When it comes to buying new cars, New Zealanders tend to choose the highest-specification models with the most equipment.
That doesn't imply buyers are immune to higher costs but simply that they see more value for money in going for the top-shelf versions.
Hyundai's latest Sonata is a good case in point. The entry level 2.4-litre four-cylinder manual is a perfectly good and reasonably well-specified car, yet it's the most expensive 3.3-litre V6 Elite automatic that's been attracting most buyers.
During the early months of sales, 35 per cent of customers were opting for the six-cylinder Elite compared to a mere five per cent for the least expensive Sonata.
Astute buyers look at the $33,000 manual and compare it to the $40,000 Elite before deciding they may as well spend the extra $7000.
It happens in all sections of the market. In the supermini class, for example, buyers are more inclined to select the higher spec version of the new Suzuki Swift with its alloy wheels, driving lights and extra airbags. Even in budget territory, buyers aren't about to let the pricetag rule their heads.
Higher-grade versions are often a better bet when it comes to resale. Though you may not necessarily command a higher price, you will be much more likely to attract a buyer who has looked at a similar, lower-specified example.
With its leather upholstery, reversing sensors and six-disc audio, the Sonata Elite represents a lot of car for the money.
It's also testament to the huge advances made by the Koreans since their cars first appeared at the Turin motor show 31 years ago. Hyundai arrived with a prototype for its three-door Pony hatchback. The car had been styled in Europe by Giugiaro's Ital Design and was a basic Corolla-size model with a conventional front engine/rear-wheel drive layout, a 1.4- litre overhead cam engine and a live rear axle suspended by leaf springs.
Soon after came the Hyundai Stellar based on a floorpan similar to the Mark 4 Ford Cortina. Hyundai had been assembling Cortinas since the late 1960s and just when it was expected the Koreans would start building the Sierra under licence they elected to do their own in-house medium size sedan.
The Giugiaro styled Stellar used a Mitsubishi-designed engine, gearbox and live rear axle, although the components were made in South Korea. Though Korean cars were initially perceived to be somewhat cheap and downmarket - a reputation that has, to some extent, persisted among some Korean brands - the first of the front-drive Sonatas in 1989 began to change that.
Fifteen years ago Hyundai was already achieving good results in North American J.D. Power customer satisfaction rankings. It was a precursor of even better things to come.
That a model like the new Sonata is striking a chord with private buyers in New Zealand is also significant. It's a sign of acceptance and respectability. Close to half of Sonata buyers are private compared to 40 per cent a year ago. Fleets and businesses have traditionally dominated Hyundai sales but as demand has increased so has the percentage of private owners.
The Sonata V6 makes a huge value statement, especially in terms of specification. Line the Korean up against rivals like the Nissan Maxima and Honda Accord and though pricing is similar, the Korean challenger wins on appointment.
There's a versatile five-stage automatic transmission, electrically operated seats, reverse parking sonar, a seven-speaker MP3-compatible stereo with subwoofer and leather upholstery - impressive advantages for similar money.
Factor in larger 17-inch alloy wheels, more airbags, auto-on headlights, automatic recirculating mode for the climate-control air-conditioning, curry hooks, heated door mirrors and windscreen wiper de-icer and the top Sonata looks increasingly attractive. In addition, all Hyundais in New Zealand come with a boot-mounted fire extinguisher, reflective safety vest and first aid kit which their rivals lack.
Though the Accord V6 lists for $2000 less than the Sonata Elite V6, there'll be no discounting the Honda price so the costing differential diminishes. Skim the four-cylinder price lists and the Hyundai also emerges in good light, topping the charts for the manual and auto versions.
No feathers are ruffled with the body styling of the fifth-generation Sonata. The shape may almost border on blandness, but there's no denying it is totally modern, well balanced and seeks not to offend. It could be a Mazda, a Ford or a Honda, but strip away the badges and you might not guess the car is Korean.
The blue/black metallic evaluation V6 was well built, right down to a properly lined glovebox, adjustable drink holders and firm closing doors. There's a good feel to this package.
Cabin comfort is good and legroom front and rear better than most of the opposition. Slightly shorter than the Accord V6 or Maxima, the Sonata is actually wider, has a large boot capacity and weighs more.
The double overhead cam variable intake 3.3-litre V6 is a substantial step ahead of the previous bent six and its 171kW is similar to rivals'. It hooks up well to the auto and whirls the car to 100km/h in 7.8 seconds, giving it a clear advantage over the four-cylinder auto Sonata that requires 10.4 seconds.
There is, of course, a price to pay at the pumps. V6s tend to be thirsty, and the Sonata is no exception. Though an average of 11.5 litres/100km (24.6mpg) is claimed, our week-long result of 14.6 litres/100km (19.3 mpg), which included a fair proportion of city operation, is indicative of the sort of thirst to be experienced.
Dynamically, the Sonata might not be quite as good as the major rivals. Expect a touch more bodyroll and a slight uneasiness over indifferent surfaces. On most roads, however, the ride is comfortable and accommodating and the car gives what is asked of it. With 3.2 turns of the steering wheel from lock to lock, the car does not respond as sharply as the opposition but for many owners the differences are academic.
And hark at the level of cabin refinement. Mechanical and road noise at 100km/h is less than rivals', evidence enough that the engineering credentials are without question.
For the most part, the Sonata is a thoroughly competent and acceptable medium weight challenger that stands proud in any company.
This car can only mean more business and a higher standing in automotive circles for Hyundai. You could say the marque has well and truly arrived.
Review by Donn Anderson