Since the beginning of this blog, we’ve always been advocates of the Korean automakers. Regular readers may have noticed though, that our reviews seldom include Korean products. We hope to remedy that, starting with this stunning 2012 Hyundai Sonata SE 2.0T. This particular example was actually purchased by a good friend who had previously owned and loved a string of Honda products. When their quality started going downhill, he started looking to other manufacturers. Did he make a good choice?
Based solely on appearances, there isn’t a trace of doubt that the Sonata outclasses the current Accord on many fronts. The exterior styling is far more youthful and svelte, compared to the bloated looks of the Accord. The sloping roofline contributes to reduced headroom in the back seat, but the front seat passengers have nothing to complain about. A beautiful instrument cluster includes an information screen to help the driver achieve great gas mileage. The seats feel much more comfortable than the Accord, yet remain supportive enough for spirited driving. The intuitive climate controls are a welcome breath of fresh air from the convoluted setups in some other vehicles, and the switchgear is placed within easy reach of the driver. The media controls can be a little confusing at first, but that’s what happens when a vehicle is loaded to the gills with features like XM and navigation.
The Sonata had a few pleasant surprises up its sleeve on the road too. Perhaps it was all the negativity from magazines surrounding the driving experience, or maybe it was that this car had some break-in miles on it already, but the ride was not as harsh as expected. It is definitely firmer than the Camry and Altima, but not unacceptably rough – only large bumps truly made their presence known in the cabin. The reward for putting up with the occasional bouncing head is good body control around town. The light and quick steering made it easy to maneuver, while the easily modulated brakes are the most satisfying that I’ve sampled in recent memory. Quiet tires and hushed wind noise allowed Hyundai to use less noise insulation, which lets the engine and exhaust note through a little better. Make no mistake, this is not a car you simply guide down the road – it actively reminds the driver that they need to be actively driving!
The drivetrain is a brilliant piece of work, producing 274HP and loads of torque while still allowing 34MPG on the highway. People in the car community familiar with turbos often wonder how Hyundai managed to do this, and after one drive, it becomes clear as day. Instead of locking the transmission into high gears and using turbo boost to produce power, the transmission actively downshifts when throttle is called upon. Bypassing the turbo boost saves fuel by using the transmission torque multiplication properties to produce acceleration. Unfortunately for people like me who prefer to use the boost, there is no way to get around the tranny programming – the paddle shifters and shift gate both limit the highest allowable gear, but do not lock the transmission into that gear. Still, it’s hard to complain with an engine that is so eager to rev, helped along by a turbo that doesn’t have much of an audible whistle. They are a great combination and most people would never know there was a turbo if they weren’t told.
Overall, we would place the Sonata as more of a sporty family sedan, aiming to become the FWD version of BMW (sans the douchebag image). Compared to the new 2013 Nissan Altima, the cabin is a bit more restricted and enclosed. Driving dynamics are more playful, and the ability to revs make that obvious. The Altima, on the other hand, is more airy and a bit higher class, perhaps aiming for a more mature clientele. You can’t go wrong with either, it is simply what type of vehicle you prefer to drive – an eager, sporty one or a laid back cruiser that can play if called upon. In fact, we like this thing so much that we’ve decided to make it a long-term vehicle, with regular updates. Stay tuned to see how it will fare in reliability and fuel economy!