Quick Spin: 2015 Hyundai Sonata Eco [Review]

Quick Spin: 2015 Hyundai Sonata Eco [Review]

We’ve spoken before of the impact Hyundai’s 2010 redesign of the Sonata had on the midsize market. It was aggressive, eye-catching, showy and polarizing in a way that no Korean offering had been to date. And it worked.

In that context, the 2015 overhaul is a bit of a head-scratcher. Hyundai toned down the exterior styling significantly, went for a more upscale-premium look inside, and did away with a few trim combinations to streamline the offerings. The result is a conservative, attractive and high-value lineup that has been only moderately well-received. The turbocharged model lost some ponies. All of them gained weight.

What happened to the hook?

Buried in the 2015 model year ordering system is something slightly out of a place. It’s a Sonata with a downsized and turbocharged engine, a dual-clutch transmission and (theoretically, anyway) a slightly less portly physique. Could this be the car that reignites the Sonata spark and brings car people to the brand? We drove one to find out.

What is it?

Not to be confused with the electrically assisted Sonata Hybrid variants, the Eco’s feature list reads a lot like a European-market compact’s. Under the hood is a small-displacement, twin-scroll turbocharged engine. It’s a 1.6L four producing 177 horsepower at 5,500 RPM and 195 lb-ft of torque from 1,500 to 4,500 RPM.

Putting power to the wheels is a new, seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission engineered to keep the tiny turbo-four in the power band when demanded and in more efficient territory the rest of the time. The result? 28 mpg city, 38 highway and 32 combined–10% better than the garden-variety SE. If you think those numbers are underachieving a bit, let’s put them into context.

The Eco is not meant to be a replacement for the Sonata Hybrid. It is decidedly mid-trim in every respect, offering less power but more efficiency than the 2.4L engine in the base model and turbocharged acceleration without the (relatively) more bank-breaking MSRP of the 2.0T model. Others in the segment are putting up similar numbers too. The Fusion? 37 mpg highway. Passat 1.8 TSI? 36. Mazda’s midsizer is its equal on the highway, but doesn’t put up the same around-town numbers. That’s a testament to Mazda’s lightweight, low-complexity approach, but you need to reverse course and add i-ELOOP to best the Sonata Eco’s overall mileage.

What is it up against?

The Sonata Eco is a direct competitor to Ford’s 1.5L turbocharged Fusion, but it more generally slots in against the various four-cylinder, efficiency-oriented midsizers on offer–Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu et al. While the under-hood tech may be new to Hyundai, the car itself is an entirely conventional family sedan.

What does it look like?

There’s little to differentiate the Sonata Eco from its more conventional sibling, the naturally aspirated SE. A chrome grille, mirror-mounted turn signals, a revised front lip and “Eco” badging set it apart visually, but otherwise it’s simply a 2015 Sonata. ??

And the inside?

The interior is a similar story. Without being told, you’d have no idea there was anything particularly special about the Eco. And perhaps that’s the point. The layout is stylish and sophisticated, but not game-changing. We could do without the faux wood door inserts and the seats could use more support, but it’s otherwise comfortable and inoffensive.

Our tester came with the pricy tech package, which added all sorts of neat doo-dads, including navigation, a proximity key, smart hands-free trunklid actuation, leatherette door trim inserts and HD radio with premium sound.

Hyundai’s new-for-2015 party piece, Android Auto, was not available on our tester despite being officially released the week we had it in rotation. We took a crack at having the upgrade done at our local dealership, but the friendly and solicitous service manager informed us that it would be at least a couple weeks before they had the equipment ready and the staff spun-up on the upgrade process. We were offered a follow-up phone call to schedule the service when it was available, which we of course declined. A shame, but points for customer service.

But does it go?

Oh… no. But let’s back up.

If you’ve read our quick spin of the 2015 Sonata Sport 2.0T, you’ll know one of our big complaints was the car’s hefty curb weight. At 3,500lbs, it’s portly for a four-cylinder sedan (check the spec sheets on a Mazda6 or Honda Accord if you’d like to see how it’s done). Hyundai sought to address that with the Eco, and in a way they succeeded.

At 3,250lbs, it just undercuts the SE model in curb weight and it’s a fat cousin (or a Rob Gronkowski) lighter than a Sport 2.0T. That’s a non-trivial weight reduction. But the Eco also suffers from a non-trivial power deficit when compared to its big brother. Yes, it’s a bit more lithe and nimble in the corners, but unlike Gronk, it’s no athlete.

As for Hyundai’s dual-clutch transmission, unfortunately it’s a bit more Ford PowerShift than Porsche PDK. Shifts are smooth, but slow and decidedly un-sporting. There are no paddle-shifters here, so manual changes can be made only with the gear selector, and like previous models, the Eco’s lacks feedback. It has decent heft and feels like it can withstand some aggressive slaps, but you don’t always get the change you want on the first try and there’s no tactile sensation of hitting a stop or a switch to let you know whether you’ve succeeded.

Leftlane’s bottom line

The Eco isn’t miserable to drive, but it’s not the taught, fun sedan we’d want it to be. It lives in the shadow of its big brother, the Sport 2.0T, and rather than try to emulate its athleticism, the Eco chooses instead to be the smarter, more practical sibling.

2015 Hyundai Sonata Eco base price, $23,275. As tested, $28,310.

Technology Package, $4,100; Carpeted floor mats, $125; Destination, $810.

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