Part of the problem historically has been that its cars have originated from South Korea with looks and materials that suit Korean tastes. And, as has been proved many times before, we Europeans have a hard time accepting the automotive tastes of other continents: even the Americans have floundered when its products cross the Atlantic.
But the Koreans, following the lead of Japanese firms, have established European design headquarters in order to cross the cultural divide.
The firm is employing new European staff to work at the Frankfurt site in a bid to solve its European conundrum, David Walker, managing director at Hyundai UK, said: ‘We are making progress in engineering, build quality and reliability.
‘The European headquarters opened 18 months ago and the site has its own design studio and a research and development (R&D) engineering centre. This will ensure that a lot more of the work on cars coming into Europe will be done in Europe.
‘Hyundai is increasing the number of people working in the R&D centre over the next few years. This will mainly be European staff such as engineers and designers who will influence the product.
‘The agenda for us over the next five to six years is about growing volumes in Europe.’
The firm is hoping to sell 306,200 units globally with 11,000 units in Europe during the next 12 months. Of these, 800-1,000 will be 161bhp 2.4-litre petrol versions in the UK with about 10-15% going to the fleet market, when sales start in May. About 80% of these will be a four-speed automatic with the remaining 20% five-speed manual.
But it is the 135bhp 2.0-litre CRDi diesel which will catch the eye of fleet decision-makers, although this is almost a year away and won’t arrive in the UK until February 2006.
Alongside more attractive styling, Hyundai is hoping the price and generous list of standard specification help it move into the fleet market.
There is bags of standard equipment on the 2.4-litre including tilt-and-reach adjustment steering, ABS with EBD, heated electric side mirrors and dashboard and boot area power outlets.
The options list is also comprehensive and includes ESP, cruise control, keyless entry system, automatic climate control, air quality filter, rear distance warning system, dash-mounted MP3 and six-CD changer and windscreen de-icer.
Walker said: ‘We still have a long way to go in the core fleet market and we want to develop relationships with contract hire and leasing companies.
‘Once we have the product on the market, if we get the price and specification right, we will push hard to make progress in fleet.’
Behind the wheel
I GOT to grips with the Sonata on the snowy peaks of Baden Baden in Germany, the country on which the firm seems to be casting an envious eye.
The Sonata actually looks pretty decent in the metal and every bit the executive car Hyundai claims it to be. There is a slight Audi-ness about the long, clean lines and the bold front and rear lights, which can be no bad thing for a value brand.
However, the similarities between Hyundai and premium German brands tend to end after getting into the Sonata. Despite leather seats and better quality materials than preceding Sonatas, it still lacks a little refinement.
The hard plastic console with fake wood trim is a pretty mediocre combination, though things are much better on lighter-coloured versions, such as silver, where the fake wood becomes metallic. The dashboard is well set out and clear, though the combined stereo and satellite navigation screen on the test car was not so impressive and, bizarrely, everything was in Spanish. Fortunately, UK versions will have a much better VDO Siemens unit fitted.
Legroom has increased by 10mm in the front and 30mm in the back, with increases in headroom of 22mm and 15mm respectively. In fact, it feels huge inside with plenty of legroom for rear seat passengers.
New soundproofing drowns out noise effectively and the automatic version, which will be the biggest seller, offers a smooth ride backed by comfortable, well-supported seats.
The gearstick looks a little flimsy but works well enough, and the transmission operates smoothly. The manual version is equally good, with the suspension system ironing out any lumps that are thrown at it. It makes a great car for motorway cruising and had no problems at the top end of the speedometer on the German autobahns.
But until the official fuel consumption and CO2 figures are announced later this year, it is difficult to gauge whether this car will be popular with fleets. With the current predilection for diesel engines among company car drivers, it could be a year before Hyundai can go to fleets with a viable product.
THE Sonata is well put together and rather more stylish than its predecessor, but still doesn’t quite have the sleekness of Japanese or European rivals. Hyundai will need to get the price and the UK specification right to compete with other marques in the sector.
Model: 2.4 DOHC
Engine (cc): 2,359
Max power (bhp/rpm): 159/5,800
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 162/4,250
Max speed (mph): 132 (man) 126 (auto)
0-62mph (sec): 8.9 (man) 10.4 (auto)
Fuel consumption (mpg): TBA
CO2 emissions (g/km): TBA
Fuel tank capacity (l/gal): 70/15.4
Transmission: 5-sp manual/4-sp auto
Service interval (miles): 12 months/10,000
On sale: May