A New Hybrid Family Sedan on the Never-Ending Quest for Harmony
James Riswick, New and Used Car Editor
Take a look at the South Korean flag. Go ahead, Google away, we'll be here when you get back. As you saw, it features a variation of the famous yin and yang symbolizing (in its most basic definition) two contrary opposites that nevertheless harmonize within a greater whole. This harmonization of opposites is readily visible in South Korea, where we got our first sneak peek at the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.
For such a rapidly growing industrial nation, South Korea has managed to maintain its endless landscape of green mountains and farmland. Even within densely populated Seoul, the surrounding hillsides have largely been left unmolested by the sorts of "city lights view" homes that blight the vistas of Los Angeles and other cities. It is a similar harmonization that Hyundai has achieved with its recent engines designed to simultaneously improve fuel economy while also increasing power.
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is the biggest step yet in these endeavors. Not content to simply follow the example of Toyota's pioneering hybrid system or the various components that comprise it, Hyundai set out to not only raise the bar, but do so using its own new technologies and methods. The result is an advanced powertrain that is more powerful than every non-luxury hybrid, while achieving better fuel economy than all but the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Insight and Toyota Prius.
Yet this wasn't accomplished simply through the car's advanced lithium-polymer battery pack and gasoline-electric powertrain. The Sonata Hybrid features unique styling that not only differentiates it from the regular Hyundai Sonata, but also improves the car's aerodynamics to the point of equaling the drag coefficient of the ultra-slippery Prius. The Peugeot-like final design isn't the most harmonious to the eyeballs, but those who like their hybrids to be distinct in appearance may find it agreeable.
While we only got a brief taste of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid during a drive at Hyundai's Namyang proving grounds, our initial impressions are that it manages to drive more like a normal car than most other hybrids thanks to its conventional six-speed automatic. While Hyundai has promised a dedicated hybrid model in the future, the Sonata Hybrid nevertheless achieves the sort of balance and harmony that its homeland advertises so prominently on its flagpoles. In this case, it's between power and fuel economy; style and aerodynamics; and family sedan normality and hybrid uniqueness.
The Sonata Hybrid's powertrain features a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine in concert with a 34-kilowatt electric motor. This combo produces 209 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. By comparison, the Fusion Hybrid makes 191 hp while the Toyota Camry Hybrid manages only 187. Given that it's more than 100 pounds lighter than those sedans, the Sonata should prove to be reasonably quick for a hybrid.
Fuel economy is obviously more important than quickness for a hybrid, however, and the Sonata certainly delivers to the tune of an estimated 37 city/40 highway mpg and 38 mpg combined. While the Fusion tops that combined number by 1 mpg, the Sonata trumps the Camry by 4 mpg. It is considerably better than both on the highway, but the Prius remains the king of them all.
How did Hyundai achieve these numbers? The company's first hybrid in North America utilizes lithium-polymer batteries which weigh less, take up less space in the trunk, produce less heat, hold their charge longer and show greater longevity than conventional nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. They are also more space-efficient and longer-lasting than lithium-ion batteries. The downside is cost, as Hyundai says its pack costs 15-20 percent more than NiMH batteries. Your wallet shouldn't feel the pinch, as the Sonata Hybrid is still cheaper than its competitors.
Batteries aren't the only innovation. Hyundai utilizes a so-called "modular" hybrid layout, which sandwiches a combination electric motor and multidisc clutch pack between the transmission and engine, where the torque converter would normally be located. Not only is this less complex, but it allows Hyundai to plug this system into any number of other vehicles with a six-speed automatic transmission.
That transmission is another point of interest, as its traditional six-gear design is counter to the continuously variable (CVT) or electronic variable-ratio transmissions found on other cars. CVT designs are more complex and thus more expensive than a traditional automatic transmission, but drivers will discover a benefit as well. If you've driven a Toyota Prius or another car with a CVT, you've probably noticed the droning noise during energetic acceleration. The 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, on the other hand, behaves and feels like a normal car with its stepped progression of gearchanges.
Otherwise, the Sonata Hybrid is like many other gasoline-electric cars. The battery is recharged through recapturing otherwise lost energy from the brakes and alternator, the engine automatically shuts off at a stop to save fuel and the car is capable of accelerating purely on electric power. In a perfect condition of full battery and a light touch on the throttle, the Sonata can accelerate using its electric motor up to a speed of 62 mph. Finding such a perfect situation is likely to be a rarity, however, and evaluation of the Sonata Hybrid's handling will have to wait for a more comprehensive drive.
The Sonata Hybrid features the same comfortable and reasonably spacious cabin as the test car featured in our 2011 Hyundai Sonata Test Drive , which means the bucket seats offer enough support, the driver seat and the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel offer a large range of adjustment, and rear seat room is surprisingly generous. A further drive of the hybrid on American public roads will determine what, if any differences there are in terms of ride quality.
Though the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid features the same controls and general functionality as the regular Sonata, it boasts different gauges. Taking a cue from the Ford Fusion Hybrid, the Sonata keeps track of its driver's green driving habits via a so-called "eco score" represented by a growing shrub.
Exceedingly green driving leads to little white flowers growing upon the shrub until the max eco score is achieved and the flowers fly away. Another eco score display has a picture of Earth growing brighter until the max eco score is achieved and our good planet begins to spin as it becomes encircled with an olive branch. Yes, this all sounds like something from a video game for 5-year-olds, and yes, it's probably distracting.
Design/Fit and Finish
In addition to its more aerodynamic front and rear design, the Sonata Hybrid utilizes "active aerodynamics." This includes a flap in the front airdam, which closes at higher speeds to prevent drag. The materials used in the different fascias also weigh less than their counterparts on the regular Sonata.
Who should consider this vehicle
Given its compelling balance between fuel economy and power, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid should quickly become one of the most appealing hybrid choices. Family sedan shoppers looking for a roomy, well-equipped hybrid with some distinctive styling should put the Sonata Hybrid on their short list.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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