In 1999, my stepfather became one of the early owners of a Hyundai Accent. Back then, that was as good a sedan as you could possibly get in India (the Korean company claimed that they had spent a billion dollars developing the car). You really did not have much of a choice when it came to sedans in that price-bracket, either – there was the Maruti Esteem (which was dated even then) and the Daewoo Cielo, which was not bad at all, given the other products on offer, but Daewoo’s internal issues were already hurting sales.
There was also a generation-old Ford Escort, which consumers skipped, and the Honda City had just entered the market. The last named car in this list was far and away the best thing to have happened to Indian roads back then, but it was relatively expensive, because the late ‘90s and early 2000s were a time when a lakh of rupees was still a lot of money (apartments in Gurgaon cost ‘just’ Rs 20 lakhs). So, the Hyundai Accent, with its modern looks, comfortable seats and staid driving performance, was not a bad car if you wanted to potter around the city.
It was, however, a car that taught you what understeer meant, especially to a 22-year old getting to grips with driving. You put this car into a corner, and it was like the steering wheel and front wheels had no connection between them. You dared not throw the Accent into a corner, and if you did, the car rolled about – a lot. This was partially due to the very soft suspension settings that most cars sold in India got back then, because even arterial roads were godawful. I always found the Accent ‘floaty’, which is why I preferred taking the Zen MPFi that was also at home. Yes, the Accent impressed girls more (and was more comfortable), but the Zen was just so much more fun to drive – it established driving priorities for me very early in life.
This brings me to the new Hyundai Verna. The Accent was also a Verna, by the way, and the new Verna is therefore the fourth generation of the vehicle to be sold in India. The Korean carmaker has sold eight million Vernas over five generations, with close to 400,000 of them in India. It’s a very important car for them, but sales of the previous ‘Fluidic’ Verna stalled, and Hyundai was selling under a thousand a month until they finally stopped sales earlier this year – a huge fall from the 4000-odd monthly sales at the start. This was because of the Maruti-Suzuki Ciaz, which although a bit dull, came with a load of features and was very comfortable. There was also the current Honda City, which lacked the persona and performance of the first iteration, but was a reliable and safe choice. Both these cars sold over 4000 units a month.
The new Verna will try and redress the balance in a couple of ways. Of course, there is its Rs 7.99 lakh (ex-showroom) price, as has always been the case with Hyundai – but there is also everything else about this car. It is a genuinely nice car to drive, comfortable at the back and has quite a punch from its engine. I drove the SXspec diesel automatic, which lacks one of the best features of the Verna – cooled seats. Believe me when I tell you that on a hot and humid day outside Kochi, I would have loved those cooled seats. After experiencing them in the Elantra, I’d probably buy the manual SX(O) variant of the diesel, just for that feature alone. When you think of the rather ridiculous heated seats offered by some luxury carmakers in India, which you would use for a grand total of zero days in Mumbai and maybe for two weeks in Delhi, they should take Hyundai’s lead and offer this extremely useful feature (and possibly remove the heated front windshield that some of them offer – climate change or not, I do not foresee a blizzard in a major Indian city, ever).
Beyond its features (and the features are solid, such as Hyundai’s standard Apple CarPlay/Android Auto-enabled infotainment system, with an independent navigation system, and the telematics application that you can use to analyse your driving performance, just as long as you don’t start sharing it on WhatsApp) the Verna surprises you on the performance front. Remember the ‘floaty’ feature about the Accent? That became a standard Hyundai handling feature. It improved over the years, but you never were totally comfortable with throwing a Hyundai sedan into a corner. Make no mistake, Hyundais are great value and comfortable, and I still own one, but they were never great-handling cars, because handling was sacrificed at the altar of ride comfort.
This one? Well, it doesn’t float. On the way up to the Athirappilly waterfalls from Kochi, the road has a few twists and turns and is uncomfortably narrow in stretches. If you take a corner hard and fast, you expect the steering to do what you tell it to do, and a combination of the grippy Hankook tyres and better suspension settings make for a stable platform – and this does not come at the cost of ride comfort.
The engine I drove, the 128 PS 1.6 U2 CRDi diesel, is the same motor that does service on the Creta, and there are no surprises. The six-speed automatic gearbox offered with this engine (which Hyundai feels will give it a massive edge over the Ciaz and City) is not as good as the 7-speed DSG ‘box on the Volkswagen Vento/Skoda Rapid. Downshifts are not as snappy as you wish them to be, but with every automatic transmission, you do have to adapt your right foot to deal with the vagaries of the gearbox. Who said driving new cars every second day is a great job? Well, it is, but it isn’t as easy as you think. Is the diesel Verna better than its competition? The straight answer is yes. This is the best-handling mid-size sedan that Hyundai has ever made. That said, I shall miss the floaty nature of Hyundai cars, because learning what understeer is truly changed my life.
2017 Hyundai Verna Specs
1.6-litre CRDi diesel
What we like: Excellent all-round package
What we don’t: Slightly sluggish automatic gearbox