• Oct 18, 2010
Hyundai Aims To Lead The Mid-size Hybrid Pack
2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid – Click above for high-res image gallery

At some point, the minds at Hyundai got serious about the company's mid-sized sedan game. Seemingly in a heartbeat, the Korean manufacturer went from being completely under the radar of the average American family sedan buyer to a viable alternative to default buys like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. That jump fell solely on the shoulders of the all-new 2011 Sonata, a sedan that has so far delivered the kind of styling, efficiency and low MSRP that sends consumers scrambling for their checkbook. But if you want to go the full distance in this segment, you had better come to the fight packing more than just a competent base model.

That's something you don't need to tell Hyundai. The company has shored up its Sonata line with a potent turbocharged 2.0-liter model designed to tango with V6-equipped competitors as well as the car you see above – a hybrid model that comes loaded with nearly all of the latest and greatest tech to keep fuel consumption at a minimum. Is it enough to put the Sonata Hybrid ahead of the electrified versions of the heavy hitters already prowling the scene? We took the wheel to find out.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL

The mid-size hybrid segment is a funny little corner of the automotive world. Most of the players at this table are little more than standard sedans that have had their mechanical innards gutted and replaced with mutant internal combustion/electric motor mashups. From their exteriors, there's generally been little to distinguish hybrid from V6 models other than wheel options and maybe a badge or two. But Hyundai has waded into somewhat uncharted waters by offering the hybrid version of the Sonata with bodywork that goes a long way toward separating the car from its siblings.

The keen-eyed out there are likely to pick up on a handful of small details that both add a bit of funky, slightly futuristic styling to the mix and help slim the vehicle's shape as it cuts through the air. Up front, Hyundai's designers and engineers worked together to come up with that slightly agape front fascia. There's more than a little catfish in that hexagonal opening, but it serves the purpose of setting the Sonata Hybrid apart from the rest of the family. (Note, too, that the 'bumper' bar has been subtly altered from the model that debuted at the New York Auto Show). Additionally, LED daytime running lights grace the front headlights and the low-set fog lights now boast a stylish upkick that wraps around the front fascia.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid side view2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid front view2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid rear view

The profile of the 2011 Sonata Hybrid reverts to more well-established tricks of the mid-size hybrid trade, including re-sculpted side skirts and small but effective badges on the front fenders. Hyundai has also graced its hybrid with two unique wheel selections, a smaller 16-inch roller that shouts, "I'll see you at Mac World," and an optional, more attractive 17-inch five-spoke design like the one on our tester.

Move around back, and if you're paying close attention, you'll notice that the rear fascia is slightly squared-off on both sides. Those sharp edges help the Sonata Hybrid achieve its dizzyingly low .25 coefficient of drag. The standard Sonata makes do with a still enviable .28 cD. To complete the futuristic picture, Hyundai has also thrown in reworked taillights that are designed to evoke the image of an atom when lit.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid headlight2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid wheel2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid badge2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid taillight

But as different as the exterior of the Sonata Hybrid is from its standard internal-combustion brethren, things have been left largely untouched inside. Buyers will still find the comfortable thrones, attractive dash and heaps of soft-touch goodies layered over almost every surface just like in the base Sonata. One difference between the base Sonata and the hybrid comes in the form of decreased trunk space. While the standard Sonata yields an EPA-rated cargo volume of 16.4 cubic feet, the compact battery pack soaks up a full 5.7 cubes all by itself. But the largest change comes at the instrument cluster, where a helpful full-color LCD screen delivers pertinent information on the vehicle's battery state of charge, fuel economy and an "Eco Score." Likewise, the left instrument bezel has forsaken the standard tachometer in favor of a helpful guide that lets drivers know when the vehicle can be driven in all-electric mode.

And when is that, exactly? Officially, Hyundai says that the Sonata Hybrid can cruise on all-electric go-go at speeds of up to 62 mph, though in our testing we saw electric-only driving at 65 mph under light acceleration downhill. and there was some indication from the company's engineers that the car may be capable of doing even better. How do they do it? Under the hood, Hyundai has converted its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine to the Atkinson Cycle and added a 40-horsepower electric motor. The duo is good for a combined 206 horsepower and 193 pound-feet of torque, but the real star of the show is the car's battery pack.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid interior2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid gauges2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid gauges2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid gauges

Instead of opting for the cheaper nickel-metal hydride cells used in cars like the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Toyota Camry Hybrid and Nissan Altima Hybrid, Hyundai has gone for costlier lithium-polymer cells. The company has crammed a total of 72 cells into the pack, each about the size of a cigar box lid and the weight of a roll of quarters. Throw in all of the necessary electronic wizardry to manage the LiPo goodies and a structure to support them, and you're looking at a battery pack that weighs a relatively svelte 96 pounds.

Hyundai decided to opt for the more expensive battery cells for several reasons, the largest of which is the fact that the lithium-polymer pack weighs considerably less than other materials available right now. In addition, the automaker's engineers note that the cells have no memory, generate less heat than comparable tech and take up less room. Unfortunately, the lithium-polymer tech is also expensive. Hyundai isn't saying how much the company is shelling out for the battery pack in the Sonata Hybrid, but other automakers are looking to use lithium-based cells in their new vehicles, so the automaker is just riding the edge of the technological curve here.

Hyundai says that the Sonata Hybrid is good for 36 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway, and the high-tech battery pack is only a portion of that story. The company's engineers have also rolled in a host of tricks to keep the fuel-economy numbers as high as possible, including what they call an "active air flap" behind that gaping hexagonal inlet in the front fascia. At low speeds, the flap is open to assist in cooling the gas engine, but once the vehicle speeds up, the flap closes to decrease the Sonata Hybrid's coefficient of drag by as much as 10 percent.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid engine

In addition, the sedan makes use of an engine clutch that can separate the gasoline engine from the electric motor, helping the hybrid to clip along on electric power even at highway speeds, all without using an ounce of fuel. Hyundai has also made the interesting step of shutting off the gasoline engine entirely when the vehicle decelerates, further conserving fuel and allowing the regenerative brakes to recharge the batteries.

And what does all of that translate into once on the road? During our time behind the wheel, we saw just over 36 mpg in intermittent stop and go driving, though if you're ginger with the accelerator, numbers closer to 40 in combined driving weren't unheard of among the gaggle of writers the company had out to sample the Sonata Hybrid. Just out of morbid curiosity, we spent the last 30 miles of our drive hypermiling the hybrid. When all was said and done, we walked away with a sweaty 60 mpg, further proving that by and large, fuel economy falls on the shoulders of the nut behind the wheel.

When you're not treating the throttle like a hair trigger, the Sonata Hybrid rewards with a surprisingly normal driving experience. The run to 60 mph takes around 9.2 seconds, and thanks to the clutch separating the engine from the electric motor, transitions between internal combustion power and electric go-go are some of the most seamless in the industry. Part of the sensation that you're driving a real vehicle and not some slot-car track escapee comes from the fact that Hyundai opted for the company's proprietary six-speed automatic gearbox instead of a continuously variable transmission. Engineers may have been able to eek out a bit of additional fuel savings had it gone with a CVT, but selecting a conventional cogbox has gone a long way toward making this hybrid a more satisfying craft to pilot.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, profile landscape

Impressively, despite the fact that this is Hyundai's first shot at a production hybrid, the electrified Sonata successfully avoids one of the biggest pitfalls of throwing an electric motor into an otherwise solid chassis. The regenerative brakes are progressive and feel just like what we expect stoppers to feel like. There's no danger of having your dental work ripped from your mouth thanks to an overly sensitive second pedal.

But that's not to say that Hyundai hasn't left room to grow in the Sonata Hybrid. Interestingly enough, the company chose to forsake forced-induction in favor of an updated version of its 2.4-liter mill. A little bit less displacement paired with a small turbo would probably help squeeze a few more mpgs out of this equation, but it undoubtedly would have swelled the per-unit cost on a model that's unlikely to make any money to begin with.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, rear 3/4 view

Even with that shortcut under its belt, the 2011 Sonata Hybrid is an impressive first showing from Hyundai in the hybrid game. As it sits, the car is eligible for a $1,300 federal tax credit, at least for the first month it's on sale. Hyundai says that buyers can snap up their own Sonata Hybrid starting this December, but unfortunately, the federal tax incentive program for hybrid vehicles is scheduled to dry up at the end of 2010, so interested parties would do well not to dawdle.

Hyundai hasn't yet said how much we can expect to pay for its new hybrid four-door, nor what kind of warranty the model will carry when it does hit dealer lots. Given the company's long history of providing copious content and an industry-beating warranty for reasonable money, we're guessing that neither will be a point of contention when the car goes on sale. Even with those questions left blank, the 2011 Sonata Hybrid has proven itself more than capable of running with the rest of the mid-size hybrids. Is it the best of the breed? We'll need some back-to-back time to know for sure.

Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      Glad without a CVT.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I think this car would look much better in black, grey, or dark blue. The red here just makes the car look too busy . Silver would be a good color too, making it look very futuristic & would help diminish the visual impactof the back lights which are done in white.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Would it be really so hard to give this a plug to charge the batteries? In my mind, why not give every hybrid the ability to charge the batteries from the grid? Just seems to be a low bar to reach.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I disagree. Most of the charging components are already in place. The car can already go 60 mph on electric only according to the article. "Hyundai says that the Sonata Hybrid can cruise on all-electric go-go at speeds of up to 62 mph, though in our testing we saw electric-only driving at 65 mph under light acceleration downhill"

        The motor generates DC power to charge the battery pack - The inputs to the battery pack don't care if the motor generates the DC power, or it comes from some other source, as long as the volts/amps/ etc are right. Include a seperate AC/DC convert (think a laptop charger, but bigger) and give the end user a way to plug that in.

        Even if you can't drive far or much on all electric, it can't hurt your mileage figures. Like I said, Low bar to get over.
        • 4 Years Ago
        It would drive up the cost significantly because of the extra charging and battery management electronics that are required, and 5x-10x more battery cost would add to the equation too. Also... the electric motor only has 40 horsepower so you'd need a larger one in order to drive off the battery alone.

        So yeah, it'd be hard! the car isn't designed for that kind of duty. However, Toyota is coming out with a plugin hybrid.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Hyundai please apply this technology to an all wheel drive or all wheel when needed crossover . Hyundai could dominate this market in the north country with a crossover that could deliver high mileage.
      • 4 Years Ago
      0-60 in 9.2? Seems kinda slow for a 200 horse sedan. My 160 horsepower Accord does ~ 8.5.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Look guys, I found a magazine racer.

        • 4 Years Ago
        The gearing requires the Sonata to shift into 3rd gear.
        and the weight is about 3500-3600 lbs.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I think it's tuned conservatively for efficiency, not drag racing. Plus it's heavier than your Accord, I think, but you didn't mention which year it is, so can't be sure.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Yeah, but does it get 36mpg in the city and 40mpg on the highway?

        A second off the 0-60 mark, but a WHOLE lotta gas mileage.

        The Sonata wins this round by a LONNGGGG shot.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I own a Hyundai Sonata hybrid, my impressions are: Appearance - the striking lines and sleek contours evoked completments from my friends and family. The car even turned the heads of parking attendants and co-workers in the parking lot. Ride - The ride is very smooth, yet controlled. The car absorbs road bumps, which are aplenty in Cleveland, yet maintains excellent control and feel in curves and during avoidance maneuvers. Braking is very sure and controlled - the regenerative braking system that recharges the battery does not compromise function. In an emergency braking situation the car braked without pulling to either side and I felt in full control of the car. I had read prior owner comments that earlier Sonatas tended to pull to the left. I have not experienced any tendency for the car to pull to one side during driving or braking. I have driven about 1,000 miles. So far the tires have good gripping and are quiet. Interior - The interior is very well appointed. The switches are where they should be and they are easily accessable. The car is designed to enable the driver to keep an eye on the road at all times. The standard Bluetooth enables the driver to keep vision on the road while receiving and making calls, The voice interface enables you to utilize the phonebook from your phone to conveniently make calls. The head, leg, hip and shoulder room are excellent. The access for entering and leaving the care are also excellent - this was particularly important for me because with knees that do not bend well, I need a car to have a large entry profile. The motorized driver seat is extremely comfortable and its controls are intuitive. FueL economy - I am getting 40-42 mpg in city driving and 45+ on the highway. The car will cruise using the electric motor up to about 60 mph, albeit for about a mile or so before engaging the gas engine to run the car and recharge the battery. The instrument display enables one to learn how to drive more economically. Comments about the dealer - At 60, I am not a kid and have dealt with many different dealerships and salespersonnel in my life. I found the professionalism of the staff of Rick Case Hyundai in Bedford, Ohio to be excellent. The salesperson that I dealt with, Chuck Ardary, went out of his way to accomodate special needs that I had. He gave excellent advice in the selection of an appropriate vehicle. He did research to find appropriate shops to provide add-ons that I needed. I greatly appreciate that Mr. Ardary coordinated the process of providing me with a car that met my needs. Hyundai Sonatas and Elantras are selling as fast as the dealers get them, often folks order vehicles in advance due to their high demand. In spite of what is a "sellers" market, Chuck provided a good deal. I am very happy with the Hyundai Sonata hybrid, it has all the features that I wanted and due to Mr. Ardary's integrity, I did not have to get a vehicle with features I didn't want.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Hyundai has redefined ugly.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Not knowing the price, I can't really make a firm conclusion, but this looks good. That's a lot of tech that's on the cutting edge (adaptive cooling aperture, Li-poly batteries, etc...). And the front-end is much better than on the regular Sonata. This looks like it should be the sport model, not the hybrid, and this is probably the first time that a hybrid looked more aggressive than the gas version of a car. Not a bad thing.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Exactly. Price is what I want to know.

        From the article, it sounds like the Lithium polymer batteries are a lot more expensive.

        Both the Camry and the Altima start in the 26k range, and the Fusion starts at 28k, and all these cars have the cheaper nickel batteries.

        On another note, both the Camry and Fusion have passed their mid-cycle refreshes, so new hybrids coming out in a few years.
      • 4 Years Ago
      kudos to the photographer. the colors just jump out at you. the red looks downright luscious.

      also those are pretty impressive numbers for a big car.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Ditto, red isnt an easy color to shoot either
      • 4 Years Ago
      I kinda like the Mazda's "smile" over this things mouth.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Both the Mazda and the Sonata Hybrid look like BOEING designed their front ends after working on the X-32 JSF.

        On a side note, I think the X-32 was the better choice. The F-35's cost like everything else Lockheed does...is runaway and the VTOL version of the F35 doesn't work with a weapons load.
        • 4 Years Ago
        This is an awesome new edition. Hyundai made a great business decision to go wild on front grill. it looks different, and it screams 'hybrid' especially with the redesigned tail light. i think this will outsell both insight and fusion easily. Prius has nothing to worry about, but rest of the hybrid world are in a big trouble.

        • 4 Years Ago
        i included insight because it's 2nd to 3rd best selling hybrid in america. Sonata can easily become #2. this is a total package especially if the msrp is 2 grand lower than fusion.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @MB: How on earth you brought the Insight into the equation is beyond me. I think you meant Fusion, Altima and Camry: the only hybrid mid-size sedans on the market.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @flashpoint, I think, almost every defense contractors underestimate their cost including Boeing. And X-32 had more problems with VTOL (or STOVL). X-35 was the best choice.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Hmm.. impressive! i am surprised that the whole automatic transmission thing works out well. I bet it will be more fun to drive than the recent prius i test drove. 9.2 second 0-60 isn't too bad. The Ford Fusion hybrid is quicker though and possibly better. I think Hyundai can win on price though if they try.

      I have one beef with this article:
      "lithium-polymer tech is also expensive"

      In my experience, Lithium polymer batteries have been the cheapest batteries i can buy as an electric drive hobbyist. They are not particularly new or cutting edge anymore. In fact, they could actually be cheaper because with NiMH, you need a lot of excess capacity that gets wasted as the battery likes to stay in the middle range. You can potentially use a fraction of the capacity in lithium polymer to do the same job.

      It sounds like the way to go for hybrid batteries.
      • 4 Years Ago
      A face not even a mother would love.
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