Review any car priced between $18,000 and $28,000 lately, and someone’s bound to comment, “I’d much rather have a $20,000 Hyundai Sonata.” This hasn’t just been talk. Sales of the 2011 Sonata have exceeded Hyundai’s most fanciful expectations, leaving the car in short supply. Now, to add fuel to the fire, you can get the Sonata with a turbo. Should you? Well, it depends.
The Sonata with a turbo looks exactly like a Sonata without a turbo, with one minor exception: the Limited 2.0T wears the SE’s 18-inch alloys in place of the 2.4’s 17s. Those who expect a more powerful car to look more powerful, or at least different, will be disappointed. Others will see a swoopy sedan that’s far more stylish than the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Some of the new has worn off since the Sonata’s spring debut, but it will still be a year or two before key competitors can possibly catch up. The most immediate aesthetic challenge will come from a redesigned Kia Optima, which shares the Sonata’s platform and powertrains but has even more dramatic (if also more disjointed) styling.
The Sonata’s interior is similarly unaffected by the powertrain upgrade. As such, it’s among the segment leaders in terms of styling, materials, room, and comfort. Anyone seeking performance-oriented bits like a boost gauge or aggressively bolstered buckets won’t find them.
The normally aspirated 2.4-liter engine’s 198-200 horsepower is plenty powerful for the great majority of midsize sedan buyers. But some people “need” more grunt, and a number of others—perhaps a quarter of the total—will pay for more even if they’ll rarely if ever actually use it. Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chevrolet, and Mazda offer such buyers a 3.5-or-so-liter V6. Hyundai has taken a different route by offering a turbocharged 2.0-liter four instead.
Fortified with direct injection and a twin scroll turbocharger cast integral with the exhaust manifold, the Hyundai engine manages a few more horsepower than any of the sixes (for a total of 274) and ties the stoutest (Mazda’s 3.7) for peak torque (269 pound-feet). Typical of a turbo, the torque peak arrives early, at 1,750 rpm. Curb weight, 3,338 pounds for the SE 2.0T and 3,452 pounds for the Limited 2.0T, is among the lowest in the group, so the specs promise thrillingly strong performance.
Well, the turbocharged engine delivers strong acceleration, but without much in the way of thrills. The turbo 2.0 is a little louder than the normally aspirated 2.4, but is otherwise refined and revs with the same general lack of drama. The additional noise is mostly mechanical. There’s none of the exhaust roar / drone present in Hyundai’s previous-generation 2.0-liter turbo, still offered in the Genesis Coupe. The main aural shortcoming: even a very good four never sounds nearly as sweet as a decent six. At low rpm there’s little lag. At higher rpm there’s none. As with many boosted engines that employ the latest technology, the power curve is exceedingly linear. There’s no strong shove at low rpm (despite what the torque peak might suggest), no sudden surge of power in the midrange, no zing in the final rush for the redline. Also very little torque steer.
The mandatory manually-shiftable six-speed automatic transmission behaves well enough. The Limited 2.0T gains the SE’s shift paddles. These permit a little more involvement, but are no substitute for the manual transmission not offered.
The biggest upside surprise with the 2.0T: fuel economy. The EPA rates the 2.0T for 22 city / 33 highway, compared to the 2.4’s 22/35. In the real world, I observed as low as 11 in full hoon mode. But in casual driving the trip computer’s numbers easily exceeded the EPA’s, with the average even touching 40 MPG during one stretch of semi-rural byway.
Handling is also much the same. The Sonata’s steering is considerably firmer than a Camry XLE’s, but still isn’t especially sporting. The chassis feels composed and balanced in casual driving but, typical of a mainstream-oriented front-wheel-drive midsizer, understeers when pressed. The 18s lifted from the SE sharpen the Limited’s steering a bit, but also add some thumpiness to the ride and some tire noise on concrete. As with the 2.4, the top trim level is the way to go, though its additional features (leather upholstery, sunroof, 360-watt audio system, automatic climate control, and so forth) do inflate the base price. The SE’s firmer suspension unsettles the car’s ride more than it improves the car’s handling.
The $1,750 price bump for the turbo, which includes the shift paddles and larger wheels and takes the Limited to $27,765, suggests a healthy bang for the buck.
But with the Sonata’s character hardly affected, much less transformed, by the addition of boost, those who think Evo and STI (or at least 2005-2009 Legacy GT) when they hear “274-horsepower turbocharged four” are bound to be disappointed. The Sonata 2.0T simply wasn’t developed with enthusiasts in mind, likely because there just aren’t that many of them. It was developed to compete head on with the V6-powered Camcord crowd. And that’s what it does. Expect the Sonata 2.0T to be in short supply for the same reasons the 2.4 has been. It delivers what the mainstream buyer wants, just a little more quickly.
Hyundai provided this vehicle at a ride-and-drive event.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data.