First Test: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
Is Hyundai's Hybrid Ready for Primetime?
Those eagerly looking forward to our next hybrid family sedan comparison have to wait just a bit longer -- this Hyundai Sonata Hybrid we recently tested is a pre-production model.
To start, Hyundai slightly revised its estimated fuel economy numbers for the Sonata Hybrid to 36/40 city/highway mpg -- down 1 city and up 1 highway. Against the likes of the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid, the highway number is right at the top of the class. Then there's range. Given the Sonata Hybrid's 17.2-gallon tank, you could theoretically roll more than 680 highway miles between fill-ups. Vacationing families and business road warriors will enjoy blowing past all those gas pumps.
Improved fuel economy obviously doesn't materialize out of thin air. Hyundai's Direct Hybrid Blue Drive system earns its keep as a full parallel setup with an actual step-ratio automatic transmission, a departure from the continuously variable transmissions common in most hybrids. But the Sonata Hybrid's six-speed automatic is missing one key ingredient: a torque converter. In its place is the keystone of this hybrid's operation: an electric traction motor rated at 40 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque.
Because the motor is synced directly to the transmission, a clutch latches to and unlatches from the gasoline-fed 2.4-liter inline-four with 166 horsepower and 154 pound-feet of torque on tap (also revised slightly from earlier in the year). As you'd expect from a hybrid, the Atkinson-cycle variant from Hyundai's Theta II family has been optimized for maximum efficiency. Final combined performance figures are 206 horsepower and 193 pound-feet of torque.
Acceleration is far from astonishing, with a 0-to-60 mph blast taking 9 seconds and the quarter mile 16.8 seconds at 84.2 mph. The Sonata has to draw power from both the engine and the 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-polymer battery pack to reach those numbers. Why lithium-polymer and not lithium-ion? Hyundai says the chemistry helps lower overall hybrid system weight (the pack is just 96 pounds), and its configuration allows for more cargo space because of its forward-trunk-mounted position. The system's driving modes -- full electric, engine only, hybrid with electric power assist, and hybrid with battery charging -- are dependent upon driver input.
Hyundai is adamant that the battery and traction motor can unify to drive the wheels up to 62 mph on electric power alone, but color us a bit skeptical. That number isn't achievable without the most delicate of pedal modulation, the electric air-conditioning turned off, and a lot of carefully paid attention. Technical director Frank Markus managed to coax the Sonata Hybrid up to 52 mph in pure EV mode, but likened the experience to wind sailing. Our attempts to mimic real-world driving as an EV were mostly futile, as the engine would usually fire up at around 15 mph unless we were barely feathering the gas pedal.
The brakes, normally an important matter for discussion when it comes to hybrids, are in need of a good tuning. The pedal feel was not linear enough, and the 133-foot, 60-to-0 braking number was several feet longer than the Sonata Turbo we tested. On one particularly memorable stop, the entire vehicle felt like it abruptly hit a wall after a sudden and questionable switch from regenerative to friction braking, although it's important to note that we were testing a pre-production model. Hyundai says not to worry and that the issue will be addressed on the production version.
The lack of a torque converter means there is more shift shock as the transmission rows its own gears, an inevitable conundrum that the engineers are looking to resolve. According to Hyundai staff, the six-speed auto could be the key to an extra 3- to 8-percent jump in fuel economy (up to 37-39 city, 41-43 highway mpg), but the shunting would be even more conspicuous. The Sonata Hybrid has a special "Blue" button on the steering wheel that alters the transmission shift points and A/C compressor clutch setting, presumably to reserve more electric juice for tractive efforts. As hybrid development continues, the Blue mode could later enable the aforementioned harsher gear changes in the interest of higher fuel economy.
To help on the highway, Hyundai took care to adapt the sheetmetal in an effort to further reduce aerodynamic drag. The front end design has drawn comparisons to a delectable fish popular in Cajun cuisine but, ultimately, function follows form. The front grille is shrouded and the front fascia and headlights are smoothed so air flows cleanly over, around, and under the frontal area. The taillights, side strakes, rear fascia, and alloy wheels are also unique to the Sonata Hybrid, and the end result is a very slick drag coefficient of 0.25.
If you've grown tired of the fishy skin, you'll be simultaneously impressed and confounded by the 4.2-inch thin-film transistor display housed within the gauge cluster. The display shows crisp vehicle efficiency graphics but some "left us dumbfounded," in the words of technical editor Kim Reynolds. Some graphical indicators, such as those for energy flow and fuel economy, are easy to discern. Then there are the animations depicting an Earth and the Sonata driving down a road with tree leaves blowing through the air, along with something called an Eco Score. These are supposedly related to improving the environment when operating the Sonata Hybrid. We're not convinced these are necessary.
So far, despite the pre-production glitches, the Sonata Hybrid is shaping up to be a promising entry in the growing midsize hybrid segment. But it's going to have to be on its game to match the likes of the Fusion (our 2010 Car of the Year) and Camry hybrids. We'll find out how the production model stacks up against the competition soon enough, but until then, be patient.
|2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid|
|Base price||$26,000 (est)|
|Price as tested||$26,000 (est)|
|Vehicle layout||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|Engines||2.4L/166-hp/154-lb-ft Atkinson cycle DOHC 16-valve I-4, plus 40-hp/151-lb-ft electric motor; 206 hp/193 lb-ft comb|
|Curb weight (f/r dist)||3608 lb (60/40%)|
|Length x width x height||189.8 x 72.2 x 57.7 in|
|0-60 mph||9.0 sec|
|Quarter mile||16.8 sec @ 84.2 mph|
|Braking, 60-0 mph||133 ft|
|Lateral acceleration||0.75 g (avg)|
|MT Figure Eight||29.1 sec @ 0.55 g (avg)|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||36/40 mpg (est)|
|CO2 emissions||0.51 lb/mile (est)|