2015 Hyundai Sonata: Balance of Power — A Case For and Against the Four-Cylinder Turbo
by Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor on November 18, 2015
I recently spent a day driving Kia's Optima, the counterpart to the Sonata. Though the two cars look different, they're mechanical twins, depending on equipment, of course.
Our long-term 2015 Hyundai Sonata is fitted with the volume-selling 2.4-liter normally-aspirated four-cylinder. However, the Optima I drove happened to be the SX Turbo trim, which comes with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo. The 2.0-liter turbo is the top engine available in the Sonata and Optima, but it no longer competes with the optional V6s available in the Camry and Accord.
This, frankly, makes no sense.
First, some history. Back when the last generation Sonata/Optima were new, the Korean brands were making a real effort to keep pace with the optional Japanese V6s from Honda and Toyota in terms of power. In 2011, the Japanese V6s produced 271 horsepower and 268 hp, respectively.
Remember that Kia and Hyundai switched away from their own 3.3-liter V6 that year by embracing the four-cylinder turbo instead. The turbo-four was rated at 274 hp and 269 pound-feet of torque. The Koreans probably needed to fight the perception that switching to a four-cylinder as the optional engine might not provide the performance available from the top-of-the-line Japanese competitors. Hence the V6-topping power rating.
Fast forward to the 2015 model year and the current generation of the Sonata and Kia Optima (2016 model year). The top engine in both is still a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo. The Japanese V6s still make impressive power (the Accord makes 278 hp, the Camry makes 268 hp). Now, however, the Korean 2.0-liter four cylinder turbo engine produces a far more modest 245 hp. Why?
The obvious answer — better fuel economy — doesn't seem to hold water. Both the 2011 and 2015 turbo-four-powered Sonatas are rated by the EPA at 26 mpg combined. Somehow the Optima managed to lose 1 mpg combined with this engine (from 26 to 25 mpg combined) despite an almost 30-hp reduction in peak power for 2016. That, friends, is a lose-lose.
It's possible that Hyundai/Kia realized that the premium engine in a midsize sedan doesn't exist to make the car faster than its competitors. Possibly the strategy switched from being the most powerful sedan in the class to simply being more powerful than the base engine cars which some buyers perceive as underpowered. Because let's face it, nobody buys a midsize sedan to beat their neighbor's Camry in a drag race.
It could also be the case that after a $100 million civil suit thanks to inflated fuel economy numbers, the Korean automakers have just become more conservative in all their claims, including power.
Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor