A Stellar Turbocharged Family Sedan Says, "Catch Me if You Can"
James Riswick, New and Used Car Editor
Hyundai engineered its first in-house engine only 20 years ago. To put that into perspective, Toyota achieved the same feat in 1947, while Henry Ford did it when Grover Cleveland was president. In other words, Hyundai had some catching up to do. With the introduction of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T, it's fair to say that not only has the company caught up, it has breezed past on its way to a very bright future.
Some buyers may balk at a family sedan that doesn't offer a V6 engine, but Hyundai was quite proud of its decision to forego a V6 in its all-new Sonata. Instead, the Sonata would get a turbocharged four-cylinder that promised more power than a V6 and better fuel economy than a four-cylinder. It sounded too good to be true, but six months later, the direct-injected and turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder has fulfilled that promise.
The new turbo-4's 274-horsepower rating is indeed better than all family sedan V6s, and its 269 pound-feet of torque is substantially better. And even more impressive, estimated fuel economy of 22 city/34 highway mpg and 26 mpg combined is topped only by the 175-hp Ford Fusion and 200-hp base Sonata.
After a brief drive at Hyundai's proving grounds in Korea, we're happy to report there doesn't seem to be a catch, either. There's no catastrophic torque steer, no untoward turbo whining, no premium fuel requirement, no selling your first born to gypsies. A full test will determine whether the 2.0T can match those lofty fuel economy targets, but in our experiences with the regular Sonata, we have confidence that it will deliver.
If you look at the numbers alone, the new turbocharged engine is enough to give the 2011 Hyundai Sonata a strong fighting chance against V6-powered competitors like the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Yet look beyond the numbers and the Sonata 2.0T remains the handsome, well-rounded and well-built sedan that has been impressing critics and consumers alike. To put it another way, now it's time for everyone else to catch up.
So how did Hyundai achieve such a win-win powertrain scenario? Besides solid engineering, it started with a reasonably small-displacement engine, then added direct injection and a twin-scroll turbocharger. The latter two items are what BMW used to recently achieve big fuel economy gains from its turbocharged straight-6s. Another, simpler reason is weight. Not only does a turbo-4 weigh less than a V6, but the Sonata did not have to be engineered with the bulkier supports needed for a heavier engine. Other sedans (including the old Sonata) are built to hold a V6 even if it doesn't include one.
OK, so how does it perform? In short, normally. That typical turbocharged front-drive car sensation of having the wheel wrenched out of your hands (known as torque steer) is mercifully absent off the line. It would seem that Hyundai dialed back the boost at lower revs to prevent the sort of hijinks that make turbocharged vehicles like the Mazdaspeed 3 and Mini Cooper S such handfuls. For all intents and purposes, the 2.0T engine delivers power in the smooth, linear fashion buyers have come to expect from a V6, but with an added dollop of torque.
There's also none of the whining or whooshing usually associated with turbocharged engines. In fact, there's not much noise at all, which should be a good thing for those who like their cars to be whisper quiet. Perfectionists as they apparently are, Hyundai's engineers actually seemed to think it should be even quieter.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T isn't a sport model, however, as its suspension and steering are tuned just the same as the base Sonata's. We tested an SE, which offers the firmer of two suspension settings and exhibits surprisingly adept handling. The steering is too numb on center, however, and despite building up in effort through corners, there is no escaping the highly artificial feel.
Given the SE's firmer suspension, ride quality suffers from unwelcomed impact harshness over nasty bumps. If we lived in a city or state with a small road repair budget, we'd probably opt up to the 2.0T Limited trim. Still, cabin comfort is a strong suit in any Sonata. The seats are comfy, while the driver seat and tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel adjust to a suitable degree for most body types. The backseat offers copious legroom, though the Sonata's raked roof line puts the pinch on taller folks' noggins. You may need to slouch a bit.
The Sonata's infotainment controls are a little more complicated than previous Hyundai offerings, but they are still easy to use despite the increase in high-tech features like navigation, iPod control and Bluetooth. The climate controls, however, actually got simpler thanks to the little "Mode Man." Simply press on him until arrows point in the direction you want air to blow.
As we discovered with an earlier tested base model, the Sonata passes our usability tests with flying colors. At 16.4 cubic feet, the trunk's capacity is a few cubes larger than an Accord's and there is no problem accommodating our rolling carry-on bag and golf clubs. A rear-facing child seat was easily positioned in the backseat, and there was still plenty of room for a taller passenger up front.
Design/Fit and Finish
Besides the 2.0T badge on the trunk, the only giveaway sign of the turbocharged Sonata is its visible dual exhausts. They're not much, but they still enhance the Sonata's standing as one of the more visually distinct family sedans.
When equipped with available two-tone color schemes, there is arguably no competing interior that provides as much visual flair as the Sonata does. And while there are several hard bits placed about the cabin, they are well disguised with a tasteful appearance and pleasing textures. The lone exception would be the steering wheel, which doesn't extend its leather wrapping to spokes at 3 and 9. It might as well be entirely urethane at that point.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T is a must-drive for any shopper considering a family sedan with more power than a base four-cylinder. Its combination of power and fuel economy simply cannot be matched.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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