SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Michigan -- With its 2011 Sonata, Hyundai put itself at the forefront of a few trends in the competitive midsize-sedan segment. That car featured bold, expressive styling that woke up the sleepy family sedan market, and it was also the first among its competitors to go to an all-four-cylinder powertrain lineup. The redesigned 2015 Hyundai Sonata may appear to be less revolutionary than its predecessor, with its more conservative styling and carryover powertrain lineup, but there is at least one big change: the 2015 Hyundai Sonata Eco.
The 2015 Sonata Eco uses a 1.6-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged engine that pairs with a dual-clutch, seven-speed automatic transmission. That’s pretty advanced stuff for a workaday family sedan. The only other midsize sedans with small, direct-injected turbocharged four-cylinders are the Ford Fusion with its 1.5-liter EcoBoost and the Volkswagen Passat with its 1.8-liter TSI. The Passat TDI turbodiesel is the only other car in the Sonata’s competitive set that offers a dual-clutch transmission.
This new model’s high-tech powertrain is meant to give the Sonata Eco a slight boost in fuel economy numbers, to an estimated 28/38/32 mpg (city/highway/combined) rating. But along the way, Hyundai also created our favorite version of the 2015 Hyundai Sonata -- impressive given we already hold the 2.4 GDI and 2.0T versions of this midsize sedan in high esteem.
The Sonata Eco’s 1.6-liter turbocharged four is similar to the one found in the Hyundai Veloster Turbo, but has different tuning because of its efficiency-minded mission. It makes only 177 hp—8 hp less than the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder—but punches above its weight with 195 lb-ft of torque, 17 lb-ft more than the Sonata 2.4. In combination with the smooth, quick-shifting dual-clutch transmission, the smaller, torquier engine actually makes the Eco model feel peppier than the standard car, both when accelerating from a stoplight and while passing or merging at highway speeds. We found ourselves frequently looking down at the speedometer in surprise, as the small 1.6 gets the big Sonata sedan up to speed with little effort.
Although most mainstream family sedan buyers won’t notice, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata Eco also has a slightly more interesting personality compared with the Sonata 2.4 SE, Sport, and Limited trim models without giving up the standard car’s commendable refinement. The 1.6T engine is just as quiet as the bigger fours, but emits a perceptible growl under hard acceleration that’s more pleasing to the ear than the coarse noises from the 2.4-liter four. The Eco also has a slightly more balanced feel in the corners thanks to the lighter front end, but doesn’t compromise ride quality in the way the Sonata Sport’s slightly stiffer suspension tuning does.
If the Sonata Eco drives so well, then why is Hyundai relegating this 1.6T powertrain to a low-volume fuel-economy trim? Hyundai says the main limit on Eco availability is the fact that the 1.6T is produced in South Korea and has to be imported into the U.S. before it’s installed in Sonata Eco models at Hyundai’s plant in Alabama. This limits production of the Eco in comparison with high-volume Sonata sedans, because the 2.4-liter four is produced in Alabama. (And because the 1.6T engine must be shipped over from South Korea, the Eco is likely Hyundai’s least-profitable Sonata.) As such, Hyundai is not setting any expectations for the Eco in terms of model mix until it sees how the market receives this efficiency-minded trim.
One Hyundai product planner did admit that early positive response to the Eco powertrain means the company is not ruling out the use of a small, turbo four-cylinder as the volume engine for the Sonata down the road. We wouldn’t be surprised if the 1.6T engine rolls out to more models later in the Sonata’s life cycle.
For now, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata Eco offers an impressive overall package. It gets great fuel economy, drives with a high level of poise and refinement, and even costs about the same as the equivalent 2.4 GDI model, with its $24,085 starting price. It’s the clear choice in the Sonata lineup, and would be near the top of our midsize-sedan shopping list.
2015 Hyundai Sonata Eco Specifications
|Price as tested||$24,085|
|Engine||1.6-liter DOHC turbocharged I-4|
|Power||177 hp @ 5500 rpm|
|Torque||195 lb-ft @ 1500-4500 rpm|
|Transmission||7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|Fuel economy||28/38 mpg (city/highway) (est.)|
|Cargo capacity||16.3 cu ft|