Hyundai's redesigned Sonata sedan has exploded onto the market to become one of the most popular cars available, period. It's the best example of how a good-looking product at a competitive price can lure customers -- even with just one available powertrain: a four-cylinder engine wrapped in a package built for comfort and fuel efficiency.
While that version is setting the sales world on fire, the company is rolling out a higher-performance trim level -- a turbocharged four-cylinder, not a V-6, like nearly all the competition. That includes the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima ... basically every midsize sedan.
By using a turbo engine, Hyundai has made the Sonata as much fun to drive as the competition, but it gets better mileage -- and it's cheaper. Sounds like a winning formula to me.
PerformanceThere's a lot to like about the turbo drivetrain, with its 274 horsepower and six-speed automatic transmission, but before I talk about power I should say that the Sonata 2.0T really shines because of its impressive handling. If there's one drawback to the base Sonata, it's that car's light steering, excessive body lean in corners and floaty ride. While that makes for a comfortable car, it also means the Sonata doesn't offer a sporty experience behind the wheel. There is an SE model with the base four-cylinder that's supposed to be more of a driver's car, but it pales in comparison to the 2.0T.
Turning the steering wheel of the 2.0T for the first time, I knew it was a different car. It was heavier, more like a Honda than a Hyundai, and at speed it delivered accurate inputs. The 2.0T carved through twisty mountain roads as well as any of the V-6 competition I've driven over the years, without much of a hit to ride quality. In fact, the firmer ride of the Sonata 2.0T was immensely comfortable on most road surfaces, and certainly better than the Accord's and Mazda6's V-6 trims, by a wide margin.
Not many manufacturers outside the luxury realm offer turbocharged engines, but because of fuel economy regulations requiring higher mpg ratings, turbos are finding their way into economy cars and, in Hyundai's case, midsize sedans.
Hyundai is using the turbocharger to emulate the experience of a V-6, so the power comes on at a steadier rate. There is some turbo boost that kicks in, though, especially when accelerating hard and using the manual function and shift paddles to change gears.
One of my few nitpicks with this new Sonata is the paddle shifters themselves. They deliver accurate shifts, but the plastic feels cheap and hollow. They don't return a solid click when depressed, either. It's an oversight that should be addressed in the future.
Will driving enthusiasts opt for the turbo because of its higher horsepower figures? Probably not. But its handling will sway the folks who dismissed the base Sonata for being too sedate. I still prefer the excellent V-6 engines offered by Honda, Mazda and even the Subaru Legacy over the Sonata, but it's by a slim margin.
Shoppers may be swayed more by the impressive fuel economy numbers tacked on to the solid driving experience. At 22/33 mpg city/highway, it bests its V-6 competition by 3 to 7 highway mpg, and Hyundai's numbers came on regular unleaded gas unlike some other turbo powerplants.
Exterior & Interior StylingSave for the standard 18-inch alloy wheels and dual exhaust, there's not much inside or out that differentiates the 2.0T from the non-turbo Sonata. I found the driver's seat comfortable, and materials throughout the cabin are high-quality. Read my review of the standard four-cylinder 2011 Sonata for more impressions on the styling and interior.
Prices & FeaturesThere are only two trim levels for the 2.0T: SE and Limited. Pricing starts at $24,145 and $27,045, respectively. For the SE, that's a $1,550 price difference over the base's 200-hp four-cylinder engine; the turbo Limited costs $1,750 more than the regular Limited.
Competitors like the Accord and Camry offer four-cylinder and V-6 options rather than turbocharged four-cylinders, and the V-6s aren't cheap. The 2011 Toyota Camry LE V6 starts at $24,890, which is $3,715 more than the four-cylinder LE, at $21,175.
The SE comes standard with fog lights, 18-inch wheels, automatic dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, USB, steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, audio controls and cruise control.
Limited trims add a sunroof, heated front and rear leather seats, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an upgraded sound system.
A navigation package is an additional $2,100 on the Limited. A navigation and sunroof package is an additional $2,600 on the SE.
SafetyThe Hyundai Sonata is one of only two cars on the market to have received both a Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and a five-star overall safety rating from the federal government using its latest crash-test procedures. Read more about the government's new tests here.
Sonata 2.0T in the MarketBase, four-cylinder midsize sedans make up the bulk of sedan sales for all automakers today, as buyers are shopping on value more than performance in this segment. Hyundai has already found success in bringing a lot of value to that slice of the pie, and now the company is somehow also delivering similar value to those who want a scoop of performance with their slice.
SnapshotStarting MSRP $19,195 – $27,045
EPA Fuel Economy:City: 22 – 24Highway: 35
Available Engines:190-hp, 2.4-liter I-4 (regular gas)198-hp, 2.4-liter I-4 (regular gas)200-hp, 2.4-liter I-4 (regular gas)274-hp, 2.0-liter I-4 (regular gas)
Available Transmissions:6-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual6-speed manual w/OD
New or Notable• All-new exterior and interior design• High-efficiency four-cylinder engine• Six-speed manual or automatic transmission
What We Like• Stylish exterior• Impressive gas mileage• Large trunk• Ample interior room
What We Don't• Some interior trim looks cheap• Roofline makes backseat feel cozy