Hyundai's first hybrid is hitting dealerships this month. It is a companion to a standard Sonata sedan and a sporty turbocharged Sonata 2.0T model which are already on sale. Its major competitors are the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrids.
The alternative is a hybrid with a "technology package" priced at $30,795. It adds a navigation system, sunroof, back-up camera, leather seats, heated front seats and an upgraded stereo.
Hyundai has made huge improvements in design in the last few years and that shows on the Sonata Hybrid. The interior of the standard model is arguably the benchmark among mid-size sedans when it comes to thoughtful elegance.
There is also room for four six-foot adults if the people in the front seat aren't too piggy. Tall folks will like the driver's seat which provides a lot of thigh support. Standard equipment includes all the important safety gear, including electronic stability control.
The hybrid's batteries reduce trunk capacity from 16.4 cubic feet to 10.7 cubic feet. For the battery system Hyundai calls "Direct Hybrid Blue Drive" it opted for more advanced, lithium polymer batteries rather than the common nickel-metal hydride used by other automakers. Hyundai says they are lighter and hold a charge longer.
Like the Fusion and the Camry, the Sonata is a "strong hybrid." That means the electric motor is strong enough to move the vehicle by itself. This requires a gentle foot on the accelerator and ideally a flat surface. I got it up to about 30 mph.
The electric-vehicle mode continues until the batteries are discharged or more power is needed. Then, the gas engine quietly joins the effort. The batteries are automatically recharged as the vehicle coasts or the driver brakes. In normal driving it is likely that the four-cylinder would do all the work with the electric motor providing an extra boost when stronger acceleration is needed.
One thing I noticed on a 20-degree day was that during the electric-vehicle mode the interior became significantly colder. In that mode, the engine is shut off and, Hyundai says, while coolant is still moved to the heater it loses heat. Fortunately this is more a curiosity than a hypothermia danger because it is nearly impossible to drive more than a few minutes on the electric motor alone.
The transmission is a six-speed automatic.
The hybrid's 2.4-liter 4-cylinder gas engine combines with the electric motor for about 206 horsepower and 193 pound feet of torque. In short there is plenty of power to merge onto a busy interstate.
Hyundai says it expects the Environmental Protection Agency to rate the hybrid at 36 mpg city and 40 mpg highway.
The Fusion Hybrid, incidentally, is rated at 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. The Camry Hybrid is rated at 31 mpg city and 35 mpg highway. The Prius, which is also a mid-size vehicle, is rated at 51 mpg city and 48 mpg highway, making Sonata, Fusion and Carmy look like gas hogs.
The best any conventional Sonata can do is 24 mpg city and 35 mpg highway. That model has a manual transmission and 2.4-liter 4-cylinder rated at 198 horsepower.
The Sonata hybrid's handling is reasonable, with the expected slightly nose-heavy feeling of a front-wheel-drive vehicle. However, the steering has a rubbery feel and is not as good as on the Ford Fusion Hybrid. The steering also seemed loose on center (when the vehicle is pointed straight ahead) on speeds below 25 mph.
For the most part the ride is acceptable, but the Sonata has been equipped with low-rolling resistance tires, an attempt to get even better fuel economy. The downside is that they tend to whack into pavement imperfections.
The 2011 Sonata Hybrid is an impressive package. It is not as fun to drive as the Fusion Hybrid but it is significantly less expensive with a far nicer interior. In short, it is a serious contender.