Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
As Hyundai continues to churn out new products at a dizzying pace, it was only a matter of time before it jumped on the hybrid bandwagon. Sure enough, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is finally here and it's not only a competitive hybrid midsize sedan in terms of performance and features, it's also a value leader too.
Indeed, with a base price of $26,545 that rises to nearly $31,000 with a full plate of options, the 2011 Sonata Hybrid would likely prevail in a features/cost matrix of hybrid family sedans. It stacks up well in the fuel-economy race, too, as the hybrid Sonata's 40 mpg highway rating tops the class (excluding the smaller Prius), even if it is edged out in city mpg by Ford's Fusion Hybrid (41 mpg).
No doubt it's time to do another hybrid-midsize-sedan comparison test, but for the moment, we think there's a far more obvious rival to the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid: the non-hybrid 2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS, which starts at $21,145 with an automatic transmission and tops out under $24K when optioned with the factory navigation system. It just so happens that we've had a Sonata GLS for a year, so we've got piles of data and driving impressions.
Familiar Driving Experience
Both the standard Sonata and the Sonata Hybrid are quiet, smooth-riding cars with low-effort electric-assist steering that offers about as much feel as your Playstation wheel. You wouldn't call either Sonata a sport sedan, or even sporty, but both sedans hold their own around a corner and their brake pedals are moderately firm.
This sense of familiarity is exactly what Hyundai was after, and it's why the company didn't go out and buy a competitor's hybrid technology and stuff it into the Sonata. Instead, Hyundai optimized its existing Theta 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine for hybrid duty (converting it to the Atkinson cycle). The automaker then partnered with LG Chem to develop the automotive industry's first lithium-polymer (Li-po) battery pack (which is lighter and more compact than a lithium-ion pack), and tied all that together with a novel sandwich of computer-controlled clutches and electric motors to create a new kind of parallel hybrid driveline. See our first drive if you want all the details.
Unlike most other hybrids, which blend their gasoline and electric power sources through complex (and energy-consuming) planetary gear sets or continuously variable automatic transmissions (CVTs), the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid uses a conventional six-speed automatic with distinct gears just like the non-hybrid Sonata GLS. The hybrid, however, has a computer-controlled clutch between its 166-horsepower gasoline engine and its 40-hp front-drive electric motor that allows either or both power sources to be routed to the automatic transmission.
Easy There With the Clutch
Making that clutch operate smoothly and seamlessly is evidently the tricky part of Hyundai's hybrid system.
Occasionally, we felt our test car surge and shudder under part-throttle conditions. And a couple of times when we went hard on the throttle, backed out, and went back to the throttle (during a foiled-then-recovered attempt to pass a slower car on a busy highway), the system was noticeably flummoxed, but only slightly more so than any car with a computer-controlled, adaptive automatic transmission.
Most of the time, though, the Sonata Hybrid's transmission shifts just like the Sonata GLS does — even when the car's gas engine shuts off and the electric motor alone is moving the car down the road (a second, smaller, belt-driven electric motor restarts the 2.4-liter engine when needed). Because there's no tachometer showing engine rpm, you only know which power source is being tapped by consulting a couple of hybrid-power-distribution and EV-mode displays within the instrument panel. The EV-mode indicator illuminates far more often than we've witnessed in other hybrids, and it was not unusual for the engine to shut off at 75 mph on the highway. That's cool.
Fuel Economy Falls Short of EPA Ratings
The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is supposed to return better fuel economy on the highway (40 mpg) than in the city (35 mpg). Although we observed our best mileage on the highway (34 mpg over 200 miles), we couldn't hit 40 mpg in the hybrid Hyundai. Ironically, we have come much closer to the EPA estimate with our long-term Sonata GLS. Our best-observed fuel economy to date is...wait for it...also 34 mpg, or 1 mpg short of the EPA's 35-mpg highway rating.
We were well below the EPA's city fuel-economy estimate, too, with our worst fill-up returning just 23 mpg. Granted, we rarely hit the EPA's city mpg mark with test cars, but the Sonata Hybrid wasn't even close.
Our Sonata Hybrid's average over 1,161 miles of testing was 31 mpg, or 16 percent below the EPA's 37 mpg combined estimate. Meanwhile, our running average after 19,000 miles in our long-term Sonata GLS is 26 mpg, exactly matching the EPA's combined number.
Same Difference at the Test Track
The Sonata Hybrid is only slow if you consider the 198-hp Sonata GLS slow. While the Sonata Hybrid's blended gas/electric output is 206 hp, the car also weighs about 200 pounds more.
At the drag strip, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid reached 60 mph in 8.7 seconds (8.2 seconds with a 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) compared to our 2011 Sonata GLS's 8.2-second performance (7.9 with rollout). The difference was equally close at the end of the quarter-mile with the hybrid Sonata running a 16.3-second, 87.7-mph best compared to a 16.1-second, 88.3-mph best in the Sonata GLS.
In at-the-limit handling tests, the differences were again quite small. Our Sonata Hybrid tester was equipped with a $5,000 Premium Equipment package that includes 17-inch wheels with P215/55R17 low rolling-resistance tires pumped up to 34 psi. Threading the cones at 62.2 mph with stability control disabled proved entertaining because the Sonata Hybrid is more prone to oversteer than the Sonata GLS, which is 2 mph faster through the slalom (on narrower P205/65R16 tires with taller sidewalls). Skid pad performance was a wash, as the hybrid gently understeered its way around at 0.77g versus our long-term Sonata's 0.76g.
The hybrid Sonata's wider rubber provided no real advantage in braking, either, as it stopped from 60 mph in 126 feet compared to the Sonata GLS's 128 feet.
Hybrid Is Quieter
We pretty much expected this to be the case. The decibel levels at idle aren't even comparable, of course, since the Hybrid's engine shuts down. It's a hushed 37.7 dB compared to 41.5 dB in the gasoline-powered Sonata GLS. At wide-open throttle, the Hybrid was still quieter at 77.5 dB compared to 79.2 dB.
The difference is even larger at a 70-mph cruise with the Sonata Hybrid registering 63 dB to the regular Sonata's 69.5 dB. For perspective, the Sonata Hybrid is quieter at 70 mph than our 2011 Nissan Leaf (63.7 dB) but not quite as serene as our 2011 Hyundai Equus (60.5).
The Sonata Hybrid's advantage over the regular Sonata is due at least in part to its ability to cheat the wind better with its ultra-low 0.25 coefficient of drag (versus 0.28cd). However, amidst the serenity of the hybrid's cabin, we couldn't help but notice the creaking from its optional panoramic sunroof. We also couldn't help but feel annoyed when the optional Infinity audio system wouldn't play nice with our iPhone 4.
Does It Make Sense?
There are plenty of people out there who simply like to project the idea that they are doing their part to reduce emissions and our reliance on foreign-sourced gasoline. But if you're looking to save money, well, you're in for at least a five-year wait.
In the case of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, the math paints a similarly disappointing picture compared to a normal 2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS driven 15,000 miles a year on $4-per-gallon fuel. Using Edmunds' Gas Mileage Savings Calculator, we determined that a Sonata Hybrid would provide a $65/month savings at the pump. So, it would take six years to break even.
Remember, however, that our 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid test car's 31-mpg observed average was well below the EPA's 37 mpg combined rating, while our long-term Sonata GLS has hit its EPA rating (26 mpg) on the button. Plug those values into the calculator, and the breakeven point swells to 10 years.
It's often said that hybrid buyers don't care about economic realities, but we've never met a Hyundai buyer who didn't care. By that cold, hard logic, the biggest competitor to the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid doesn't come from outside the company, but from within — and this isn't the first time we've stumbled on such an inconvenient truth.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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