2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

At the back, a Hybrid-specific diffuser hides the tailpipe. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

With its big jet-intake grille the Sonata Hybrid is a more aggressive-looking machine than its conventional Sonata siblings, but it's just as accommodating and well-equipped. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

Cloth seats are standard in the Hybrid, with leather available in the Premium Package. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

The stylishly modern interior looks good and features soft-touch materials in the right places. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

The drive battery takes up about a third of the trunk, but still leaves plenty of room for groceries. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on December 12, 2011

The Sonata Hybrid retains not only a retuned version of the engine from the regular Sonata, but also the 6-speed automatic transmission. (Photo: Simon Hill, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

Published on December 12, 2011

Whether you compare it to other hybrids or to conventionally-powered Hyundais, the Sonata Hybrid dances to the beat of a different drummer. Even its release schedule is just a little different: As the rest of Hyundai's lineup transitioned to 2012 models in the last quarter of 2011, the Sonata Hybrid carried on steadfastly as a 2011, so when I picked up my sky blue test car it became one of the last 2011s I drove.

I suppose the late model-year turnover shouldn't really come as a surprise, because the 2011 Sonata Hybrid didn't itself arrive until well into the annual model cycle, so it's not exactly long in the tooth yet. And the updates for the 2012 will likely be minimal anyhow, according to available information and judging from the revisions to the standard-issue Sonata: The biggest change appears to be the planned inclusion of Hyundai's Bluelink system, possibly a few tweaks to the hybrid information display, and some revised exterior trim - not exactly the sort of stuff that keeps customers at bay waiting for the latest, especially when what's currently on offer is still as fresh and interesting as the 2011 Sonata Hybrid.

Like the rest of the Sonata lineup, the Sonata Hybrid was completely redesigned for the 2011 model year, using Hyundai's fluidic sculpture design language. It's a good-looking car - more so, I'd suggest, than photos imply. The hybrid has some unique features that actually make it slightly more aggressive and less buttoned-down looking than its gas-powered siblings. These include a different front end with a big, jet-intake grille, a chrome bodyside insert and rear diffuser set low in the bumper where it hides the exhaust. The changes are more than merely cosmetic, and improve the hybrid's drag coefficient from an already impressive 0.28 to a Prius-like 0.25.

Being a Sonata, the hybrid hits all the right notes inside, offering a nicely-executed interior that has plenty of room for four passengers and reasonable space for five. The dash, inner door panels and armrest are all soft touch, and while the remainder of the interior is built of hard plastic it's good looking stuff, with nice faux brushed aluminum accents.

As with every Sonata the basic amenities are all accounted for: Air conditioning, power windows and locks, telescoping steering, six-speaker audio with USB plug and Bluetooth connectivity, heated seats and more. The Sonata Hybrid is also packaged with a few extra perks including a "Supervision" information display, proximity entry with pushbutton start, LED front positioning lights and taillights. Where the Sonata Hybrid loses out to its conventional siblings is in trunk space, which drops from 464 litres to 303 (16.4 cubic feet to 10.7) in order to accommodate the drive battery, and pretty much loses the ski pass-through in the process.

Mechanically, Hyundai has retained many of the components from the conventionally-powered Sonata, and in doing so has taken a slightly different route than most hybrid manufacturers: Where Toyota and Ford both use a CVT transmission in their hybrids Hyundai retains the regular 6-speed automatic used across the Sonata range. The electric drive motor is then sandwiched between the gas engine and the transmission, replacing the torque converter. Since the gas engine cannot provide power from zero rpm, the electric drive motor is used to accelerate the car from a standstill, and then a double clutch is used to automatically engage and disengage the gas engine as needed.

The regular Sonata's 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engine is also retained, although it has been modified for the hybrid to run on the Atkinson cycle, gaining efficiency but losing some horsepower in the process, dropping from 198 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque to 166 horsepower and 154 lb-ft of torque. This is more than compensated for by the 40-horsepower electric drive motor, which cranks out 151 lb-ft of torque and bumps the combined output up to 206 horsepower, 305 lb-ft of torque.

On the road, Hyundai's unique approach to the hybrid equation has some positive attributes and some not-so-positive attributes. On the plus side of the equation, once the car is rolling, the conventional automatic means that the Sonata Hybrid feels more like a normal car, more responsive and alive, than a CVT-driven hybrid. There's a better feeling of hookup to the road, and when you accelerate hard the Sonata Hybrid bangs through the gears with the engine revs clearly corresponding to car's speed and acceleration (heck, the transmission even retains the manual-shift mode for the do-it-yourself crowd). The Sonata Hybrid's unique setup, combined with its state-of-the-art lithium polymer drive battery, also allows the car to be driven further - and more aggressively - on electrical power alone. Rated city/highway fuel economy is 5.5 / 4.6 L/100km.

The downsides, for those reading carefully, are easy enough to predict: With the system reliant on the electric motor to get rolling, hard acceleration from a standstill is a bit rough-edged. With only 40 horsepower available for the initial acceleration, things start out a bit slowly and then there's a jerk as the gas engine kicks, at which point the Sonata takes off with more oomph than one might expect. Accelerating from 0-100 km/h takes about 9 seconds, which is pretty good if not exactly scorching; but a fair chunk of that time is spent getting off the line, so acceleration from other than a standstill is much better than the numbers imply.

Another downside is that with such a direct connection between the electric drive motor and the wheels, precise low-speed manoeuvring (such as when backing into a tight parking spot) can be a little tricky, because the car wants to either stand dead still or accelerate rather rapidly. Lastly, the system sometimes seemed to rev the gas engine needlessly high when accelerating lightly at low speeds - I suppose the gas engine, once fired up, might be working hard recharging the battery as well as helping accelerate the car, but it seemed odd to be feathering the throttle at 30 km/h and hearing the engine revving away (exactly how high I can't say, because the hybrid information display replaces the tachometer).

Hyundai also needs to further refine its regenerative brakes, with I found a bit grabby and inconsistent, making them hard to modulate. (There's also the issue of power-off pedal feel - step on the brakes when the car is shut off and the pedal seems to fall to the floor, which just doesn't feel right).

In the overall scheme of things, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is a bit hard to pin down. Certainly the standard Sonata is a good value - a stylish family car with a nice, accommodating interior, a long list of features and a suggested price ranging from $22,699 to $34,199 before options. The Hybrid starts at $29,999 and is equipped to a level somewhere between the Sonata GLS and the Limited ($26,499 and $29,899 respectively). Depending on how much you value things like auto-dimming rearview mirrors, upgraded audio systems and chromed door scuff plates, you could argue that the Hybrid is priced only about $2,000 above its conventionally-powered siblings. In this sense it's a real bargain, as most hybrids tend to cost at least $3,000 or $4,000 more than the equivalent conventional models. On the other hand, compared to the Camry Hybrid (which is price-competitive when similarly equipped) the Sonata Hybrid is not yet as well-proven and not quite as refined. What it does offer over the Camry is a different approach to the hybrid question, arguably a more driver-oriented approach. Time will tell whether this is enough to avoid the fate of discontinued offerings such as Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid and Nissan Altima Hybrid, and to instead carve out a spot next to the Camry Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid in the "hybrid family sedan" niche.

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: HEV, Hyundai, 2011, Sonata Hybrid, $30,000 - $39,999, Hybrid,

Organizations: Hyundai

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