Driven: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

By Brandon Turkus

September 29, 2011

—Ypsilanti, Michigan
It’s fair to say that we like the Hyundai Sonata. The base car came in second place in our four-car family sedan shootout, finishing just behind the quite good Suzuki Kizashi. We’ve also praised the turbocharged Sonata, for delivering more power and better fuel economy than many of the V-6 options on the market while costing a tidy bit less. Now comes the Korean automaker’s first hybrid, and to say that our hopes for it are high is a bit of an understatement.
The first, and most obvious thing to note about the Sonata Hybrid is just how different it looks from the naturally aspirated and turbocharged cars. A drastically revised front fascia, headlights, and hood are all Hybrid-specific items. These changes were made in the name of aerodynamics, and are a large part of the reason that the Sonata can slip through the air with less resistance than a Nissan GT-R (drag coefficient of the Sonata is .25 while the GT-R is .27).
Inside, it’s pretty much the same Sonata interior we’ve been living with since the standard model launched. The one noticeable change was the addition of a Blue mode (Eco mode) button to the steering wheel. This has the (typical) effect of limiting throttle response and shift points to optimize fuel economy. Unlike in other cars equipped with an Eco mode, the Sonata didn’t feel too limited. Throttle response was still appropriately snappy, with the only noticeable difference being a little less assistance from the electric motor.
Like the rest of the range, the interior looks and feels good, with high-class materials adorning the center stack. We have to applaud Hyundai for resisting the urge to fit a bunch of Hybrid-specific interior trim pieces or materials, to remind the driver that they are driving a “green” car. One thing we are sad to see hasn’t changed is the seats. While not uncomfortable, the seats lack the sort of lateral and lower support that we prefer in what is supposed to be a relaxed family car. Adding a greater range of height adjustments would also improve things, as we found the seating position a bit limited.
Power for the Sonata Hybrid comes from the same 2.4-liter Theta four-cylinder engine found in the standard Sonata. The Hybrid though, benefits from a 40-horsepower electric motor. The whole system is good for 206 horsepower and 193 pound-feet of torque, which puts it roughly on par with the new-for-2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid (200 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque). The thing is, the Sonata never really feels as quick as the Camry. Initial torque, a traditionally strong point for hybrids, lacked the sort of punch that we are used to. Part of the blame rests squarely on the six-speed automatic in the Hyundai. Whereas the Camry (and Fusion Hybrid, and Altima Hybrid, and Prius) use a CVT to make the most of the limited power, the Sonata opts for a version of the six-speed auto found in the standard ICE car.
We’ve tested traditional automatics in hybrids before, but both of those applications (the Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid and Infiniti M35h) had considerably more power and torque at their disposal. Though we traditionally don’t like CVTs, they seem to make a lot more sense in lower-powered hybrids, because their infinite ratios make better use of the available force. In the case of the Hyundai, the six-speed auto spent too much time shifting, trying to keep the engine in the meatiest part of the small power curve.
The upside to the use of an automatic is that the Sonata can cruise, in EV mode, at higher speeds than a standard hybrid. Hyundai’s literature states that EV mode can only be used at up to 62 miles per hour, although we felt the gas engine kick out well north of 70. This ability (which we noted when we drove the Touareg Hybrid) allows for much better freeway fuel economy, at the cost of some city mileage. This means the Sonata Hybrid is good for 40 miles per gallon on the highway, and 36 in the city.
The Sonata Hybrid performed better in the ride and handling department than it did when it came to the powertrain. Like the base and Turbo, the Hybrid’s ride was relaxed and comfortable. There was a bit more vertical movement, but for the most part road imperfections were easily dealt with. Grip was a problem during more aggressive handling though, thanks to the Sonata’s low-rolling resistance tires.
This Sonata may lack the power and involvement of its siblings, but still makes a sound case for itself as an attractive, high-mpg device.
VS: Ford Fusion Hybrid
For a start, the Sonata is all over the Ford in the looks department. The Hyundai’s modern, fluid styling is fresher, newer, and a bit more polarizing than the somewhat staid Fusion styling.
The Hyundai also features a more exciting interior. Material quality between the two is about even, although we prefer the seats and seating position in the Fusion.
The Sonata also feels faster, thanks to the Ford’s 3700-pound curb weight, which is nearly 300 pounds more than the Hyundai. In terms of fuel economy, the two cars flip flop, with the Ford boasting a 41-mile-per-gallon city rating compared to the Sonata’s 36-mpg rating. On the freeway though, the advantage goes back to the Korean, which nets a 40-mpg rating while the Fusion sits at 36 mpg. Overall, the Ford is the winner, boasting a 39-mpg combined rating to the Hyundai’s 38.
VS: Toyota Camry Hybrid
While the old Camry would have been thoroughly trounced by the Sonata, the one hitting dealerships in the next few weeks puts up a much bigger fight. Both cars are about evenly matched in terms of weight and power, (3483 pounds, 206 horsepower, and 193 pound-feet of torque for the Sonata and 3417 pounds, 200 horsepower, and 199 pound-feet of torque for the Camry), but the Toyota bursts ahead in fuel economy. The base LE nets 43 city mpg and 39 highway, for a combined average of 41. That handily beats the Hyundai’s 36-city and 40-highway ratings.

In terms of price, the base cars are nearly identical (the Camry is about $100 more expensive). It isn’t until you add the options that separation starts to occur. The Sonata comes with one package, which included all the goodies the modern family sedan buyer wants (sunroof, navigation, leather, backup camera, seventeen-inch wheels) for $5000. A fully loaded Hyundai retails for $31,545. Step up to the top-line Camry Hybrid XLE, and you’ll be cutting a check for $27,400, which seems like a deal. Until you start adding options. The Camry has six separate packages, which are all required to equal the equipment on the Hyundai. We don’t have prices on these packages quite yet, but it’ll be a fair bet that a Camry Hybrid XLE will cost more than $31,545.
2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
Engine: Inline-4, 2.4 liters, 16v with electric motor
Output: 206 hp/193 lb-ft
Weight: 3483 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 36/40 mpg
Base Price: $25,795
As Tested: $26,650
On Sale: Now