The Hyundai Sonata was first released in the United States in 1989. This is the fifth generation Sonata and by far the most exciting and best-looking to-date. Though initially plagued with reliability issues, Hyundai has transformed itself. This transformation was due in large part to their 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Since its North American debut, Hyundai has had difficulty finding its identity. With its newest lineup, it seems to have found it: well built, good looking, fuel efficient vehicles at a competitive price. Though this is essentially the goal of every other automaker, Hyundai has done it best and was moved to the top of the US Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rankings in 2009.
Improving on its newfound legacy further, Hyundai has developed a hybrid version of their Sonata, which already has best-in-class fuel economy (35 mpg on the highway). Powering the Sonata Hybrid is Hyundai's own "Hybrid Blue Drive." Hyundai boasts the Sonata Hybrid features several technical firsts, providing performance and efficiency not seen in other comparable hybrids on the market.
Hyundai has re-shaped the front and rear facias with deeper air dams, extended rocker panels, and wheels that decrease drag. But these cosmetic tweaks are more than just striking; they allow air to flow around the vehicle with less resistance. In short, it's incredibly aerodynamic. Its drag coefficient is exceptionally low at 0.25. To put that number in perspective, compare it to a few other extremely aerodynamic cars. The Porsche 911 GT2 RS has a drag coefficient of 0.34 and the 2011 Nissan GTR a 0.27. Right away, you can see what a remarkable job Hyundai has done with their design: a four-door sedan with a lower drag coefficient than purpose built supercars.
The interior of the Sonata Hybrid is representative of the rest of the Hyundai line: modern, sleek, and spacious. The interior feels more Scandinavian than previous Hyundai interiors. On par with Volvo and Saab, it's sturdy, striking but spare.
New for the 2012 Sonata Hybrid is the leather package, which falls between the base and the premium model in the lineup. The leather package includes heated leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. The premium model adds navigation, larger wheels, and a panoramic sunroof.
Even with the panoramic sunroof, the tallest driver will still find ample headroom. The interior of the Sonata Hybrid is surprisingly roomy.
Engine and Fuel Economy
The interior and exterior of the Sonata Hybrid set it apart from its competitors, it's the Hybrid Blue Drive that makes it extraordinary. Rather than simply replicating the hybrid system of one of its competitors, instead, Hyundai chose to design their own.
Hyundai has packed the Sonata Hybrid with an industry-first: Lithium Polymer Batteries. This stands in stark contrast to the standard Lithium Ion batteries implemented by other hybrids currently on the market. Developed in conjunction with LG Chem, the Lithium Polymer batteries have a lifespan of over 10 years. Unlike Lithium Ion batteries, the Lithium Polymer battery pack will not have to be replaced during the life of the vehicle, essentially negating one of the biggest detractors to current hybrids: limited lifespan. So confident in their Hybrid Blue Drive, Hyundai stands behind the hybrid components for 10-years/100,000 miles.
2012 Sonata Hybrid, unlike other hybrids on the market, is most at home on the freeway. The Sonata Hybrid easily and comfortably cruises at 70 mph with plenty of power left to pass slow-moving motorists, which is truly rare in the hybrid world. For its class, the Sonata Hybrid has a remarkable ride comfort and in-cabin road noise is minimal. During our road test, the Sonata Hybrid achieved 38 mpg on the highway; just shy of its EPA estimated rating of 39.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the city fuel rating, which was an insufficient 20-mpg. Though highly competent on the open road, stop and go traffic virtually paralyzes the Sonata Hybrid. When slowly pulling away from a stoplight or standstill, the Sonata Hybrid remains in full electric power "EV" mode, leaving the gas engine at rest. But if the driver wishes to accelerate more quickly, the Sonata Hybrid must fire up the gasoline engine for additional power. This process is not only jarring but also noisy.
The Hybrid Blue Drive can't decide when it should engage the gas motor or rely on the batteries alone. And when it does, the transition is not at all smooth like that of other mid-size hybrids in its segment. This results in too little power in EV mode and too much when the gas engine fires up. The Sonata Hybrid seems unsure of how it wants to drive, constantly second-guessing itself. Presumably, this lack of confidence is the cause of the dismal in-city fuel economy.
The Hybrid Blue Drive has another Achilles' heel: parallel parking, which became an irritating chore.
In most modern vehicles, when the driver puts the vehicle in reverse and lets off the brake, the vehicle will slowly idle backward without any assistance. Not so in the Sonata Hybrid. Instead, the Sonata Hybrid remains in EV mode and does not move without throttle input. Apply the throttle and nothing happens. A bit more, a bit more, and then suddenly the vehicle is rocketing backwards into the parking spot. Forced to slam on brakes for fear of crashing into the vehicle behind, the driver must start the process over. If it weren't for the reverse camera, paralleling the Sonata Hybrid would be nearly impossible. In this way, it reminds us of the short-lived Honda Accord Hybrid.
With a price tag starting at $25,795, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is extremely affordable and a downright bargain. Hyundai provides an industry-leading warranty on a very comfortable, roomy, vehicle topped off with standout good looks.
On the open road, the Sonata Hybrid is one of the best-performing hybrids on the road today. Its downfall, however, is where other hybrids excel: in the city. Rightfully, the Sonata Hybrid is best suited to eco-friendly suburbanites who spend most their time on the freeway or urban dwellers who can remain Zen.
With the Sonata Hybrid, Hyundai deserves a lot of credit for trying to re-think the hybrid. And honestly, they've made one of the best overall hybrids on the market today.
In November 2012, Kia and Hyundai adjusted the fuel economy ratings on some 2011-2013 models. This article has been modified to reflect the accurate EPA ratings.