2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Turbo Review – First Drive

Hyundai achieves an industry first, packing the terms “turbocharged” and “value” in a mid-size sedan

2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Turbo Review – First Drive

The Hyundai Sonata has gone from complete obscurity to overnight sensation, but the trip from second-rate rental car lots to one of America’s Top 3 mid-size sedans was a long one. With every generation getting better engineered and more attractive, the 2010 Sonata seems to be Hyundai’s opus.

FAST FACTS

1. Powered by a direct-injection 2.0L 4-cylinder the Sonata 2.0T makes 274-hp and 269 ft-lbs of torque – which is best in class.

2. Fuel economy is rated at 22/33-mpg (city/hwy) – also best in class.

3. Turbo Sonata models start at $24,145 while the top-spec Limited model retails for $27,045.

4. The 2011 Sonata is just one of two models to earn a 5-Star overall crash rating by NHTSA under the new, more stringent test procedures.

The launch of the current Sonata, in the midst of a recession, was a gamble for Hyundai in itself. No one was quite sure how customers in this typically conservative segment would react to its swoopy, Mercedes-like styling and only one engine option, an adequate but not exactly soul-stirring 2.4L 4-cylinder engine – even if it did deliver the most power in its class.

BEST-IN-CLASS POWER AND FUEL ECONOMY

For 2011, Hyundai is offering more power, but chose to stick to their guns by not offering a V6. Instead, the hottest Sonata is motivated by a 2.0-liter 274-horsepower four-cylinder engine, with a 6-speed automatic gearbox putting power to the front wheels. The horsepower figure is just ahead of 6-cylinder offerings from Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet. Turbo four engines in cars like the Volkswagen Passat and Buick Regal offer significantly less power to boot, despite identical displacement. Hyundai’s quantitative edge extends to fuel economy, where the Sonata is capable of getting 22-mpg in the city and 33-mpg on the highway, figures that none of the other rivals can match.

TURBO MODEL NOT A PERFORMANCE VARIANT, BUT A V6 ALTERNATIVE

Hyundai has implied time and again that the 2.0T is meant to be a V6 substitute rather than a high-performance variant of the Sonata, and while some buyers wouldn’t notice the difference, customers who have more than a passing interest in cars would be able to smell a rat.

While most 6-cylinders provide a smooth, torque climb across the rev range, the Sonata Turbo does its best to mimic a 6-cylinder, but comes across feeling like a very well engineered four-cylinder. There is no real turbo lag, but you feel the surge of torque propel you down the road the way a child notices a parent giving them a big push on a swing set. It’s definitely amusing, but there is the requisite amount of torque steer to go with it, especially at low rpms, and it makes the car feel like the previous generation Jetta GLI more than a Camry V6 – not a bad quality at all, but possibly a little too spicy for many Sonata customers. There’s also some roughness at higher rpms that would not be present on a smoother six-cylinder that may be noticeable to some.

SPORTY ENOUGH

Our test route took us through the hills outside San Diego, with a selection of roads that would be better suited to a Genesis Coupe. Despite it’s size, the 2.0T acquitted itself well and proved an enjoyable drive. The Turbo model weighs far less than its rivals, and the lack of mass is most noticeable in the way the car tackles corners with competence, if not outright enthusiasm. The main drawback of the Sonata is its steering, which is well weighted but seems to dial out much of the feedback that an enthusiastic driver desires.

Despite this, the broad torque band and strong brakes make it easy to make quick work of any twisty section. Power is always available on corner exit, and on more the one occasion, motorists would pull over to let us by when we thought that we were maintaining a fairly relaxed pace.

The transmission is fairly well matched to the engine, with ratios that delivered a good mix of performance and economy. By merely touching the paddle shifters (standard on Limited trim) will allow the driver to manually select gears. Shifts in this mode are quick and enjoyable during spirited driving, but they will likely never be used outside of passing trucks on a two-lane highway.

IMPRESSIVE INTERIOR, BUT NOT QUITE UP TO JAPANESE STANDARDS

Inside, the Sonata is similar to many of its rivals; a big, clearly illuminated gauge pod, large, leather wrapped steering wheel and faux aluminum trim. Truthfully, the trim pieces in the Sonata are less than endearing. While they visually mimic pebble-grain soft-touch plastics, they’re actually still just hard plastic and give the impression that the car is built to a price. The aluminum trim, while better than an offensive faux-woodgrain, is not going to fool anybody. Thankfully, the leather used in the Sonata isn’t nearly as low-rent. It’s not buttery soft like a pricey European model, but it’s supple and looks smart.  The optional navigation screen and backup camera is well integrated, but a bit smaller than some of the competitor’s 7-inch units. Overall, it’s not a bad place to spend time.

As we mentioned in our earlier reviews of the Tucson and Sonata, the current lineup is still slightly behind the Japanese in quality, but the price differential represents a significant bargain. A base Sonata 2.0T SE retails for just $24,145 while the top-spec Limited model costs $27,045. A Honda Accord V6 sedan starts at $26,805 and tops out at $31,105, while a Toyota Camry V6 starts at $24,565 for a Spartan LE model up to $29,045 for a loaded XLE.

Sonata SE models come equipped with standard features like 18-inch wheels with performance tires, a sport-tuned suspension and steering, chrome front grille, keyless entry with push-button ignition, leather/cloth seats, a leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, fog lights and dual exhaust, dual climate control, Bluetooth, power everything and a tilt and telescopic steering wheel with cruise control and built-in audio and phone controls.

Upgrading to the Limited trim adds a sunroof, leather seats, heated front and rear seats, an upgraded audio system, a more comfortable and less-sporty suspension setup and steering as well as Piano Black or Woodgrain interior accenting.

THE VERDICT

With the sheer amount of content on offer, not to mention superior power and fuel economy figures, and styling that’s more German than Japanese, the Sonata 2.0T Turbo presents a compelling case in the mid-size sedan category. Hyundai estimates around 20 percent of Sonata sales will be Turbo cars, but we could see that number rising once buyers find out just how good a value it is.

RELATED READING

2011 Hyundai Sonata: First Drive
2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS Review
2011 Kia Optima Review – First Drive
2010 Toyota Camry SE V6 Review
2010 Toyota Camry Review
2010 Chevrolet Malibu LTZ Review
2010 Honda Accord EX-L Review
2010 Subaru Legacy 2.5GT Review

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