers will be 6-7 kmpl for city use, going up to about nine on the highway.

The suspension layout in the Embera is similar to the Accord's independent double wishbones in the front and the five-link set-up at the rear.

The only additions being a anti-roll car at the rear and gas shockers at the front.

Invites to the wheel

HYUNDAI has managed to retain the previous Sonata's key positive feature: The excellent rear-seat ride quality, one of the main reasons for the Sonata's appeal among the entry-level luxury class of cars where the services of a chauffeur will be a default option. The sturdy chassis, the short overhangs and the dynamic suspension manage to retain the ride quality and stability ranking for the Embera on a par with its predecessor.

The high-profile tyres and the wide 16-inch alloys wheels also offer the new Sonata considerable bump-absorbing capabilities. Air-conditioning is more muted but more effective, another key positive for the class of owners in this segment.

Overall, the new Sonata Embera's appeal is now more than ever likely to extend to owners beyond just the rear-seat riding types. With a more international look, the Embera's dynamic driving and handling characteristics will now attract those successful backbenchers to get behind the wheel at least on weekends.

In terms of luxury inside the car, the Sonata only offers all that is essential for a car in this segment and nothing more technologically, though in terms of comfort features quite a bit has been thrown in.

Looks and features may still not be enough to slobber competition in this segment. But what might set the segment leaders worrying is the Rs 13.7 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) price tag. With that pricing strategy there is also the risk of the sales of Elantra, Hyundai's other premium sedan, being hit.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 21, 2005)
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