2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Review – First Drive

Hyundai flips conventional hybrid thinking on its head to deliver maximum real-world fuel economy

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Review – First Drive

With about 75% of hybrids sold carrying a Toyota badge, Hyundai is hoping to steal some sales away from the Japanese auto giant with its first hybrid, based on the mid-size Sonata. But rather than go after the distinctively packaged Prius, Hyundai is targeting the slower selling, more discreet Camry Hybrid, in a bid to continue its incredible growth over the last couple of years.

FAST FACTS

1. Fuel economy is rated at 36/40-mpg (city/hwy), favoring highway driving for maximum real world fuel economy.

2. Power Output is rated at 206-hp and 196 ft-lbs of torque.

3. The lithium-polymer battery pack adds just 96 lbs, so the Sonata Hybrid weighs over 200 lbs less than its competitors.

4. The Sonata Hybrid has a 0.25 drag coefficient, the same as the Prius.

DISTINCITVE LOOKS SET HYBRID MODEL APART

While the Camry Hybrid and Ford’s Fusion Hybrid are virtually identical to their conventional counterparts, the Sonata Hybrid takes a page out of the Prius playbook by adopting a distinctive look that sets it apart from other Sonatas. The most prominent difference is a new front fascia with a big, gaping grille that resembles a catfish’s mouth.  The new front end is actually more flattering than the description suggests, and even makes the Sonata look a little more aggressive. The Hybrid also gets exclusive headlamps, wheels and a rear bumper to further distinguish itself apart from the regular car. The result is a lower drag coefficient of 0.25 (the same as the Prius), which reduces fuel consumption by making the car more aerodynamic.

It goes without saying that much of the fuel saving technology lies under the skin of the Sonata Hybrid, but Hyundai has taken an innovative route to furthering the car’s fuel economy. Rather than focus solely on the hybrid system, Hyundai has also tackled one of the chief criticisms of hybrid cars – their substantial curb weight.

Weighing in at 3,457 lbs, the Sonata Hybrid is 263 pounds lighter than the Fusion Hybrid and 223 lbs less than a Camry Hybrid. Credit this to the Sonata’s lightweight structure (the standard Sonata is also a fair bit lighter than its rivals) and a proprietary battery made of lithium-polymer. These batteries use a multitude of paper thin cells stacked on top of one another, and only add 96 pounds to the car’s curb weight. The downside is that trunk space is cut from 16 to 11 cubic feet.

Other fuel economy savings have been made up thanks to electric power steering, regenerative braking and a start-stop system for the gasoline engine.

HYBRID DRIVE DESIGNED FOR MAXIMUM REAL WORLD FUEL ECONOMY

With mass having a negative effect on both performance and fuel economy, Hyundai’s approach is a laudable one, but looking at the numbers, it may not be immediately apparent. Hyundai claims the Sonata Hybrid returns 36-mpg in the city and 40-mpg on the highway, while the Fusion returns 41-mpg city and 36-mpg highway. The Camry Hybrid is a distant competitor with a 33-mpg city and 34-mpg highway rating. According to Hyundai CEO John Krafcik, Hyundai chose to put an emphasis on highway mileage, since most Americans do their driving on the open road rather than around town. In other words, real world fuel economy with the Sonata Hybrid should be better than the Fusion – for most Americans.

The Sonata Hybrid also does away with the gearless CVT transmission of other hybrids and swaps in a 6-speed automatic gearbox. The choice of a conventional automatic will feel much more familiar to drivers of non-hybrids, rather than the CVT’s eerie effect of holding a constant rpm and droning under hard acceleration. In between the gearbox and Hyundai’s 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine is an electric motor, which uses a clutch to engage and disengage itself from the engine and transmission. This system is much more compact than those used by Toyota and Ford, and fits in with Hyundai’s ethos of reducing weight to help further fuel economy.

On the road, there are some noticeable differences between the Sonata Hybrid and the base car. The steering feels vague and doesn’t build resistance through its range of motion like one would expect a good power steering system to. The 169 horsepower Atkinson cycle 4-cylinder engine has been re-designed with an emphasis on efficiency rather than power, and loses 29 horsepower in the process. Although the electric motor makes about 40 horsepower on its own, resulting in a combined output of 206-hp and 193 ft-lbs of torque – substantially more than either the Camry or Fusion hybrids, although acceleration is still a less-than exhilarating.

While Hyundai claims that the Sonata Hybrid can run on battery power up to 62 mph, the EV mode stayed engaged up to 70 mph on some flat and downhill portions of the test route – meaning we achieved above the claimed fuel economy ratings with a 44-mpg average. That’s 2-mpgs better than we achieved in the Fusion Hybrid and is so far ahead of the Camry that the two vehicles aren’t even worth a comparison. A small LCD screen in between the two gauge clusters will help you keep track of things like battery life and how eco-friendly your driving style is. We found it a bit of a distraction, and frankly, it’s hard to match the display in the Fusion Hybrid.

FAMILIAR ON-ROAD FEEL, BUT SEAT FABRIC NEEDS UPGRADING

The rest of the driving experience is fairly similar to the conventional Sonata. The ride quality is supple without being ponderous or mushy, with well-controlled body movements and a quiet cabin. Visibility is compromised out the back due to the swoopy roofline and small rear window, while the interior materials are almost as good as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, but still not quite there.

One of the big disappointments is the gulf between the fabric and leather seating surfaces, with the fabric having a cheap and nasty feel that comes across as some kind of awful synthetic fabric more appropriate for a Members Only Jacket than a mid-size car’s interior. The leather, on the other hand, isn’t buttery soft like a Rolls-Royce, but is miles ahead of the standard fabric, and comes in an appealing biscuit-like hue that sets off well against most of the Hybrid’s available exterior colors. Quite frankly, it’s shocking that Hyundai would offer such poor fabric on a car that will be their first foray into “green” vehicles.

THE VERDICT

No pricing has been announced by Hyundai, but there’s no reason to think that the Sonata Hybrid will be anything but aggressively priced against its rivals from Ford and Toyota. With Hyundai riding an enormous wave of goodwill, not to mention a series of excellent J.D. Power and Consumers Reports quality rankings, the Sonata Hybrid is perfectly poised to go after an important, but small (hybrids only make up 2 percent of vehicle sales in the United States) niche.

While the Sonata Hybrid won’t unseat the Prius as the king of hybrid cars, it should do damage to the Camry Hybrid as well as the Fusion, which have become the green vehicle of choice for those seeking something a bit less harmful to the planet, that’s also a bit more conventional.

RELATED READING

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid Review 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid Review – First Drive 2010 Toyota Prius III Review 2010 Lexus HS250h Premium: First Drive 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid

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