Ask AutoGuide No. 2 – Uday’s Ultimatum

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Ask AutoGuide No. 2 – Uday’s Ultimatum

“Ask AutoGuide!” is our newest feature. It debuted last week to copious fanfare and considerable tweeting. Its premiere was the internet equivalent of a ticker-tape parade but without the high-school ribbon dancers and mess of confetti.

Seven days ago AutoGuide’s accomplished oracles helped steer Rusty to a selection of sporty, premium coupes.

SEE ALSO: Ask AutoGuide No. 1 – Rusty’s Request

This week Uday is appealing to AutoGuide for some sedan support, and we’re happy to answer the call. He’s in the market for an efficient four-door car. Simple enough, there are literally dozens of choices out there, except there’s a catch. (Isn’t there always?) He wants a hybrid.

Generally gasoline-electrics are about as much fun as a scabies diagnosis, but they do deliver some admirable virtues. Fuel-economy is obviously a strong point, and so is functionality. Just like regular midsize sedans they’re as useful as a Leatherman Multi-Tool in the hands of master carpenter Norm Abram.

Doing the bulk of the work for AutoGuide’s experts, Uday has narrowed his selection down to three vehicles. The Toyota Camry is a benchmark in the segment but it’s as dull as a bar of soap. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ford’s daring Fusion. Inside and out it’s the most attractive car in the midsize segment but it has a number of issues. Somewhere between these two sits the Hyundai Sonata. Will it prove to be a hybrid Goldilocks or fall victim to its more established competition? Here’s what the oracles have to say.

SUGGESTION #1: Toyota Camry Hybrid

If there’s any nameplate on the market today that’s synonymous with “car” it’s “Camry.” In fact Toyota’s conservative sedan has taken home the “crown” as America’s favorite auto for the past 11 years.

Rivers of ink have been expended expounding on its inoffensive nature, a point not worth dwelling on here. Suffice it to say the Camry blends in with the crowd, something that’s part of its appeal to average drivers. But that’s not the only reason for its perennial success.

Quality is the very cornerstone of Toyota, and kaizen is its guiding principle. This Japanese word connotes continuous improvement, something the company is always striving for, and it shows. Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles perpetually occupy the top spots on quality and dependability surveys. The automaker’s reputation for reliability has been decades in the making and is well deserved. Food for thought: Toyota claims 90 percent of all Camrys sold over the last decade are still on the road.

SEE ALSO: Toyota Camry Hybrid vs. Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

As for the hybrid model it starts at about $27,000. That price gets you a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, an electric motor and a total of 200 horsepower. The engine is matched to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which helps make the most out of every gasoline molecule. CVTs aren’t known for making anything fun to drive, but they’re definitively the smoothest way to combine a gasoline engine and electric motor.

Whip out your calculator, abacus or stepped reckoner to perform a few computations and you’ll undoubtedly be impressed by the Camry’s fuel efficiency. It delivers up to 43 miles per gallon in city driving and 39 on the expressway. In AutoGuide testing the car consistently delivered 39 miles per gallon, slightly less than the average reported by Uncle Sam’s environmental watchdogs (the EPA).

SUGGESTION #2: Ford Fusion Hybrid

If the Camry is wearing mom jeans and a cat-themed sweatshirt, the Ford is a college-aged cutie dressed to go clubbin’. The car’s grille looks like it was peeled off an Aston Martin, its profile is more rakish than a fighter jet and the back end is pure Audi.

This narrative continues inside. The dashboard is elegantly styled and packed with more technology than a Best Buy, courtesy of the company’s MyFord Touch system (part of the $895 technology package). Given its European styling it’s no surprise the Fusion drives a nicely as it looks. Where the Toyota is loose and floaty the Ford is tight and controlled.

On paper the Fusion Hybrid looks like a winner. Working in unison, its 2.0-liter gasoline engine and electric motor deliver a maximum of 188 horsepower. A lithium-ion battery pack stores and releases the juice that makes the system work. Base price is an Abe Lincoln less than $28,000 (including destination and delivery).

SEE ALSO: 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid Review

Like the Camry a CVT is part of the mix. And just like its Toyota competitor Ford’s system delivers a nearly seamless driving experience as it switches between electric power and internal combustion. Unfortunately that’s about all the good news there is to share about this drivetrain. It’s noisy at full throttle, the regenerative braking is very touchy, which can result in head-jerking stops, and then there’s the fuel economy.

According to the EPA the Fusion is a triple threat, stickering at 47 miles per gallon in all driving cycles (city, highway and combined). Unfortunately in the real world that’s not the case. During testing, the best AutoGuide’s editors could squeeze out of it was 39 MPG, which is as far from the estimate.

Quality is apparently no longer “Job 1” in Dearborn, either. Squeaks and rattles, loose trim pieces and a sticky sunglass holder were but a few of the fit-and-finish issues we experienced with the car. It’s problems like these that make it hard to recommend the Fusion Hybrid.

SUGGESTION #3: Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

But wait, hope is not lost; there’s another choice! Hyundai’s Sonata Hybrid is the third-party candidate in this automotive election. It’s a South Korean reformer hell-bent on sales success.

Unlike its rivals across the aisle this electrified sedan features a proper step-gear transmission, a tried-and-true six-speed automatic. This eliminates the strange slipping sensation inherent with CVTs. It’s matched to a 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and an innovative lithium polymer battery pack. Supposedly this is the first non-plug-in electric vehicle to utilize the storage technology. The system’s total output is 206 horsepower.

From a design standpoint the Sonata is an odd duck. It’s orders of magnitude more emotional and expressive than the drab Camry, but it’s nowhere near as attractive as the Fusion. Styling may be one area where Toyota and Hyundai diverge, but MSRP is not. The Sonata is priced within spitting distance of the Camry, about $27,000 for an entry-level model.

Uday was particularly interested in this machine as it is receiving a host of upgrades for 2013. Included is that is a new 47 kW lithium-polymer battery back and higher output electric motor that will help raise fuel economy to 40 MPG highway and 36 MPG city for a combined 38 MPG, which while improved still puts it behind the other two.

While we haven’t tested a 2013 Sonata Hybrid yet, our 2012 model with a claimed 34/39/36 (city/highway/combined) returned just 34 miles per gallon, short of its claimed efficiency score.

Regardless of the numbers, we were overall nonplussed with the drive itself. In “Blue Mode,” the car’s special efficiency setting, it feels lethargic and unresponsive. Turning this feature off results in a better driving experience, but a less efficient one. On top of that, the use of a 6-speed automatic rather than a CVT, made for less-than-smooth transitions from gasoline to electric power and vice versa.

Continuing the Sonata vs. Camry comparison, Toyota’s offering delivers a nicer ride along with a higher-quality interior (though the Sonata has more interior style), not to mention significantly better fuel economy. Additionally, the Hyundai may be backed by a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty, but with Toyota’s track record you probably don’t need a gimmicky guarantee.

YOU BE THE JURY

Hopefully the oracles at AutoGuide have been objective in their analysis of these three competing vehicles. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages, though some definitely garner more plusses than minuses.

The Toyota Camry Hybrid may be as boring as a box of bran flakes but it delivers the goods in wholesome, nutritious package. The Ford Fusion Hybrid is a stunner inside and out, but the whole experience is tarnished by its disappointing fuel economy and abhorrent quality. The Hyundai Sonata somewhat splits the difference between these two, but it’s far less efficient and no fun to drive. In this comparison we have to recommend the Camry Hybrid. It’s the bulletproof option that will deliver years of trouble-free driving; just don’t go looking for a good time. This sedan is all business.

Good luck in your quest for a new car, Uday! Thanks again for taking the time to “Ask AutoGuide!”

If you need a little assistance shopping for your next vehicle feel free to do the same. Send a short message to ask@AutoGuide.com. Let us know the basics of what you’re looking for. How many seats do you need? What size of vehicle do you want? How much are you willing to spend? With some of those fundamentals out of the way we’ll get busy to come up with two or three must-see vehicles that you’ll have to put on your test-drive list.

  • MistyGreen

    How about the new Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid?  Sure, it may not be tried and true yet, but that’ll be a worthy addition to this mix for a large-scale comparison.

  • zzipy_2000@yahoo.com

    Not really impressed with the Jetta Hybrid interiors. They remind me of my 99 Accord!!

    This is Uday and Camry it is!!

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