First drive: Hyundai ix35


Hyundai’s new Tucson, dubbed the iX35, is poised to take Hyundai from dark horse to racehorse in the small SUV sales race. Angus Thompson drives it, and the new 2010 Sonata, in Oman.

Aah, horseracing. The sport of kings, and nowhere in the world is this pastime more cherished or competitive than the Middle East. It’s in these desert climes that the term “to pilot a dark horse” was coined. It wasn’t for a race nor was my steed the crimson-kind you find pulling up outside the Burj Khalifa. I was merely cruising the palm-lined streets and sandstone cliffs of Oman in the all new Hyundai Sonata.

Like Oman, the Sonata may not seem as flash as a Ferrari. It’s an outsider whose appeal, like that of the more traditionally grounded emirate, is more honest with a purer sense of value and character than its segment front runners.

But it’s a good bet on the long run as Hyundai’s odds continue to improve as the world’s fastest growing carmaker. It’s also the fourth largest carmaker in the world and the brand’s quiet success in South Africa has awakened many to the value in the brand, its products and its five year / 150 000km warranty.

Until now, Hyundai’s focus has been on building its product quality. This is evident in the gains it has made in global IQS studies like JD Power, where the Korean manufacturer has improved from 32nd place (out of 37 manufacturers) in 2001 to fourth in 2009.

Now with a solid platform from which to build, Hyundai - along with cousin Kia - are starting to enrich the emotional and desirability pillars of their products through design and ingenuity. The new Sonata and the forthcoming ix35 (previously badged Tucson) are the latest examples of this.

Hyundai’s 2010 Sonata

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As the flagship of an emerging brand, previous iterations of the Sonata were always honest and priced for value, but struggled to succeed in the luxury segment due to their lowly image perception. But a lot has changed since the previous version was introduced and the newcomer offers a far more dynamic design over its staid and somewhat bland predecessor, which Hyundai hopes will endear it to a new brand of customers.

The sixth-generation, codenamed YF, has taken four years and US$ 372 million to go from concept to customer.  Targeted at the mid-size sedan market, the Sonata takes on heavy competition in the form of the class-leading Honda Accord, Citroen’s new C5, the Mazda6 and the might of the popular German three (Audi’s A4, Merc C-Class and BMW’s 3 series).

Visually the Sonata showcases Hyundai’s new design language, dubbed Fluidic Sculpture, which they say “focuses on the interplay of natural, fluid elements with more rigid surfaces and structures to create the illusion of constant motion.”

Mmm… groovy.

But in the metal is where it counts though and the initial impression is that the exterior is bigger proportioned than its rivals, measuring in longer (2 795mm wheelbase) and 5mm lower than the previous version with shorter front and rear overhangs.

Although the nose of the vehicle is too bulbous for my taste, it’s not an offensive design and allied with the wider 18-inch rim profile on offer (the smaller 16-inchers do no justice to the overall design), looks fairly sleek and flowing from the A-pillar to the rear.

The interior too, offers an upscale ambiance with a functional design and quality materials. Being both longer and wider than its predecessor (by 20mm and 5mm, respectively) interior cabin space has improved providing greater cabin space and sufficient luggage space for four golf bags.

South Africa will receive Hyundai’s 2.4-litre petrol derivative mated to a new six-speed auto transmission, which has been developed in-house and is 40.6mm shorter, 12kg lighter with 62 fewer moving parts than the previous five-speed version.

On the road, acceleration is relatively swift and transitions through all six ratios are smooth and well mated. Hyundai are also developing an eight-speed dual clutch transmission which should make its way into the likes of the Genesis (America’s Car of the Year) in the near future.

Specification levels look to be typically high from standard, with a new selective damper suspension system ensuring good suspension dampening and excellent highway cruising. Expect pricing to be competitive in relation to the Germans with luxuries like panoramic sunroof, rain and parking sensors, six airbags and Hill Accent control thrown in as standard.

Hyundai’s new ix35

Unlike the Sonata, Hyundai has decided to change the name of the new Tucson to the ix35 for SA, in-line with current i10, i20 and the forthcoming i30 hatchback which will arrive in the second quarter of this year to take on the likes of the VW Golf VI.

Apart from Nissan’s Qashqai, not many vehicles could match the dominance of the previous Tucson in the C-segment SUV category. The new Tucson, codenamed LM internally, moves away from the two-box off-roader design and offers a roomier cabin, extra storage capacity and a range of derivatives.

The South African ix35 range starts with a 122kW 2.0-litre petrol 4x2 producing 197Nm of torque and mated to a choice of either an all-new six speed auto or five speed manual transmission.

The family 130kW 2.4-litre petrol Thetea-II engine will also be available with the new six speed auto 4x4 drivetrain. In the ix35, the 2.4 produces 227Nm of torque and emits 219 g/km of CO2.

The pick of the range however is an all-new 135kW 2.0-litre turbo diesel, producing 392Nm of torque and CO2 emissions of 174g/km.  This oil burner will be available with a six speed manual in 4x2 guise (returning a claimed combined fuel consumption of 6.4 l/100km) and a six speed auto 4x4 (returning a claimed 7.5 l/100km). 

While Hyundai couldn’t give us an indication as to whether the monocoque’s ground clearance has been raised or lowered or if the approach and departure angles have changed from the previous version, the 4WD low range facility has been bolstered with two new safety features: a Hill Start Assist Control and Downhill Brake Control (which offers similar benefit to Land Rover’s Hill Descent Control system).
Visually, the "fluidic" design language translates very well in the iX35 and it emanates a visual confidence from every angle. The hexagonal grille previewed on the ix-onic concept at the 2009 Geneva Auto Salon moves into mass production on the ix35, a face we’re told that will characterise the Hyundai family of future.  

The interior lines echo the dynamic flow of the sheet metal, with extra legroom and headroom. The overall height (1665mm) has also been lowered by 25mm without affecting headroom leaving it slightly bigger than the Qashqai, but more compact than Honda’s CRV.

On and off the road the ix35 feels poised, comfortable and refined. Its solidity and quality of build ushers it into a premium level, with a stiffer body shell that is now 22.7kg lighter than its predecessor. The marked improvement in the tactile feel and quality of the materials used is evident throughout.

The steering too has a well weighted feel and good feedback, but is not overly direct nor intrusive over bumpy terrain.

Like the Sonata, one can expect specification levels to be high at its domestic introduction in April, with the value offering reinforced with the likes of a rear-view camera, push button start with smart-key proximity senor, steering wheel-mounted audio remote control and the aforementioned 18-inch wheels as standard.

All in all, while both products are marked improvements over their predecessors, the ix35 is the stronger bet in its segment and will soon be a firm favourite for the compact SUV crown.

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