Just a few years ago, the conventional wisdom with mid-size sedans was that, unless you counted yourself among frugally minded tightwads, you'd be much happier with the optional V-6 than with a standard four-cylinder engine.
Then four-cylinder engines found a new benchmark for power last year, when Hyundai introduced its direct-injection 2.4-liter four, in the 2011 Sonata. Making up to 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque—with class-leading fuel economy of 35 mpg highway—this engine (and the car itself, The Car Connection's Best Car To Buy 2011) was a game-changer.
But for those who still wanted to move more rapidly than the standard engine, Hyundai has another game-changing option on offer in the Sonata. There's no Sonata V-6; instead, a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder, making 274 hp, powers Turbo SE and Limited models of the Sonata just as quickly as a six.
In fact, the Turbo might actually be more responsive in transitional maneuvers like highway passing, or easing confidently out of a corner. Its 269 pound-feet of torque peak is reached as low as 1,750 rpm, so it can really ease up to speed without downshifting. We couldn't feel much, if any, turbo lag either—and we expected some, considering this setup's pressure-cooking 17.4-psi boost level.
What's surprising is how effectively the Turbo model feels like a premium, more sophisticated powertrain choice. It's surprisingly quiet; Hyundai has tuned out most of the turbo whistle, wastegate, and and intake noise you hear on other high-performance turbo models, and it's hushed the exhaust about to the levels of the non-turbo model. Floor the accelerator at highway speeds and the engine and transmission work quickly but smoothly, with speed gathering in a luxury-car-like rush. Much like a V-6 sedan, in fact. Yes, you can tell there's a four-cylinder engine under the hood, but it doesn't sound or feel downmarket.
2011 Hyundai Sonata SE 2.0T gauges
The Turbo's EPA figures are even more impressive: 22 mpg city, 33 highway, with the six-speed automatic. Over only about 85 miles in all—including mostly lower-speed, around-town driving plus a few blasts out on the freeway—we managed about 22 mpg, averaging out exactly at its EPA city rating.
Before you dismiss that as not being very impressive, keep in mind that in a mid-size-to-large sedan like the Sonata, with a V-6, we'd likely have averaged 17-19 mpg in the same type of driving. That's roughly a one-fifth reduction in fuel consumption—certainly significant to your annual fuel budget (or your carbon footprint).
Cementing the economics of it, the Sonata Turbo doesn't require premium gasoline. The regular stuff will do just fine.
We weren't entirely beaming about the 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T in some respects. Ride and handlingleft a little bit to be desired. Compared to the standard-engine model that we know fondly, the Sonata Turbo has a sport-tuned suspension and lower-profile performance tires that might bring improved cornering capability but have a noticeable step up in ride harshness. Steering, too, could use some improvement. As in many current Hyundai products, including the Sonata, the steering has a laden, heavy feel on center, with a varying amount of assistance (and resistance) off center, coming and going in pronounced yet unpredictable steps.
Price, though, makes this package hard to resist. Our Sonata Turbo, with its basic (but nice) cloth interior, standard Bluetooth and automatic climate control, was optioned with the navigation system and upgraded sound (including HD Radio), plus XM NavWeather, NavTraffic, and more, totaled just $27,695. That's about on par with a basic 2011 Honda Accord V-6 EX without nav, or about a grand less than a 2011 Toyota Camry SE optioned with nav.
And when gasoline hits $5 a gallon, you and those tightwads who would have skipped the engine upgrade in the first place will have something in common: You'll both be really happy you did away with that V-6.