Hyundai says it's targeting two of the world's best middleweight sedans - the Honda Accord and the Mazda 6 - with the new, fifth-generation Sonata.
That's a tall order. Both the Japanese sedans have won New Zealand Motoring Writers' Guild Car of the Year titles, the Mazda 6 in 2002, the Honda in 2003.
So they're widely regarded as worthy vehicles by a wide cross-section of the country's motoring writers.
The 6 is still a benchmark car in our opinion, its radical head and taillight treatment keeping it looking fresh and contemporary three years down the track. Add to that top-drawer handling and good performance, and you can see what Hyundai is up against.
The story is much the same with the Accord Euro. The Honda hasn't come our way for extended test, and our experience of its abilities is confined to the media launch.
But on a drive that encompassed parts of the Coromandel Peninsula, the Euro revealed itself to have exemplary manners, good performance and a well-appointed and comfortable cabin.
Like the Mazda 6, it was a car in which the sum of its parts was the key to its appeal. Neither did anything sensationally well, but each did everything in the eight out of 10 bracket, making for a compellingly-good car. Which is, of course, why both became New Zealand Cars of the Year.
Against that backdrop of success comes Hyundai's new Sonata and the high expectations its makes have for it.
In the way that Subaru replaced the quirkiness of its old models' styling with the restrained and timelessness of the current Legacy and Impreza, the new Sonata has shaken free of some of its predecessors' oddball styling touches in favour of a much more homogenous, European-flavoured look.
There's still the rather curious sculpting of the bonnet, but the look is now more mainstream elegant than quirkily-different.
There are distinctly Audi influences in the car's styling, especially in the rear three-quarter, and that can't be bad.
Open the car's door, and the impression is generally favourable.
The seats are well-shaped, and the fit and finish of the light grey leather upholstery on the $36,990 2.4-litre Elite test car was without fault. What's more, the leather and the seats LOOK like quality.
The Sonata was powered by the all-new Theta 2359cc Double Overhead Camshaft four-cylinder engine.
It produces a healthy 118.5kW at 5800rpm, and peak torque of 219Nm at 4250rpm.
Taking a leaf from Mitsubishi's book, the all-alloy engine has a balance shaft to smooth out the resonances and vibrations common to larger capacity four-cylinder motors.
It drives the front wheels through a very smooth-shifting four-speed automatic gearbox which has sequential manual shift capability.
The four provides good performance, especially given the car's kerb weight of 1539kg (it's no lightweight, the new Sonata).
The engine is smooth and the power delivery strong. The car cruises effortlessly on the motorway and gives a good account of itself in more demanding open road running.
A five-speed auto would be nice (the car's 3.0-litre V6 sibling has a five-ratio automatic), but the four-speeder does its job well enough.
It kicks down smoothly and does a good job left in Drive on winding roads. If you plan some sporting-style driving when the going gets twisty, you'll need to use the sequential manual shift to hold the desired gear. The manual mode is quick and smooth.
Given the experience of much older Sonatas (I believe the last one I drove was a V6 of late 1990s vintage), I wasn't expecting a great deal from the Sonata in demanding going.
That expectation - or lack of it - was reinforced by the Sonata's somewhat wallowy behaviour over speed humps. The front suspension felt too soft and squishy as the car rode down off the bumps.
But I was agreeably surprised. The Sonata was composed at speed, and did a creditable job on the frequently demanding roads that make up our test route.
Its understeer is well-controlled and the car can be placed accurately.
Handling summary? Really not bad at all.
Add in very good ride quality and bump absorption and you have a car that will handle open road trips with aplomb, offering occupants high levels of comfort.
Front and rear cabins are spacious, and the seats very good, providing lateral support that drew little complaint from the front seat passenger.
The steering wheel diameter was a tad large for my taste, though its leather-wrapped rim was nicely chunky.
Like the two Japanese cars Hyundai says it's out to rival, the Sonata is very much a car that succeeds on the sum of its parts.
We liked its blend of good performance with safe, vice-free handling and user-friendliness; and we liked its complement of standard comfort and safety equipment.
More than that, we liked Hyundai New Zealand's attention to its customers' needs with extras-as-standard like a fire extinguisher and luggage boot net.
We still think it's a tall order asking the Sonata to go up against benchmark cars like the Accord Euro and Mazda 6.
The new Sonata has much in common with them, but we still think the Japanese cars hold an edge, however decreasing that edge may be.
What you get
The Sonata Elite scores well on standard equipment.
There's central door-locking with remote-control entry, alarm, engine immobiliser, power windows and heated exterior mirrors, climate-control air-conditioning, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, trip computer, reversing sensors, in-dashboard six-disc Compact Disc sound system with seven speakers including an eight-inch subwoofer and steering-wheel mounted auxiliary controls.
There are power-adjustable seats for the driver and front passenger (a mice touch that, much preferable to the more common driver's-only power seating).
But nice touches abound - like the gas struts which raise the bonnet - no fiddling with a manually-positioned stay here; auto lights-off to avoid leaving them on and draining the battery of current, and the standard fire extinguisher and first-aid kit. Not to mention the luggage restraining net in the boot.
Safety kit includes ABS anti-skid braking, stability control, three-point seatbelts for all five passengers, dual front and side front seat airbags, and full side curtain airbags.
Hyundai's Sonata scored highly with passengers for its comfort and for its equipment levels. There were some quibbles, though, about some of the hard plastic trim.
Seats were given a vote of approval for shape, comfort and support, as were leg and headroom.
The general consensus was that it was a smooth, secure-feeling car with good ride quality - a pleasant conveyance for commuting or open road trips.
Brief specifications: Hyundai Sonata Elite 2.4
Type. Four-door, five-passenger sedan.
Engine. DOHC inline 2.4-litre four-cylinder. Maximum power, 118.5kW at 5800rpm. Peak torque, 219Nm at 4250rpm.
Transmission. Front-wheel drive. Four-speed automatic gearbox with manual shift capability.
Suspension. Front, double wishbones. Rear, independent multi-link.
Brakes. Ventilated front and solid rear discs.
Wheels. 17-inch alloy.
Tyres. 225/50 VR17.
Dimensions. Length, 4800mm. Width, 1832mm. Height, 1475mm. Front track, 1565mm. Rear track, 1550mm. Wheelbase, 2730mm. Kerb weight, 1539kg. Fuel tank capacity, 70 litres.
Performance, Towing capacity, 1700kg (braked trailer); 750kg (unbraked). Turning circle, 11 metres.
Warranty. Three-year, 100,000km mechanical with roadside assistance; five-year, 160,000km anti-perforation corrosion body warranty.
- Mike Stock.