We all know the Hyundai story by now. It’s the company that used to build small inexpensive budget cars of dubious quality. Now they’re a force to be reckoned with. Using bold design, an unbeatable warrantee and attractive pricing, they’ve snagged the attention of buyers and market share from the rest of the industry. A little company called Toyota did something like this 40 years ago.
If the competition expects them to take a breather, they’re going to be disappointed. The 2011 Elantra has proven to be a rude surprise to Civic and Corolla. Now Hyundai is moving into high-tech hybrids. The well-received Sonata gets their first gas/electric powertrain which is called Blue Drive (a reference to blue skies and clean air). Emission wise, it’s very green. The EPA carbon footprint score is 5.1. That number straddles the Prius at 3.8, a standard 4-cylinder Honda Accord at 6.9 and the standard Sonata at 7.1.
Sonata is not the only mid-sized sedan available as a hybrid. It’s cousin, the Kia Optima has that option as well. Toyota has the Camry and Ford has the Fusion and Lincoln MKZ. Sonata brings a number of technical differences to the market.
More than just an electric motor and battery
First off, Sonata hybrid looks a bit different than the gas-only model when coming and going. More than just Blue Drive badges on the fenders, there are bold new front and rear fascias that are very aerodynamic. So are the model-specific wheels. Taillights appear to have tiny nuclear powerplants in them, headlamps look awfully cool with a curving ribbon of LED.
Louvers in the grill shut at higher speeds to improve aerodynamics. That slipperiness partially offsets the weight gain of the hybrid system (about 280 pounds). Sonata hybrid is the lightest vehicle in the segment, at just 3,483 pounds, 230 pounds lighter than the Fusion Hybrid.
It takes Blue to tango
Blue Drive pairs Hyundai’s 2.4-liter Theta II four-cylinder engine that makes 166 HP (154 lb-ft of torque @ 4500 rpm) and a 40 HP electric motor (151 lb-ft @ 0-1,400 ) for a total of 206 horsepower and 193.4 lb-ft of torque. The four-cylinder runs on the Atkinson cycle. Unique in this class is a six-speed gearbox. It even gets a manual shift mode on the console. Most hybrids use continuously variable transmissions.
Unlike Ford and Toyota’s hybrids, Blue Drive is modular. The electric motor is separate from the transmission. In theory, it means they have the option of installing a larger motor and battery pack to make a plug in hybrid. It’s also less costly to repair should any one of the components need replacement.
The battery is also different; it’s the industry’s first use of lithium polymer cells. Lithium polymer is lighter and smaller than the nickel metal hydride cells common in hybrids. LP cells are flat and can be packaged more efficiently than cylindrical NiMh cells. Sonata Hybrid’s pack weighs 96 pounds. Toyota Camry Hybrid’s nickel metal hydride unit is 124. Let’s review- LP pack is 20-30 percent lighter, 40 percent smaller in volume and 10 percent more efficient. LG Chem, the manufacturer, claims these batteries are more durable and hold a charge longer.
Enough tech. How’s it drive?
Like any hybrid, Sonata Blue Drive generally pulls away on electric power alone, though it stays in that mode longer than most other hybrids before the gas engine smoothly feathers in. With 8.5 second 0-60 runs, it’s quicker than a Prius and can cruise on electric power alone at up to 62 miles an hour. It shuts down at stoplights to conserve fuel.
While Toyota and Ford systems are more efficient in city driving, Hyundai has tuned Blue Drive for maximum highway MPG. The EPA rates it at 35 city, 40 highway, good for a roomy family sedan. This is about the same as Fusion hybrid (41 city, 36 highway) and substantially better than Camry hybrid (31 city, 35 highway). I’m seeing 29 MPG on mostly city driving, not surprising given my heavy right foot.
Mind the Eco gauge that replaces the tachometer to eek out better fuel economy. A hybrid energy flow graphic in the gauge cluster shows what’s happening with engine power and battery regeneration.
On the road
Like standard Sonata models, driving dynamics are set for comfort with a suspension that soaks up large bumps but makes hard cornering less enjoyable for enthusiasts. Road noise is average, even at high speeds there’s no wind noise. It’s easy to tell Sonata hybrid uses a regenerative braking system that charges the battery because like many hybrids the pedal feel is a bit uneven.
I like the idea of a six-speed transmission since I’m not too keen on continuously variable units. In this case though the transmission isn’t as smooth or satisfying as the dynamic found in Toyota and Ford’s CVTs. In cut-and-thrust urban driving it takes a precious beat or two for Sonata to find the right ratio. In some cases it feels like the tranny is reluctant to shift down, probably following its fuel stingy mission. Most hybrid owners don’t drive this way and while it’s less obvious during milder maneuvers, it can still be felt.
The inside story
The roomy interior is classic Sonata with materials looking good in class. The instrument panel sweeps nicely and the materials generally feel good. Seat cushions are especially soft and covered with an attractive wave patterned cloth. The base model I’m driving is well equipped with decent sound system, iPod and phone integration plus keyless ignition.
Details are done well down to the chimes. On start up you’ll hear the NBC chime preceded by an extra note. You do know what those notes stand for, don’t you? G, E, C ? General Electric Company, the original owner. Can’t do anything with the letters in Comcast. Shutting Sonata hybrid down reminds me of an Earth, Wind and Fire ballad, but I digress….
The color display between the gauges looks better than some found in luxury cars. Lighting is a pleasant deep indigo, the vent control looks like Volvo’s but operation isn’t the same.
I’d like to see a leather wrapped wheel. To get it, simply order the option package. There’s only one folks. It’s $5,000. For those wanting automatic climate control, leather seats, navigation, or panoramic sunroof, this big box must be checked.
Passengers will be happy
Like the standard Sonata, the hybrid’s back seat is roomy enough for three adults. Very tall people may have an issue with head room because of the stylish roofline. The hybrid’s seat backs don’t split and fold because of the battery pack in the trunk. There’s a ski pass though, that’s it. Plenty of leg and foot room, map pockets on both seats, and storage in the door panels. A power port to charge the kids iPods and Game Boys would be nice.
This is where my unusual test TP trunk test comes in handy. Both Sonata hybrid’s batteries, the lithium polymer pack and the standard 12v unit are positioned in the trunk. The high-tech battery may be compact but it still takes up space. A standard Sonata easily holds 7 bundles of Kirkland band bath tissue. The hybrid? A tight 6.
Sonata hybrid starts at $26,545 with destination. It undercuts Fusion hybrid by around 3 grand. For comparison, a non-hybrid Sonata SE retails for $23,855 SE model so it would take quite awhile to make up the price premium of Blue Drive. Inevitably, buyers have to crunch all the numbers and figure how important a cleaner car is to them. For some it’s all about being responsible to Mother Earth and making a statement. If you want an environmentally clean sedan for a clean conscience, Blue Drive is a greener Sonata.