The Hyundai Sonata Turbo could be the most invigorating invisible car of the year.
Pros: Lively engine, tight handling and ride, spacious cabin and boot.
Cons: Sombre body and cabin styling, foot-operated park brake.
Design and engineering:
Visually, this might seem an overwhelmingly orthodox three-box medium sedan. Then you might spot that wee blue ‘T’ badge on the boot.
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, many cars – even those of this ilk - wore the ‘turbo’ monicker with pride; but these days it’s more of a rare sight. It’s not that makers don’t still use turbochargers; more than they seem to feel less inclined to be so ‘bogan’ about it.
Hyundai, however, sees merit in reminding that the latest generation of their fleet staple comes in two temperatures. There’s the mainstream one, continuing with a normally-aspirated 2.4-litre engine, flavoured for the masses.
Then there’s this edition, with a boosted 2.0-litre generating 180kW and 350Nm – the most ever under a Sonata/i45 bonnet, making no less than 30 percent more power and more than 45 percent more torque than that 2.4.
There’s a price for extra pep. At $55,990 the Elite Limited model that solely catches this fire is the most expensive and most extravagant Sonata here.
Looks can thrill … but here they kinda don’t. It’s tidily dimensioned and has some nice trimmings, yet while more cohesive than the previous model, which Hyundai used to showcase its ‘Fluidic Sculpture’ design language, it’s still a conservative design to throw into an arena that holds some genuinely good-looking cars.
It’s not that Hyundai cannot do pizzazz. The alternate and much older i40 shows they can be far more imaginative. Thing is, that car is out of Hyundai’s styling studio in Russelsheim whereas the Sonata is the work of Seoul head base, where the design guidelines might be more constrained.
Still maybe I’m being over-sensitive: Blandness is often associated with the Camry and yet that outsells everything else. So does anyone care?
Powertrain and performance:
As you’d expect, this engine is a bit more of a firebrand that what we’ve been used to at this level, with strong punch from idle right through to the redline area just beyond 6000rpm.
The best way to exploit the potential is to flick the Drive Mode selector away from the default Normal setting into the Sport function, which considerably smartens the transmission function, holding upchanges for longer. (It also modifies the electric power steering to add more weight to the wheel feel). What the turbo model really cries out for, though, are steering wheel paddles. The additional command these deliver would make it even more hands-on.
As is, there are occasions when you’ll be simply hanging on. The degree of on-boost thrust from this engine is impressive, albeit also a bit old-school. It surprised when a light-footed accelerating corner exit on a wet surface produced something I haven’t experienced for a while: Torque steer. And, yes, the traction control was on. It was also active when, at cold start – and thus running slightly higher revs at idle – it briefly chirruped the drive wheels when I pulled out of my garage. Easy there, big fella!
The engine does tame up a bit when driven in Eco mode, which obviously is the route to finding a decent fuel burn. Well, in theory. The average from a week’s work came to 9.3 litres per 100km, which while just 0.1L short of the factory claim, is nonetheless Commodore V6 territory. By comparison, a Sonata 2.4 is rated to give 8.3L on the combined cycle … and most turboed rivals in the category are better again.
This is an area where Hyundai has been working hard to improve its efforts and while there are one or two facets that could be done better, overall there’s plenty here than commands respect.
For the past few years every Hyundai press conference has always included reference to the work undertaken in Australia by a team of engineers. Their role has essentially been to polish the basic package, often altering suspension parts and geometry but not going so far as to devise their own engineering solutions. Basically, they get a package of factory-authorised parts and are able to decide with of, say, three spring ratings or shocks work best for Australasian conditions.
The programme obviously has merit, but in the past I’ve always been a little dubious about how much real change they’ve been able to effect.
Yet, with the turbo, I’d have to say ‘job well done.’ I’ve not had opportunity to drive this car in its original Korea-market settings, so cannot say how much different the kangaroo car is by comparison. However, I would say that on its own merits, it stands taller than any other model that has undergone this process. It’s a great drive.
Background material relating to the turbo cars rework suggests the steering has been sharpened, the dampers fine-tuned, the suspension bushes and control arms changed. It also runs 18-inch rubber.
One likeable trait is that achieves the tricky blend of sharp handling with a fluent ride. That’s something that Peugeot and Renault tend to do well, so perhaps I should not have been surprised to learn that the head of the Hyundai re-tune team is based in France.
Ride, refinement and quality:
Sonata is on the same basic platform as the departed i45, and at extremis betrays the same quirky lateral pitching that was evident with the predecessor (and Kia’s Optima). But it’s much less pronounced now and the chassis control is good enough that the car maintains good balance and grip when pushed hard. Low noise from the road, wind and tyres is another plus.
Practicality and packaging
Luxuries run to leather upholstery, powered, heated and cooled front seats, a sunroof, heated steering wheel, electric parking brake, and climate control air conditioning.
Our test example let itself down by taking the same audio that (and I checked) resides in Kia’s more utilitarian Cerato, but that’s because it was one of the first in the country and skipped the assembly line post where they implement sat nav, which now features here. It also takes an active safety package that delivers blind spot detection, lane change assist, rear cross traffic alert and reversing camera. But what’s the difficulty that keeps the self-parking and active cruise control, offered in South Korea, from making it here?
A dashboard nicely sorted with clean and simple dials and switches is pleasing and so too the level of personal storage space. A foot-operated parking brake is an outdated touch, though, in this age, and there’s just too much grey plastic.
Sonata is large enough to make a decent five seater for adults. With this sort of grunt, a decent driving position is important and Hyundai answers that call reasonably well, with a good range of seat and steering wheel adjustment. The seat itself is handily wrapped with side bolsters though but while the back support is great, it could do with a more sizeable squab.
How it compares:
Performance sedans are rare fare indeed in this price sector and the turbo Sonata really hasn’t much to directly bother it. The new Camry SX might take some gloss of its pitch, but only on the dynamic side as Toyota has not upgraded its engine to match Hyundai’s.
As tempting as it is to call this an ultimate rep race, the price disassociates from that tag. Because the near-anonymous styling and the actual experience are close to being completely at odds, it is a most intriguing car, more likeable for what it does than how it presents.