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Hyundai Sonata Turbo, Hybrid prep for liftoff

In just a few months, two more variants will join the Hyundai Sonata family - a Turbo and a Hybrid, Jim Kenzie reports.

LA JOLLA CALIF. — Hyundai took a couple of chances with the new-generation Sonata, launched this past February.


First, it decided to go with a four-cylinder-only engine program, in a market where a V6 is the image leader, if usually accounting only for about one quarter of sales.


Given that Hyundai’s corporate Theta II 2.4 litre twin-cam four generates not a heck of a lot less power (198 horses) than some V6s, and delivers a heck of a lot better fuel economy, this perhaps wasn’t that great a gamble.


Hyundai also decided to put some style into the car. Like the looks or not, at least it is a major departure from the conservative-at-best / bland-at-worst norm of the mid-size sedan market (okay, maybe Mazda6 excepted).


It seems to have worked; Sonata sales are up 66 percent in Canada from last year, and the car sits at No. 2 in its segment calendar year-to-date, trailing only Ford Fusion — yes, I was a bit surprised too — and ahead of perennial benchmarks Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.


Most important from Hyundai’s perspective, Sonata is doing major conquest business. The number one source for sales of any model is current owners (as it is with Sonata), followed by owners of other cars of that same brand.


But Sonata’s econd-through-sixth-biggest sources are Corolla, Camry, Altima, Accord and Mazda6.


And once into a Sonata, owners tend to stay there, its 62.4 percent loyalty rate again trailing only Fusion’s 72.5 but ahead of Camry (56.2), Accord (51.2) and Altima (41.1).


Even retained value, heretofore not a Hyundai strength, is improving, the Canadian Black Book projected residual for the new Sonata being 44 per cent, behind Camry (50) but ahead of Accord (43), Altima (37), Malibu (also 37), and Fusion (31).


Interesting that these Canadian numbers do not track the U.S. experience at all. Sonata leads Camry down here, but trails Accord, with Altima and Fusion marginally ahead.


It’s like, well, being in a different country.


Now, there are lots of ways to interpret statistics. But by any measure, these data are all Good News for the Korean giant.


In the next four months, two more variants will join the Sonata roster.


Over the next couple of weeks, a direct-injection turbocharged Theta II Sonata will offer more horsepower (274) than any competitors’ V6, with at least 10 per cent better fuel consumption (9.3 litres/100 km City, 6.0 Highway).


And early next year, Hyundai will jump on the Hybrid bandwagon.


First, the Sonata Turbo, offered in base ($28,999) and Limited ($31,749) trims.


Like all turbos, it’s an on-demand thing. When you’re cruising, it’s as efficient as a four; when you stand on it, it’s more like an eight.


Looks like SAAB was right all those years ago.


The critical issue for a turbo in a sedan, even one with sporting pretensions, is drivability. Sonata’s twin-scroll turbocharger allows faster spool-up at lower engine revs to minimize turbo lag, with greater throughput at higher revs for better power.


The Direct Injection shared with the naturally-aspirated Theta II improves efficiency too. There is a risk of added engine noise with DI, but the turbo helps mask this as well.


A particularly compact twin balance shaft module located low in the crankcase also helps reduce the vibration that is inherent in large-displacement fours.


A so-called ‘Active ECO’ system, activated by a button on the dash, re-programs the electronic throttle to, in effect, reduce throttle response, leading to a claimed seven per cent improvement in real-world fuel economy.

I’m betting that anyone buying a Turbo won’t be pushing that button very often.


On the road, the Sonata Turbo gives a very good account of itself. It’s a bit of a shame that no manual transmission is offered, but the six-speed auto with paddle shifters will do the job for most intenders.


But it is quick, decently quiet if perhaps not quite as refined as a V6 might be, well-equipped, and nicely finished.


We never got the SE model that the U.S. has had from launch — that was essentially some go-faster appearance goodies, a sportier suspension, dual exhaust tips and bigger wheels and tires.


Our Turbo gets all that and a boatload more for that starting price of $28,999.


Walk to the ‘Limited’ trim level at $31,749 and you get leather upholstery (boo), an upgraded stereo, and the option of spending another $1,750 to get Navigation and a back-up camera.


I’d settle for cloth seats and a stand-alone back-up camera, but they never asked me.


As with all hybrids, the Sonata Hybrid is essentially a public relations exercise. All this fuss, all this engineering talent, all this money, being poured into a model that will account for about three per cent of Sonata sales?


Ridiculous.


It will likely make no more economic sense to you as a consumer than it does to Hyundai as a corporation; prices haven’t been formalized yet, but expect to pay low-to mid-thirties for the base and Limited trims respectively, about four to six grand more than a comparably-equipped, normal, Sonata.


No way you’ll ever save enough on gasoline to make that worthwhile.


But here the Sonata Hybrid is, and I have to tell you about it.


Hyundai’s objective was to offer both excellent fuel economy and a fun-to-drive characteristic which, it is fair to say, has been missing from hybrids in this price range.


Also, because most North American driving is done on highways and most hybrids’ fuel-saving strategies are optimized for city use, Hyundai has at least brought a smidgen of reality to the program.


This was the main reason a conventional stepped automatic transmission was specified rather than a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), which tends to work best in urban use.


The Sonata Hybrid also goes beyond Nickel-Hydride and Lithium-Ion to a Lithium-Polymer motive battery, which offers superior energy density and snuggles under the hat shelf in the trunk, leaving a reasonably commodious cargo hold.


This battery also promises longer life, lower heat generation, lower self-discharge (when the car is stored for a long time), and reduced weight.


Now, as I never tire of saying, there are three types of liar in the world: Liars, Damned Liars, and Battery Engineers.


We’ll see.


Despite the reduced heat generation of this battery, hybrids do create a lot of heat. The Sonata Hybrid stylistically differs from its conventional brothers and sisters mainly at the front end, where a new grille combined with an ‘active air flap’ system (looking for all the world like the manually-deployed radiator blind on my old Volvo) keeps things cool while improving highway aerodynamics.


The Sonata Hybrid can drive on electric power alone but most of the time the engine will be along for the ride.


Performance is fine, the cycling of the engine on and off is muted, the colourful graphics on the dash are entertaining to watch if perhaps a bit distracting (you’ll probably get over the novelty in a few days).


The brake regeneration system — kinetic energy is recaptured back into the motive battery — is less intrusive than on most hybrids, with less of the grabbiness these systems are prone to.


It is a nicely executed package and, notably compared to a Ford Fusion Hybrid that was made available for back-to-back testing, much nicer inside.


The problem: like all hybrids, the Sonata Hybrid just doesn’t make any sense.


Want to drive a nice mid-size Hyundai sedan and do something for the environment? Buy a normal Sonata and put six grand’s worth of insulation in your attic.


You’re welcome.


  • Hyundai Sonata Turbo, Hybrid prep for liftoff

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