Hyundai, the surging South Korean vehicle manufacturer, now has bookends for its increasingly popular new Sonata sedan.
One is a hot turbo version that nonetheless delivers good fuel economy. The other is an innovative new gasoline-electric hybrid that combines the attributes of both full and mild hybrids, as exemplified by the sales-leading Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight.
Both systems use gasoline engines and electric motors with shiftless continuously-variable automatic transmissions.
In Honda’s system, the gasoline engine predominates. It gets a boost, when needed, from its electric motor. It cannot be driven on electricity alone but, like conventional cars, gets better fuel economy on the highway than in the city.
In Toyota’s system, similar to that of the Ford Fusion’s, the electric motor is boosted by the gasoline engine. It can be driven solely with electric power and has better city than highway mileage.
Hyundai took a similar but different approach. Armed with a statistic showing that 58% of U.S. driving is on the highway, the company reasoned that buyers would be more receptive to higher highway economy but still wanted a full electric driving mode, according to John Krafcik, Hyundai’s U.S. president and CEO.
So the company’s engineers developed a system that resembles that of Honda’s, but with the important difference of all-electric driving.
It incorporates an automatic clutch that allows the system to toggle among electric, gasoline or combined operation. The Sonata Hybrid can be driven up to 70 miles an hour (66 for this review) on the electric motor alone.
Of course, that takes a fully-charged battery and feather-footing of the throttle, and it lasts only briefly. As soon as there’s an upgrade or a need to speed up, the gasoline engine kicks in.
The engineers also added a six-speed automatic transmission, which works with both motors. Because electric motors characteristically deliver full torque from zero revolutions, they don’t actually need transmissions, so it’s a bit disconcerting to feel the almost imperceptible automatic shifts. But it all works and delivers 36/40 miles to the gallon on the EPA’s city/highway cycle.
That’s for a car that is on the cusp between mid-size and full size, according to its interior volume. It is designed to compete primarily against hybrids like the Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima.
The centerpiece of the Hyundai hybrid system is its compact lithium polymer battery, which not only powers the electric motor but also every other electrical component, including the power steering. It takes up about five cubic feet of trunk space.
Combined, the 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and the 270-volt electric motor yield 209 horsepower. It makes for adequate acceleration and highway performance.
On the road, the Sonata Hybrid is a composed, quiet family sedan that doesn’t betray its gasoline-electric innards. An “EV” light illuminates when you’re in electric-only mode and goes out when the gasoline engine kicks in. But the transitions are nearly imperceptible. At stop signs, everything shuts down and the car moves off under electric power.
The steering has an initially heavy feel but handling is light and easy. Most motorists would be hard-pressed to distinguish the hybrid from the standard four-cylinder Sonata.
At the other end of the Sonata spectrum is the 2.0T, which features a stiffer suspension, tighter steering, bigger brakes and a 2-liter four-cylinder turbo engine that delivers 274 horsepower to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode and steering-wheel mounted shift paddles.
This one is a genuine sports sedan with a zero to 60 miles an hour acceleration time of slightly more than six seconds. It is part of Hyundai’s strategy to offer only four-cylinder power plants in the Sonata, yet is aimed squarely at the V6 models of the Camry, Accord, Fusion, Altima and Chevrolet Malibu.
The so-called twin-scroll turbocharger combines with direct fuel injection to deliver an EPA city/highway fuel economy rating of 22/34 miles to the gallon.
There’s only slight turbo lag when you mash the pedal for all-out acceleration. It is no neck-snapper; the power comes on in a surge.
Handling is taut and precise with a heavy, substantial steering feel. The 2.0T takes a balanced set in corners and belies its front-drive layout with a feel that is almost neutral. The brake pedal is firm and the 2.0T stops with authority.
On the road, it’s mostly a quiet runner with some slight engine noise, although choppy roads send sound shock waves into the passenger pod. There’s also some slight wind noise at high speeds. The ride is sports-sedan stiff but not jarring.
Up front, the seats are enveloping, with good lateral support from the coved seatbacks. The outboard positions in back offer decent head and knee room, even on models with sunroofs. The center position, with a nearly flat floor, is not as welcoming but adequate in a pinch.
Hybrid prices were not initially available. But the turbo starts at $24,865 for the SE model. The test car was the better-equipped Limited, which started at $27,765 and, with options that included navigation, checked in at $30,865.
- Model: 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Limited four-door sedan.
- Engine: 2-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged, 274 horsepower.
- Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode.
- Overall length: 15 feet 10 inches.
- EPA passenger/trunk volume: 104/16 cubic feet.
- Weight: 3,452 pounds.
- EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 22/34 miles to the gallon.
- Base price, including destination charge: $27,765.
- Base dealer cost: $26,004.
- Price as tested: $30,865.