Hyundai Sonata Turbo — A step up to sensible performance

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Fans of the Hyundai Sonata were no doubt thrilled last year when they first caught a glimpse of the stylish, trend-setting 2011 sedan. But for some, their enthusiasm may have waned when they learned there would be no V-6 engine available to compete with the bigger engines in the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima.

Yes, the award-winning 2011 Sonata comes with a very energetic and amazingly fuel-efficient 4-cylinder engine making 198 or 200 horsepower depending on trim level. The new engine not only realizes 35 miles per gallon in highway driving, but performs better than most competing four-bangers in the mid-sized segment.

But for the performance junkies among us, we have learned firsthand after sharing a couple of weeks behind the wheel that the Sonata does not need a V-6. It does just fine with four turbocharged cylinders.

The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine option now available gives the Sonata the energy not available with Hyundai's previous 3.3-liter 249-horsepower V-6. The South Korean automaker seems to be ahead of the curve these days, and the decision to make its performance engine a 4-cylinder rather than a V-6 vividly points this out.

The advantages to owning a Sonata turbo over a competing V-6 are several. For example:

• The Hyundai engine makes 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, more than any of its direct competitors — the Buick Regal turbo, the VW Passat turbo, the Ford Fusion V-6, the Chevy Malibu V-6, the Toyota Camry V-6, the Honda Accord V-6, and the Nissan Altima V-6.
• The Hyundai gets better gas mileage than all of the above rated at 33 mpg highway and 22 mpg city with a combined rating of 26 mpg.
• The Hyundai turbo undercuts all of the aforementioned competition by at least a thousand dollars or more in all cases.

We found that the car's performance was more than just numbers on paper. The engine, mated to Hyundai's new-for-2011 six-speed automatic transmission, offers superb performance measured at about 6.5 seconds from 0-to-60. Shifts are smooth and there is plenty of grunt off the line and from 40-to-60, the range necessary to quickly get around a slow-moving vehicle on a two-lane road.

The Hyundai is not a sports sedan by any stretch, but it holds its own against the competition based on comparison times in Motor Trend magazine. Only the Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry hold a clear advantage over the Sonata if two-tenths of a second is a clear advantage. And who among those that purchase these vehicles take them to the drag strip on the weekends?

For a real comparison, the V-6 in last year's Sonata was rated at just a tick or two under eight seconds while deriving gas mileage of 19/29, clearly lagging the new engine in all categories.

We realize that for most people, the standard 4-cylinder is just right. But for those who want the extra performance, Hyundai says the price difference ranges from $1,550 to $1,750 depending on trim level.

Whichever way you go, the Sonata is a solid choice from styling inside and out, price, gas mileage, and driving refinement.

The new Sonata has a depth of good looks usually reserved for such luxury brands as Mercedes and BMW. Its sleek shape suggests motion with a fast-back roofline, a down-swooping character line running from the taillight to the front fender and a chrome strip running along the beltline through the hood to the headlight cluster. Incredibly neat!

Although the beltline is fairly high, a styling trait that came in vogue over the past few years, sight lines in all directions are excellent.

Hyundai calls its design “fluidic sculpture.” It mimics the Mercedes CLS fastback sedan, which has been on the market for several years. It also looks a lot like the Volkswagen CC, but the Hyundai design was probably already locked in by the time the CC was first revealed so it seems fair to say that both cars owe at least some of their lines to the Mercedes. No matter the origins of the Sonata’s striking looks, they work.

Look inside and you’ll see a handsome setup with a center stack that flows down through the center console. The dashboard and door panels were trimmed out with dark wood accents. The beefy steering wheel was, well, beefy; weighty and filling the hand giving us that sense of control that we like.

The ironic thing with the new Sonata is that Hyundai has climbed the ladder of success during the past two decades unabashedly copying the competition. This is the first Hyundai that clearly steps away from that strategy, even if does pay a slight homage to the CLS. The new Sonata really stands on its own.

And here’s perhaps the most interesting thing. There is much more to this sedan than exterior and interior styling. Hyundai has created a spacious five-passenger vehicle that leads in other areas as well.

Passenger space is exemplary with very generous leg and foot room for rear-seat passengers. The only complaint here is with the sloping roof, which may create some head room problems for tall passengers. The generous rear-seat room does not impede on the usefulness of the trunk, which will hold 16 cubic feet of stuff, two more than the Honda Accord, which is basically the same size as the Sonata. We easily loaded two sets of golf clubs.

The Sonata comes in three trim levels — GLS, SE and Limited — starting at $19,995 for the GLS with manual transmission and $20,915 with automatic.

If performance is your desire, the direct injection turbocharged 2.0T SE starts at an affordable $24,865 including destination charge. Want navigation and sunroof, the price rises to $27,465. Our top line Limited trim carrying a bottom line of $30,000 came with the navigation package with back-up camera and a 400 watt Infinity sound system and a host of standard features including leather seats, 18-inch Hyper Silver Alloy wheels, a power tilt and slide sunroof and of course Hyundai’s full basket of safety equipment and its now famous warranty.

Seems like a bargain to us.

Base price: $24,865 (SE); as driven, $30,000
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 274 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 269 foot-pounds @ 4,500 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 110 inches
Length: 189.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,340 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 16.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons
EPA rating: 33 mpg highway, 22 mpg city
0-60: 6.5 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Honda Accord V-6, Volkswagen Passat 2.0T, Toyota Camry V-6

The Good:
• Bold head-turning styling
• Stylish, comfortable cabin
• Solid fuel economy almost equal to base 4-cylinder
• Strong V-6-like performance

The Bad:
• $1,500 to $1,700 more to get extra performance

The Ugly:
• Gauges tend to wash out in bright sunlight