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PERFORMANCE | 8 out of 10
The new four-cylinder powertrain is just fine. Sure, it's no dragster, but it will chirp its front tires pulling away from a corner…the in-house six-speed transmission shifted nearly imperceptibly as it conducted the engine delicately through its paces.
[With turbo]…there's no catastrophic torque steer, no untoward turbo whining, no premium fuel requirement, no selling your first born to gypsies…There's also none of the whining or whooshing usually associated with turbocharged engines.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid does indeed deliver its power in a more natural manner than many hybrids thanks to its use of discrete gear ratios.
…Like most direct-injected engines, its engine note is more mechanical growl than melodic symphony.
Still, this isn’t a sports sedan and it doesn’t quite match sporty-handling family sedans like the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, and Mazda6.
For 2011, the Sonata will be offered with only a four-cylinder engine, leaving buyers to move up to a Hyundai Azera if they want a V-6. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder will make 198 horsepower, thanks to direct injection and other advanced engine technology; PZEV versions with cleaner emissions are rated at 190 hp, while the Sonata SE’s nearly identical engine gets a boost to 200 hp. Because this Sonata weighs a bit less than the competition, it’s a bit swifter than, say, the Camry or Malibu four-cylinders; between highway passes and switchback curves, we rarely felt the Sonata straining for power, even with three adults in tow.
Opt for the 2.0T model, and the engine is downsized from 2.4 liters to 2.0 liters, but straps on a twin-scroll turbocharger to provide a 274-horsepower rush. It's accompanied by 269 pound-feet of torque that arrives low in the power band, giving the 2.0T a flexible feel without the turbo lag you may have felt in other cars with the "2.0T" badge.
The ample power boost is clear, especially when contrasted with the Hybrid version, which takes the standard four-cylinder engine and adds on electric motors and a lithium-polymer battery pack to give the gas engine a break throughout the powerband. Hyundai’s hybrid is different from others, in that it uses a standard six-speed automatic transmission and one of its electric motors to provide seamless shifts, rather than a CVT. What we noticed is, well, almost nothing: aside from some slight surging, a prototype we drove in Korea felt absolutely unaffected by the addition of hybrid pieces, save for a slower acceleration pattern. Hyundai says this version will hit 60 mph in 9.2 seconds, well within the acceptable range for a family sedan.
A six-speed manual will actually be offered, but almost all Sonatas will be outfitted with the same new six-speed automatic that gets a sport-shift mode on Limited cars and slightly flimsy-feeling paddles on SE versions. It’s Hyundai’s own transmission and it’s a smooth-shifting unit, mated well with the quiet, balanced hum from the engine.
Will the Sonata please enthusiasts along with the EPA? Probably. Its well-sorted ride quality is its best feature, while steering feel is inconsistent. For a family sedan, the engine-speed-sensitive electric power steering actually feels better the faster you go. On switchbacks during our test drive, the Sonata’s steering felt hefty on center and meaty through a string of medium-speed curves. In town it got more nervous, at the transition point where the steering effort had been programmed to lighten up. The result makes the Sonata a little wandery on the highway as well. The Sonata rides very well, though, with a light touch to its damping, lower road noise, and on SE versions, monotube shocks that seem to snuff out body roll without costing the Sonata too much compliance. Braking felt fine—we encountered an emergency stop and the Sonata responded ably—and the base 16-inch wheels grow to 19-inch wheels on some trims.
Ride quality and fuel economy are strengths, but the Sonata's steering could be smoother.