2011 Hyundai Sonata Turbo: First Drive

July 12, 2010

2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T

2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata is a hit, no doubt. Sales of the swoopy new four-door have more than doubled those of its more conservative ancestors, and the risk to omit all V-6 engines from the Sonata lineup doesn't look like anything but savvy marketing in an era of $3 gas and rising fuel-economy standards.

Still, Hyundai needs to make a passing reference to V-6 power, even if it never installs a single one in its large family four-door. The way it's choosing-the same way chosen by Ford in some of its larger cars, by Buick in its new Regal, and by Volkswagen in its sedans-is to pair turbocharging and direct injection for V-6-like power and four-cylinder economy.

Which brings us to the Hyundai Sonata 2.0T. You'll need to understand it's a turbo, because there aren't any turbo badges on the prototypes I drove last month at Hyundai's engineering facility west of Seoul. Hyundai says it's simple: "turbo" equals "sportscar," and they're looking at all the additional power more as a six-cylinder alternative, a more mainstream offering than a sporty turbo model might otherwise be.

In the Sonata, the turbocharging is grafted on to a similar engine to the one powering the base Sonata. It's downsized from 2.4 liters to 2.0 liters, but with the injection of forced air from a twin-scroll turbocharger (which pressurizes cylinders more effectively than a singe-scroll unit) and with direct injection of gasoline into the cylinders without spark plugs, the Sonata 2.0T provides 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.

By comparison, the Ford Fusion V-6 spins out 263 horsepower; the 2011 Buick Regal, 220 hp; and the Volkswagen Passat, 200 hp. The Sonata's among the lightest in this group as well, which should all but guarantee a 0-60 mph run in 7 seconds, if not less.

By the numbers, the Sonata 2.0T sounds ideal-but what's it like to drive? The 2.0T doesn't look all that much different from the standard car, at first glance on Hyundai's proving grounds at Namyong. The engineering hub for the company still was working on fine-tuning the trio of vehicles we're going to bring you this month-the Turbo, the Hybrid we'll talk about next week, and the Equus sedan we've driven for a report at the end of the month.

2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T

2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T

For the turbo, the slight cosmetic differentiation is downplayed as much as the noise and vibration that usually accompany turbo engines. The Sonata's turbo has been almost silenced, with a distinct note that's not altogether louder or more noticeable than the sounds I heard in a stock Sonata at home a week before.

What I did notice, in a few laps around a shortened test loop, was all the turbo urgency you expect. The turbo spooled to life quickly, and maintained solid torque through the makeshift esses Hyundai's engineers had built into a test loop for our group to sample. The ample power boost is clear, especially when contrasted with the Hybrid version. The Sonata's stiff ride also was clear, and feels a little more appropriate in this edition.

While Hyundai works away at the final development issues, the automatic transmission will be getting another round of tuning. Shift shock is still obvious in a way you'd never feel in the non-turbo car, but Hyundai execs say it's being addressed in newer prototypes being built in the final weeks before it goes on sale. Regardless, we'll save our final say for a full road test on U.S. roads, with production-perfect vehicles.

One note: the turbo Sonata will get standard shift paddles with an LCD readout for gearing between the tach and speedometer-it's much more welcome than the shifter-controlled manual mode, and that's true of any such shifter, whether it changes gears front-back or side to side. Paddles just make more sense, in an era of no-hands drivers and BlackBerrys.

The turbo Sonata slots in well against other six-cylinder and turbo sedans for performance-but it aces all of them in fuel economy and price. Hyundai says the Sonata 2.0T turbo will get a 34-mpg EPA highway rating, running on regular unleaded gasoline, only one mile per gallon less than the normally aspirated Sonata. City fuel economy will be rated at 22 mpg. Those numbers are considerably better than the new Buick Regal, at 29 mpg highway; the Ford Fusion V-6, which rates 18/27 mpg (but is also switching to a turbocharged, direct-injection engine soon); and the VW Passat's 22/31 mpg.

Pricing also has been roughed in. The turbocharged Sonata will carry a base price of about $25,000, while a loaded version is expected to come in just under $30,000. The turbocharged version will be offered in SE or Limited trim; all will have standard USB and Bluetooth and satellite radio, with the Limited adding paddle shifters, differently styled 18-inch wheels, dual exhausts and a panoramic sunroof.

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata has already proven timing is critical to any new-car launch. Just as vital, is outpacing the competition. With numbers like those on the Sonata 2.0T, Hyundai's given shoppers one more reason to turn their eyes away from some time-tested four-doors in favor of (say it quietly) turbo power.

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