Here in the U.S., the mid-size sedan market is thought to be all but impregnable to newcomers. Ruled for decades by models that have become icons of the industry, the segment has enjoyed a long and peaceful reign by the likes of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. But the funny thing about success is that if you're not very, very careful, it breeds complacency. While the titans of the four-door kingdom have been sleeping on beds of cash made on the innovations of two decades ago, Hyundai has been busily polishing its reputation and pouring over $550 million into fresh research and development for new and advanced drivetrains for its 2011 Sonata.
One of the long accepted tenants of the mid-size sedan is "Thou Shalt Have a Six-Cylinder Option." Ironically enough, this mode of thought arose as a challenge to the previously held belief that if you wanted to move four-doors in America, you had to offer a V8 under the hood. But when Japan's Big Three proved they could dish out V8 horsepower with six-cylinder fuel economy, the eight-cylinder family hauler all but disappeared from the scene. Now, Hyundai is out to repeat history by debuting a turbocharged four-cylinder designed to rattle the cages of Toyota, Honda and Nissan.
Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL
From the exterior, there's little to differentiate the Sonata 2.0T from its non-turbocharged siblings other than a few subtle badges. The sedan retains the same beautiful "fluidic sculpture" design as the 2.4-liter four-cylinder variant, so buyers can expect the same swept nose, complete with artfully-pointed headlights and sculpted hood up front. Likewise, the profile is still dominated by a single, arching crease that reaches from just below the front fender well to meet the wrapped taillights at the rear. In all, the look is cohesive and is about as far from the copycat designs of the company's past as you can get. We dig it.
Inside, buyers won't find the interior any different from what's available in the base Sonata. The same high-quality soft-touch dash remains in place, as does the smattering of piano black accents along the door panels and center stack. Speaking of the door panels, soft material insets just above the armrest do much to improve their feel.
The Sonata's center stack is dominated by easy-to-navigate dual climate controls and an attractive navigation/entertainment touchscreen. While we typically rail against the easily-scratched faux-metal trim that frames the rest of the waterfall, it serves the Sonata cabin well. Perhaps the best praise we can lay on the interior of the Sonata is that it has its own personality – you're simply not likely to mistake the cabin for that of a Toyota or a Honda, despite the fact the material quality is finally on par with those makes.
That's not to say that everything's right as rain inside. The Sonata 2.0T packs a heap of intelligent engineering solutions under the hood, and those tricks had to have cost some serious money. Even so, Hyundai has kept the vehicle's base MSRP down to a miserly $24,145 without destination (compared to $19,195 for the basest of naturally aspirated Sonatas). That means that some things had to be done to keep the price point at an acceptable level, and while most of those concessions remain well out of sight of both driver and passengers, the Sonata's gear selector feels more than a little flimsy. The shifter lock button comes across as light and hung-up more than once during our time behind the wheel. Likewise, the overall action of the transmission stalk felt sloppy and lacked the precision inherent in the rest of the vehicle.
Still, we think we can forgive Hyundai for a cheap-feeling shifter given all that's going on under the hood. The company has managed to successfully blend its direct-injection system with forced induction to create a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder good for a dizzying 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque. Even better, all of that twist comes in at a low 1,750 rpm, so you can nearly forget about turbo lag. Of course, slapping a turbo onto a small-displacement, direct-injection engine and calling it a day is nothing new – look no further than the Ford line of EcoBoost mills or some excellent-but-unbranded engines from General Motors as proof – but Hyundai has chucked in a few of its own tricks to both improve response and ensure the engine is as bulletproof as any of the company's other powerplants.
The little 2.0-liter engine packs some pretty advanced tech, including a cast stainless-steel exhaust manifold. In addition to boasting slightly better thermal properties than a standard cast-iron piece, Hyundai says that the manifold was specifically built to handle pressures well in excess of what the Hyundai-designed, Mitsubishi-built twin-scroll turbo can handle. Why? Longevity. The engineers say this engine has been put through a grueling 300 hours of testing at wide-open throttle. Once that was wrapped up, the powerplant was then subjected to a further 20 hours of testing at engine speeds above the redline.
Of course, that stout manifold is only a small part of the recipe. In order to help keep the engine's temperature under control, Hyundai has implemented something it calls "aluminum thermal sprayed counter spiny liner," which is essentially a new way of layering aluminum onto the exterior of the cylinder sleeve to increase surface area. That greater surface area allows for improved cooling efficiency. According to Hyundai, this is the first application of the counter-spiny liner in the automotive industry.
Speaking of keeping things cool, Hyundai is also using a unique air channeling system on the vehicle's intercooler. The guide routes air to the intake and outlet areas of the intercooler, and Hyundai claims it keeps intake air up to 50 degrees cooler than with no guide. All these refinements help contribute to that nearly instantaneous throttle response and lofty horsepower figures.
But here's the real shocker. Hyundai has tuned the four-cylinder to have a compression ratio of just 9.5:1. That means that even with all of that grunt on tap, this engine drinks regular unleaded gasoline. Even better, it drinks very little of it. Fuel economy sits at 23 mpg city and 33 mpg highway, though the company has included an Active Eco button that helps flatten out throttle fluctuations to keep fuel consumption as low as possible.
Bolted behind the engine is the same proprietary six-speed automatic transmission found in the regular 2.4-liter Sonata. Hyundai has thrown in a set of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for manually rifling through the gears, and while the pieces serve up a satisfying click and feel solid enough, the gear changes are a bit too reluctant to be worth using all the time. Our recommendation is to simply leave the car in Drive and let the computer do the thinking. The shift logic on the Sonata 2.0T is crisp, putting the car in the right cog for the right speed no matter what your driving style.
We spent our time behind the wheel of a Limited model, which comes packed to the gills with all kinds of interior niceties, though Hyundai also offers up an SE model with sport-tuned dampers and springs. Even so, the Limited simply feels good to drive. It has the sort of confident, planted feel that has all but evaporated from the mid-sized import sedan segment, and we have to admit that we're glad to have it back. The ride is comfortable without being marshmallowy soft, and the four-door moves well through bends despite its substantial size. Curb weight has been kept to around 3,400 pounds depending on equipment, and the Sonata 2.0T comes with brakes that are more than capable of handling the tonnage.
And there's more than enough power to get this show moving, too. The four-door dispatches traffic with glee, all without so much as a peep from under the hood. The revs swell, and there's a slight sense of urgency from under the hood, but the cabin isn't inundated with buzzing from the thrash of four tiny pistons out front nor any whine from the turbo. You simply dart quickly away from surrounding traffic. Hyundai says that the jump to 60 mph from a dead stop takes just 6.8 seconds, and we're inclined to believe them. Even better, there's next to no torque steer, even when your right foot gets overzealous.
It's hard not to be genuinely surprised by the 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T. With more power and better fuel economy than the V6 variants of the Camry, Accord and Altima, all at around $3,000 less than the majority of its major competitors, we just can't find a coherent all-around argument against the turbo'd Korean. Regardless of how many of the cars hop off of the lot when they go on sale this week, it looks like the days of the V6 mid-sized sedan are numbered.
Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL