With all due respect to the cute new Kia Rio and the roguish Hyundai Tiburon, the fifth-generation Sonata is the most handsome South Korean model to ever be launched in South Africa. It is conservative, especially the front end, but without being put-me-to-sleep boring, and its rear-end, with those long tail light clusters and swooping boot line, is understated and chic. The car I drove had very nice nice rims, too!

For most consumers, the Sonata offers very impressive specification at its price. The four-speed automatic costs R209 900 and has neat full leather trim, multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, front loader CD/MP3 player, remote central locking, power windows, full size alloy spare wheel, reverse park sensors, ABS, with EBD, driver and passenger airbags and an electronic stability programme.

So, given the high-specification level and ample rear legroom and boot space, why am I reserved in my ultimate praise? Because the car’s 2,4-litre 16-valve four cylinder, which was developed in conjunction with DaimlerChrysler, felt unrefined and listless. The powerplant develops 118 kW, which is more than the Toyota Camry’s 2,4 (112 kW), but less than the Honda Accord’s 2,4 (140 kW) and its peak torque, 219 N.m, almost as good as that of the latter. However, the otherwise smooth auto’ transmission seemed set to kick down even on medium acceleration, making the engine (which had a remarkably rough idle) yelp like a scolded puppy.

Granted, the Sonata is supposed to appeal to more mature, upper middle-income earning and conservative-driving motorists, but the engine’s character detracts from a package that is very well finished and undeniably upmarket. I’d be willing to forgive the hard plastics of the Sonata’s workmanlike fascia, the unimaginative digital readouts and the lifeless steering, because the car’s handling and braking are actually quite good. Oh, if only the Sonata went as well as it looked.

At R209 000, the Sonata undercuts its Toyota Camry rival on price and represents very good value for money. The interior, (with handy oddment spaces in the centre console, but no ventilation outlets for rear passengers), and cavernous boot, count for a lot, and, similar to Mercedes-Benz models of yore, the car’s styling is inoffensive and classy. For me, the Sonata falls short, but only just.