Yesterday, we gave a qualified thumbs-up to the Hyundai Sonata Limited 2.4, noting that the powertrain didn’t really come up to snuff in what was otherwise a competent and well-equipped sedan.
Be warned: not every Sonata Sport has the turbo engine. There’s a bodykit 2.4 Sport as well, but that doesn’t get you the two-liter turbo and it doesn’t get you the more expensive rack-mounted power steering system. The car I drove retails for a robust $29,325 and it is meant to be a competitor to the Accord and Camry V-6 entries as well as the bigger of the two Fusion Ecoboost engine options.
I’m hoping you read yesterday’s Sonata review; if you haven’t, go catch up. Let’s discuss the differences between that car and this one. In the Turbo-only metallic orange, the Sport manages to claw back a little bit of the style that Hyundai let go with the 2015 redesign. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this Sport appearance package impressed me as a step forward over the base car. Inside, the luxurious ventilated seats are replaced by “Turbo” embossed leather seats, the steering wheel is the oh-so-cliche-now flat-bottomed unit, and the needles for the instruments rest at the six o’-clock position for additional sportiness. They dutifully flick through their entire range of motion when the Sonata powers up, which means that this vehicle shares at least two features — the steering wheel shape and the instrument panel behavior — with a Lotus Elise.
And that’s where the Lotus comparison ends, because the sportiest Sonata isn’t much sportier than the regular one. The blown two-liter is torquey from 1350rpm according to the spec sheet (245hp/260 lb-ft) and it steams up the back-road hills with far more authority and less agitation than its normally-aspirated sibling, but there’s nothing particularly enthusiastic or visceral about it. Full disclosure: your humble author is the owner of a 2014 Accord V6. Fuller disclosure: and as a sporting proposition, the Accord V6 puts the Sonata 2.0T up on the pinball table and violates it while the Camry V6 and possibly even the Malibu Turbo cheer it on. There’s no comparison. It ain’t like Hyundai can’t do a strong six-cylinder, as we found out when we praised the Genesis Coupe a few years ago. They just won’t give it to you in the Sonata.
What the engine doesn’t do to torpedo its own desirability, the transmission will. While downshifts from the flimsy, wobbly paddles are sure and strong and don’t require placing the lever in Tiptronic mode in order to work, upshifts happen automatically a full 750rpm beneath the 7000rpm redline regardless of paddles or lever placement. That’s fine, I suppose, since the turbo’s long since out of breath at that point. This is the small-snail-itis that VW suffers as well. To misuse a phrase frequently heard on the internet, a compressor wheel small enough to give you the low-end torque you need is small enough to take away every bit of thrill the top end could have.
This would be a stellar engine in the Limited Ultimate; it’s strong at low revs and can’t be flustered by the demands of passing on back roads. It just doesn’t measure up to the six-banger competition, period, point blank.
Bereft of the Limited Ultimate touches and the segment-unique equipment, the interior of the Sonata Sport is revealed as a fairly Camry LE-ish place to be. The smaller LCD display has the same sad proportions of the uConnect Chrysler gives you when they want to punish you for not buying the real one. The stereo, on the other hand, is fully the equal of what you get in the big-money Sonata. It might even be a little better, and I can’t offer any reason for that other than preproduction variance. It really drops that bass on the Elvis Crespo tunes, to the discomfort of my passengers.
The theme of grey cheer continues with the deletion of the electronic parking brake and the loss of the fabulous fake wood in favor of a textured-looking silver pattern that is disappointingly smooth to the touch. It must be said that the same NVH virtues that were noted in the Sonata Limited review apply here. This is a big, quiet, solid automobile that exudes build quality and will adjust to fit nearly any driver.
For about the same money, however, you can get a Camry V-6 with fabric seats. It’s anybody’s guess how good the 2015 Camry super-facelift will be, but the existing car is pretty good and from an enthusiast perspective it continues to have much to recommend it over the Sonata. Luckily, Hyundai loyalists have another very good option available.
The 1.6T Eco that we drove was a “pilot” vehicle and not representative of the eventual production and blah blah blah and hey it was actually better than the Sport in pretty much every way. The smaller engine is mated with an alert dual-clutch transmission that is perfectly at home on hills and in city driving. The net result is a sprightly, low-inertia feel that encourages spirited driving far more than the rev-averse two-liter turbo and torque-converter automatic possibly could.
The two-tone Eco interior has the Sport beat six ways to Sunday even if it isn’t quite up to Ultimate snuff. The large touchscreen returns — and trust me, you really want that — and the dual-trapezoid center stack is enlivened with Infiniti-style grey plastiwood. Hyundai doesn’t make a big deal of the Eco’s credentials visually, presumably because the new 2016 hybrid model that will replace the carryover old hybrid for 2015 is scheduled to receive a unique fascia and trim. But it’s handsome enough and somehow the new styling works best when it’s “Eco” instead of “Ultimate” or “Sport”.
Driving point-to-point in downtown Montgomery, the Eco was sluggish with its eponymous drive mode selected via the console button, but switching to “Sport” mode brought it alive. This is the fun member of the Sonata family. The engine wants to rev, even if it’s not terribly strong, and the Eco Sonata just feels lighter on its feet. (During Q&A, Hyundai indicated that weight savings for the Eco model would be minimal.)
The DCT offers PowerShift slurring rather than DSG brap-and-cut instant shifting, so we wouldn’t expect the Eco to shine on track. In the real world, however, it’s more direct and more involving than the six-speed automatic and it’s a difference you can feel in just a few hundred feet. This was the only one of the supplied cars we felt any temptation to “hoon”, even if we didn’t yield to that temptation.
The drive in the Eco came at just the right time during the press event. Finally, a Sonata that didn’t feel so grown-up, and all the better for it. With pricing that sneaks under the $24k mark to start, it might be the best consumer choice as well. Whatever you do, don’t pick the 2.4 or 2.0T versions of this car without at least trying the Eco. It’s our choice as best of breed in the Sonata family, and it’s a value proposition besides. While none of these Sonatas will blow your mind, they’ll all impress your reason, and hey — the Eco might even capture your heart.
(Disclaimer: Hyundai provided meals and lodging and offered travel assistance which we did not use.)