If it weren't for the Hyundai Sonata proper, the Sonata 2.0T might very well showcase the best all-around mid-size package on the street today'”at least going by the spec sheet. And since the folks at Hyundai will be dropping one off in my driveway today, with a full tank of gas, I thought now would be a good time to run through those apparent advantages.
Hyundai's Power Play
Hyundai's decision to offer a turbocharged I4 engine in its up-level Sonata, instead of a V-6, is the key here, and not only because of how the engine enables a robust mix of horsepower and fuel efficiency'”although that's no doubt important. Making 274 hp and 269 lb.-ft. of torque, the engine delivers more horses than the V-6 in all of the Sonata's competitors except the Chrysler 200/Dodge Avenger. Yet at the same time, the turbo's ability to score EPA ratings of 22 mpg city/33 mpg highway/26 mpg combined leaves it well ahead of all mainstream V-6 mid-sizers. The next best marks are those from the Honda Accord, which runs out a line of 20/30/24. The Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion go 17/26/20 and 18/27/21, respectively.
More impressive yet, the only four-cylinder friends of the Sonata 2.0T with better combined fuel-economy numbers are the Accord and Altima, which best the Hyundai's mark by all of a single mpg.
But using a turbocharged engine in the Sonata also brings an interesting benefit that's a bit harder to measure. The hidden genius of using forced induction in this segment is that it gives the Hyundai a definite aura of high-tech high-performance even though the car itself is in no way a true high performer.
Turbocharging the Sonata's Reputation
The biggest reason Hyundai is using a turbo I4 in the Sonata is because of the engine's fuel efficiency. The automaker is committed to leading the industry in this measure, but from a practical standpoint, it felt it still had to offer a mid-size sedan with competitive power numbers as compared to the other V-6 entries. That is, the Sonata 2.0T is not meant to compete against "real" sport sedans. You'll scrutinize the car's press release in vain to come across words like "suspension," "handling," "enthusiast," or even "sport." In fact, the only time you'll see "high performance" is in the following sentence: "Twin-scroll turbochargers have traditionally been used on more expensive high performance engines, but as with GDI, Hyundai has chosen once again to apply this efficient technology in high volume to its most popular model."
But you can be sure many potential buyers are going to translate this as "Twin-scroll turbochargers blah blah blah high performance engines blah blah blah Hyundai's most popular model."
That's the beauty of throwing around fancy powertrain terms'”as Ford is finding out with EcoBoost. I'm not going to go all Theodor Adorno here, but let's just say the power of labels can have an effect on people that is quite out of line with "reality": Having a "turbocharged" engine does not in and of itself turn a family sedan into a sports car, although it certainly can convince a significant number of consumers otherwise.
A Sonata Sales Slowdown?
On the other hand, it's also clear that offering a turbo Sonata, as well as a hybrid model that can leverage the same metaphysics, hasn't exactly created a huge volume increase in sales. The Sonata's big sales splash came prior to the release of these entries, and January's numbers actually showed Hyundai's sedan may be bumping into its volume limits.
Some 13,261 new buyers took home a Sonata last month, and although this was a huge 150 percent jump over January 2010, it also left the Hyundai trailing all of its key mainstream rivals, including the Malibu, Accord, Camry, Altima and Fusion. It's true that these players were all clumped relatively close together on the charts, but until the mid-size sedan segment itself starts growing, we're reaching the point where it will be harder and harder for the Sonata to steal current owners away from its rivals. And when the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger are fully ramped up, it will be harder still.
How much does the Sonata 2.0T help matters? I'll let you know in a week.