Tushar BurmanSep 11, 2020 23:35:22 IST
Technically, this is New Normal: Drive 2, after last week’s Mercedes EQC that will eventually grace these pages. Procrastination remains from Old Normal. Kia accommodated lockdown travel restrictions by making the new Sonet compact SUV available to us in the verdant climes of an MIDC industrial area, where they run a rather swank training centre. As is the fashion, health declarations were signed, temperature checks done and cars sanitised within an inch of their life. I, for one, am glad I don’t have to take an obscenely early flight to an exotic location where I get to see the hotel room but once. I could use some free toiletries, though.
By now, most readers will be familiar with the Hyundai Venue, the prime competitor for the Sonet. This is Kia’s version of that car, quite literally (they’re the same group of companies). Sure, it’s basically the same thing, but there’s a lot that’s changed, and in typical Kia fashion, quite a bit of flash. The Sonet will launch later this month at what we expect is between 11 and 13 lac rupees, and you get a lot for your money.
Wild by Design
The subhead actually is the tagline for the Sonet, and they’re on the money. Where the Seltos was all creases and slashes, the Sonet goes for a more organic look, with more curves. It’s certainly an eye-catching design and makes the car look physically larger than its Venue cousin. Anecdotally, it’s captured the imaginations of the buying public. For me, the front is very aggressive, akin to the Kia Stinger sport sedan, while the rear has a European vibe to it. The side profile, though, is decidedly early 2000s Korean, and I’m not a fan.
Subtle, it is not, and we had the opportunity to witness a fully accessorised Sonet with all the chrome bits tacked on and it was... bright. But leave the tacky bits off, and its a looker. After the drive, I even convinced myself that I could learn to love it. The GT line cars that we drove had the red accents just like the Seltos, but to my eye, there seemed to be more of them. The wheels are 16” and fill the arches proportionally, while retaining a nice chunky side profile that helps with ride quality.
I just wish they’d done something else with that C-pillar. Anything, really.
Just like the Seltos before it, the Sonet comes with all the bells and whistles, and all the choices you could ask for in a vehicle. At last count, the Seltos came in 18 different variants, and for our sanity’s sake, we hope the Sonet has fewer. My hopes are not high, however. We had three distinct variants to drive for the press event, which is new for me. There was a diesel auto, petrol auto and petrol iMT (intelligent manual transmission), of which we sampled the diesel and iMT. There’s also a 1.2l naturally-aspirated petrol motor on offer, which will likely make up the base of the range. I fully expect it to be uninspiring to drive, much like all the tiny motors from the last decade.
Kia, like Hyundai before it, likes to throw the book at the top-end variants, leaving little to be desired. This was the case with the GT line cars we drove. Sunroof? Yes. 10.25” touchscreen? Yup. Automatic? Beshak! Cooled front seats? Of course. Voice commands? Doesn’t everybody? Wireless charger? What kind of animals use wires? Then of course there’s the updated UVO connected car package that claims 57 features, including app and smartwatch connectivity and a voice assistant that can occasionally be useful.
Again, like the Seltos before it, the Sonet has a very nice, quality feel to the interior. The dash is a mix of shapes and textures but mostly in black. It’s an interesting design choice. Nothing looks or feels cheap. It’s the sort of vibe you’d expect in the car of the future from a 1990s movie. If there’s something that sticks out, it is the strange, almost retro design of the AC display and buttons. The whole module literally looks decades older than the slick, glossy touchscreen just above it.
Seats are comfortable and feel like quality. Being in GT line cars, we had contrast red stitching all over, while the pattern and texture added to the sporty feel of the interior. It is all dark though, so that may not be to everyone’s liking. Knee room worked well for my colleague and I. At 5’9”, I was able to accommodate myself and my 5’7” colleague in the second row in comfort. There’s a decent 392-litre boot as well.
As is the fashion, Kia also includes the UVO connected car suite of features in the Sonet. Over the course of successive launches, they’ve added features to it. At this point, you can control some bits of the Kia Sonet via a smartwatch, if you have one. The UVO system uses an embedded SIM card in the car to effectively connect it to the Internet at all times. This enables clever features like vehicle tracking, geofencing, remote start/AC start, locking/unlocking and such. These are all operated using the companion UVO app available on iOS and Android. We tried to remotely start and cool both the cars we drove, and the app always threw up an error. Remote locking/unlocking worked, but took 10-15 seconds to execute, which is an unintuitive experience.
Everyone’s happy to throw in a voice assistant these days. If I had an assistant as good as the best of the connected car bunch, they would be out of a job on day one. Kia’s system in the Sonet seems similar to the one in Hyundai cars, and relatively speaking, I like it. It seems to recognise voice commands and phrasing accurately – when it does -- but what it does with it is another matter. You basically have a handful of commands to control things like opening/closing the driver’s window, changing AC temperature and navigating to destinations. Apart from getting directions, I can’t imagine any other voice commands being quicker or more convenient to use than buttons. Also, I almost always had to say “Hello Kia” twice over for the system to come alive.
Voice assistants in cars are a gimmick. Even the best of them are barely adequate for a couple of use cases. Ironically, Kia handed out goodie bags with Amazon Echo Auto devices to journalists, which works flawlessly. Better, even, than Siri or Google Assistant, because it picks up voice better. My sense is that hardware needs to get better for car voice assistants to be less infuriating. Then they can add features that actually matter.
This is where the Kia Sonet appears to have aimed straight for the boundary, no bounces involved. The first car we sampled was the diesel automatic, which uses the same 1.5l diesel motor we’ve driven in the Seltos. It makes the same 115PS/250Nm and it’s mated to a very nice 6-speed torque converter automatic. The Sonet is a sub-4m compact SUV, and weighs less than the Seltos, so it stands to reason that progress is brisk. More ballsy colleagues were able to get it deep into triple-digit territory on the expressway. Torque is always present, and the automatic works very well with the power curve. Noise is well controlled and while you know you’re driving a diesel, you’re more likely to notice from the proper shove you get when you push the throttle like your luck. Kia is in a very good position with this BS6 diesel motor, a market vacated by the likes of Maruti, Nissan and Renault.
Ride quality is also very good. I’ve only had the briefest of drives with the turbo-petrol Hyundai Venue, so a proper comparison is impossible. However, my colleagues believe that the harshness felt on that vehicle is gone in the Sonet. Thing seem tidy around corners as well, and I believe the 215/60 tall tyres add a bit of extra comfort over our broken roads. Steering is light and par for the course, while visibility is confidence-inspiring.
The stand-out of the day was our experience with the 1.0-litre turbo petrol mated to the iMT gearbox. It’s a very strange experience working a 6-speed manual gearbox with no clutch pedal. I’m familiar with stick-shifts as well as automatics, so some sort of combination of muscle memories worked for me, but it’s still strange. Essentially, you just slot it into whatever gear you like, and push the throttle. From a standstill, put it in first and the car even crawls like an auto! On the go, you use it just like a manual – lift off the gas momentarily, slot it into the next gear and get back on. It works seamlessly and smoothly. We tried to stall it, but were unable to. Coming to a dead stop in 5th gear, the car just idled happily until we put it in neutral.
I think this iMT is the one to get. As I understand it, it is cost-effective even compared to a traditional AMT, and has none of the frustrating learning curve. It’s engaging and way safer than a traditional manual. There’s no chance of popping the clutch and putting the car into a wall or worse, a person, no way to stall it in traffic and has the engagement that manual enthusiasts love. I, for one, would prefer this immeasurably more over an AMT, especially when driving in the hills. The turbo-petrol the iMT was working with is a lively motor with 120PS/172Nm on tap. In my experience, the 170Nm number is the low-water mark for this size of vehicle. It feels good and that lovely, easy transmission allows one to keep the engine in the happy zone. I think this will end up being the fun variant to have, and cheaper than the 7DCT dual-clutch automatic.
Mileage numbers on the car’s displays were all over the place, so we’ll have to wait for a proper road test to get some valid numbers.
If most guesses about the price are right, we should the Kia Sonet come in between Rs 11 and Rs 13 lac. You get a lot of car for your money in that all-important SUV form factor. There are plenty of real choices with engine and transmission options, and the feature-set is standard-bearing. Hyundai should be worried, while also laughing their way to the bank. You can get a bit more space and more power in the recently-updated Renault Duster, but the trade-offs of an end-of-life model – and the considerable premium – are likely not worth it. Ground clearance and ride quality make this a practical alternative to executive sedans as well. Kia also leads in the tech space, but to me, that isn’t a strong decision driver. The iMT stands out as the interesting variant and prospective buyers should definitely give it a go.
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