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The turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the Hyundai Sonata 2.0 Turbo.

Hyundai

While plenty of space in this column has been devoted to the imminent arrival of electric cars, good old gasoline isn't dead yet.

Hyundai, citing research from J.P. Morgan, PricewaterhouseCoopers and others, expects that more than three out of four car cars built in 2020 will still be powered by internal combustion engines (ICE). However, covering their bases, auto makers are rushing to get a plug-in on the market by 2013.

Some manufacturers are more committed to electric cars than others (hello Nissan), but all are working hard to get the best out of burning petroleum in a cylinder. V-8s are pretty well gone except for the very rich and very fast, V-6s are viewed as yesterday's technology while the little inline-four is becoming the industry's engine of choice as the 2016 fuel economy standards draw ever nearer.

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I drove a new one last week that shows how far the little four-banger has progressed. This particular engine of a mere 2.0-litre displacement cranked out 274 horsepower on regular gasoline. Getting 274 hp out of any 2-litre in a mass-produced car was unimaginable until recently and yet this one managed impressive fuel efficiency of 6.0 L/100 km on the highway.

The engine is Hyundai's first four-cylinder, turbocharged GDI (Gasoline Direct Injection) and it hits the market in the 2011 Sonata 2.0T. This one features a twin-scroll turbocharger that is generally only seen on expensive high-performance engines.

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I had this one going up hills and down, blasting along the interstate, roaring through corners in an intermediate-size four-door sedan and it just sang. Smooth, seamless power with none of the turbo lag that characterizes most engines with a blower. This thing had 49 more horsepower than my beloved 5.0-litre V-8 Mustang.

The fact that such a sweet engine comes from Hyundai is an interesting part of the story.

You have to remember that Hyundai didn't exist as a car company until 1967 and then only as an assembler of other people's stuff. They'd buy an engine here and a transmission there and slap it together. A lot of the engines, the better ones, came from Mitsubishi, but I'm sure I drove Hyundais back in the day powered by Lawn Boy. Hyundai didn't build its own first engine until 1991 and that was nothing special.

However, in its relentless drive from nowhere to now being the fourth- or fifth-largest car maker in the world, Hyundai has developed some pretty interesting tech.

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And it's not saving it for the high-priced iron; it's putting its latest and greatest into its most popular model, the intermediate-size Sonata. As the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord age, not so gracefully, Hyundai is racking up the sales with a brand that was around for 20-plus years without ever getting a look from someone other than those who view cars as appliances on wheels.

Even the all new, "cool" Sonata doesn't get me very excited - the steering's clumsy, the seats are awful and there's way too much cabin noise - but this engine is worth checking out. The twin-scroll turbocharger is a gem, the intercooler is very advanced and the direct gas injection is as good as it gets.

This is stuff you'd pay a fortune for in the not too distant past. Now you get it all in a respectable family hauler for under 29-large. Can't wait until they put this engine in a sports car. Sorry, you electric car fans and you hybrid lovers, this is my engine of the year.

Ethanol update

I'm sure you've been waiting breathlessly for the latest edict on ethanol from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - I've certainly written about it enough. With an eye focused sharply on congressional seats in the corn belt, the Obama administration declared that gasoline retailers can sell fuel blends containing up to 15 per cent ethanol for use in late-model cars. This will end the 30-year-old limit of 10 per cent ethanol for ordinary cars.

Devoted readers will remember this is exactly what I predicted and what a mess it makes.

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First of all, what is a "late-model car?" Right now, they're talking about model year 2007 and later, but maybe, just maybe, it won't kill your car if it's 2001 or later. Perhaps they'll tell you after the election.

And what about the thousands of gas stations that have no pumps and no tanks for E85? Legislating change is easy, making it work is hard. As illustration, there are millions of E85-compatible Flex-Fuel cars on the road today and next to nowhere to fill them up.

If we get some intelligent public policy that puts bio-fuels through little engines like the one above, then we're getting somewhere on The Green Highway.

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