The 2012 Hyundai Sonata has taken a completely new tack with powertrains as well; with last year's redesign, they did away with V-6s completely and moved to an all four-cylinder lineup; and they all do the task they're intended for with a little more gusto than expected.
The mass-market versions are 2.4-liter fours with up to 200 horsepower, direct injection, and a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmissions. We haven't ever seen a manual-transmission base model; luckily, the automatic is perfectly appropriate for the class, and is a responsive, seamless gearchanger. With this engine, the front-drive Sonata feels very perky, and stronger than most other base four-cylinder sedans its size. It weighs only a little more than 3,300 pounds, or a quarter-ton less than a Chevy Malibu, which adds to that impression, and its highway fuel economy rating of 35 mpg gives it another standout selling point.
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. This model comes with shift paddles, too, and is intended as the more economical parallel to upscale V-6 models. For the most part, it succeeds in that mission, with turbo lag rarely noticeable. The only down side is a somewhat coarser engine note at times. With the added power, highway gas mileage is still rated at 33 mpg.
There's also a Hybrid edition, which pairs the 2.4-liter four with electric motors and a lithium-polymer battery pack, and a high threshold that allows the Sonata Hybrid to run on battery power alone at highway speeds. The Hybrid's unusual in that it uses a conventional automatic transmission instead of a CVT or an eCVT to change gears; in our experience, the shift quality between gas-electric and electric-only mode is lumpy, and needs more refinement to rival vehicles like the Camry Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid. Hyundai says this version will hit 60 mph in 9.2 seconds, well within the acceptable range for a family sedan, while delivering gas mileage of 35/40 mpg.
The Sonata's ride and handling are fine for the mainstream, but the steering responses could use more feedback and less wandering on the highway. We like the ride damping, which is set a little on the firm side even before the SE's monotube shocks and 19-inch wheels are added into the mix.