Evoque, Sonata and Soul EV all impress in first drives
An ‘around the world in eight days’ odyssey took in drives of three new and very different cars: the latest Range Rover Evoque, Hyundai Sonata and Kia Soul EV.
First stop was Greece, where Land Rover staged the global launch of its 2020 Evoque crossover. Driving the highways and country roads that carve their way through Greece’s mostly mountainous terrain revealed that the second generation Evoque has been thoroughly improved in virtually all aspects.
In its design, while the Evoque maintains its familiar wedged visual theme, the sheet metal, lighting and trim detailing are all new and less cluttered than before. It’s an aesthetic Land Rover design chief Gerry McGovern likes to refer to as clean and reductionist, in stark contrast, he points out, to the busy, multi-faceted and controversial style of the Lexus RX350.
Expect the new design to be just as popular as the old one, which became Land Rover’s best-selling model globally before the Discovery Sport arrived two years ago. As a side note, the success of the Evoque was such that in China, a local automaker decided it would simply copy the British design, creating the Landwind X7. So blatantly similar was the X7 that even the Chinese courts decided in favor of Land Rover in a legal battle that was just resolved.
The 2020 Evoque’s wheelbase is slightly longer than before, which means interior space is marginally improved, although this Range Rover model remains a tight fit for occupants and cargo by the standards of the competition.
On the plus side, the cabin environment is calm and refined. The materials, fit and finish and, most importantly, the infotainment system, have been significantly upgraded. Land Rover vehicles (and vehicles from its sister brand, Jaguar) have long trailed their rivals in terms of infotainment system functionality and ergonomics. The latest generation system, with multiple screens, is more competitive, although still lags behind the Audi “virtual pilot” system. And you have to move up to the top Evoque model to benefit from a digital rather than analogue instrument cluster display.
Two clever new electronic features inside the Evoque are a digital mirror that uses a rear mounted camera to provide a wide unobstructed rear view (overcoming the challenge of the vehicle’s small rear window) and an optional ground view camera system. The latter uses a camera below the front bumper to display obstacles below and ahead of the vehicle. The system is particularly useful when cresting the brow of a steep off-road hill, or to avoid parking lot curbs.
On-road performance from the two available powertrains for the U.S. market – 250 hp and 300 hp versions of the same mild hybrid 2.0-liter turbo-four cylinder motor -- is decent, given the vehicle’s heft, although the lower output powertrain feels strained under full acceleration or when passing vehicles at higher freeway speeds.
Handling is improved with steady, confident cornering behavior on sweeping highway curves, even in ferocious crosswinds. On winding back roads, the steering doesn’t feel quite as precise, but there is still a pleasing compromise between poised handling and a compliant ride quality that is less prone to body roll than the larger Range Rover models.
Starting at $42,650 but ranging well into the mid-$50,000s for the high spec versions, the new Evoque is a pricey proposition, but it is also a uniquely appealing alternative to the more prosaic rivals in its class.
From Greece, it was time to hop on a long flight to Seoul, Korea to join Hyundai and Kia for drive time in two new production cars, the all-new 2020 Sonata sedan and the latest version of the Kia Soul EV. I was also treated to a fascinating tour of the both brands’ impressive new design studios, led by the renowned Luc Donckerwolke, the ex-VW Group designer who now oversees Hyundai, Kia and Genesis design operations.
“This is the biggest and best studio I have ever worked in,” said Donckerwolke. “We have gone fully digital, with no clay models. I had no reason to leave my previous employer, but Hyundai presented a great challenge and a chance to be a big game changer.”
The tour included off-the-record reveals of the next generation Hyundai Elantra, Kia Optima and a new small crossover. Suffice to say that no one will be accusing the Korean brands of playing it safe with their future designs.
Hyundai has already telegraphed its adventurous, new design philosophy with the striking 2020 Sonata, the eighth generation of the brand’s mainstream mid-size sedan. Making its public debut at next month’s New York auto show, the new Sonata goes on sale in the U.S. this spring. Design-wise, the Sonata borders on the stunning, for a family hauler, with its Aston Martin-like nose treatment and rakish rear spoiler.
The interior also steps up smartly, with an extremely roomy, well-finished and equipped cabin. In standard Hyundai practice, the Sonata comes loaded with safety equipment, driver aids and other features normally only found on much more expensive cars. The list is long but one new feature that stands out is dubbed remote smart parking assist, which will self-drive the car into and out of a tight parking spot.
Our driving experience in a Sonata equipped with a powertrain that actually comes to the U.S. market – the 1.6-liter turbo four with 180hp – was limited to a short spell on Hyundai’s proving ground test track. That was enough to demonstrate that the company is finally learning to make its cars handle keenly, with responsive steering and buttoned down suspension. Out on public roads in and around traffic-choked Seoul, the performance of the tamer Korean-market edition of the Sonata was less impressive and noisier than expected, but the car’s overall comfort and refinement levels were good.
When it comes to vehicle dynamics, the driving characteristics of the Sonata (and all other Hyundai, Kia and Genesis models) are in the hands of Albert Biermann, the ex-BMW M division boss, who now heads research and development for the Hyundai Group.
Biermann says the Sonata has different suspension tuning for the U.S. market and will be offered with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder as well as the 1.6 turbo. “The suspension tuning is more sporty than the Korean version, which is designed to cope with speed bumps and stop and go traffic.”
Biermann also promised more engine choices, with more power and further high performance N models, such as the Veloster N edition, which has been well received in the U.S.
Jumping into the 2020 Kia Soul EV (a close relative of the Hyundai Kona EV) revealed just how far the Hyundai Group has progressed in its electric vehicle program. I drove the latest specification Soul EV on public roads and the proving grounds and it turns out this upright, box-shape subcompact is surprisingly fun to drive and downright lively when put in sport mode.
Credit a new, much more powerful 64-kWh battery with 201 hp and 291 pound feet of torque, sufficient to make the Soul EV leap away from a stop sign. The new battery also delivers a range of 243 miles. That is excellent by class standards, although it remains to be seen how well the Soul holds up in cold weather conditions, which can cut EV range by up to 50 percent.
One doesn’t expect much from the handling of an upright, utilitarian car like the Soul, but actually the 2020 version’s improved rear suspension system and more responsive steering makes it quite entertaining to drive quickly on a winding country road. Like its Hyundai cousins, this Kia is loaded with standard equipment, including all the latest safety systems and driver aids. There is even a Designer Collection model with two-tone paint, special interior trim, seat fabric and other goodies.
Kia expects the Soul EV to be in U.S. showrooms later this summer. Prices have yet to be announced but for those considering taking the plunge into the EV world, the Soul could be an excellent way to test the waters.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at email@example.com