On The Road Review: Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

In the battle for new car sales every manufacturer is confronted with challenging decisions, not the least of which is how extensive and broad are your product offerings and how to price your vehicles. For Hyundai, now making many of its vehicles right here in the United States, it has always been about offering a great value-to-price quotient. With renewed styling, Hyundai is also a real-world rival with a better-rounded portfolio.

This is never more apparent than in the Sonata sedan. A sleek, contemporary car that pushed the boundaries of the midsize sedan segment upon its debut two years ago, the Sonata has remained a strong seller. Currently, the Sonata is Hyundai’s most popular vehicle in the American market as well as the number five best-selling midsize sedan in a crowded domestic fleet — with numbers slightly behind Chevy’s Malibu. If anything, sales of the Sonata have been production constrained more than sales challenged, as the Alabama factory is humming on all cylinders.

To keep pace with a marketplace that now expects multiple trim offerings, numerous powertrain choices and price-points to suit various consumer payment options, the Sonata lineup must certainly include a hybrid sedan in order to match the competition. Just like Toyota’s Camry, Ford’s Fusion and Nissan’s Altima, Hyundai has a hybrid Sonata. But, as with these competitors, sales of the hybrid are a small percentage of total volume.

This will present another challenge for the automakers, despite the earnest efforts of central planning at the EPA and other government agencies that wish to mandate such alternative-powered vehicle sales.

Consumers, for the most part, are balking at these hybrid vehicles; they are too expensive (despite incentives), there is not enough fuel-savings payback, and the performance is less stellar than the conventional model sedans upon which they are often based. With more and more automakers offering hybrid powertrains, sales are just spread out between more brands as hybrid and alternative-powered vehicles have stagnated at a steady 2.5-3 percent of the new vehicle market.

If this volume level does not increase, the price gap between regular cars and hybrid cars will not shrink, as no manufacturer can readily recoup their research and development costs, let alone the tooling needed to make specific components that sell at low volumes. Central planning has so far proven, once again, that it is a poor arbiter of free-market economic principles.

Hyundai has sold the Sonata in the United States since 1989, but it wasn’t until the latest edition debuted in 2011 that the Sonata became a hot commodity. Breakthrough styling plus a content-rich cabin gave the Sonata instant street credibility to go along with its best-in-class pricing structure and extended length warranty plan. Sales increased dramatically over the previous edition.

Also key to the latest Sonata is a strong basic powertrain that provides for any of three potent four-cylinder engines — including a hyper-Turbo motor — depending on trim level selected, along with new six-speed transmissions.

The Sonata Hybrid uses a version of the base 2.4-liter four along with a rear-seat battery pack and electric motor to produce a combined 209 hp. You get the expected hybrid gauges that illustrate battery power and peak efficiency operation in Eco-mode, but you also get a slight hesitation in throttle performance as the hybrid powertrain works from electric power to gas engine and back — all depending upon throttle operation. While not upsetting to the car’s overall performance, it is sometimes notable and not completely seamless — especially when you summon extra power in a low-speed setting and the powertrain seemingly thinks about what it should do to best provide the requested acceleration.

This is not to say that the Sonata Hybrid is slow, because it is not. When needed, there is ample power on tap and highway cruising is an effortless exercise in efficiency. There are, however, thresholds of speed that expose how today’s fuel efficient cars are sometimes mileage pretenders.

The EPA bases its fuel economy numbers on computer calculations and only infrequently conducts actual driving tests to simulate real-world conditions. Add in the reduced power output of ethanol based motor fuels, and you can see why some cars struggle to replicate the elevated numbers that the EPA predicts — and the automakers love to tout in their advertising. That is why we are now seeing the EPA attach an ‘average’ number to its ratings, a number that should be the actual predictor of what you will see in real-world driving situations. Of course, your mileage may still vary.

In Maine, there are few truly flat stretches of roadway that spread out for miles and miles, tarmac that would illustrate how efficient a car really is capable of being with other traffic and weather conditions.

On a crisp, beautiful fall morning, the Sonata Hybrid was pointed north along the banks of the Penobscot River from Milford to Lincoln, following a smooth, level Route 2 in a test of how high the Sonata’s mileage efficiency might rise. With a steady throttle and a pace below 60 mph, the Hyundai’s trip computer reported an average of 41.3 mpg — a respectable average for any car, no matter what the powertrain. A subsequent ride south from Presque Isle to Houlton along the rolling potato fields of Aroostook County, with speeds frequently rising above 60 mph to keep up with the potato-haulers, the Sonata’s Blue-Drive Eco gauge indicated 39.3 mpg with a slight tailwind helping us along.

When it became time to fill the Sonata’s large 18.5-gallon tank, the real world economy was somewhat lower — not an unusual variance in some manufacturers trip computers — as the Hyundai’s actual fuel economy numbers were usually 2.5-3-mpg less than indicated. That would leave the Sonata with a real-world average of 36-37-mpg for extended ‘highway’ running, while urban travel was less. This is better fuel economy than the EPA ratings for regular Sonata’s 24-35-mpg, so Sonata fans will need to determine their break-even point on miles and length of ownership to warrant the higher retail price of the hybrid model.

The Sonata Hybrid wears a different front profile than the handsome pose of its regular sibling, but otherwise the sedans are little different. The cabin is rich in details and features, including extensive planning for small cubbyholes, slots and pockets for your electrical companions and other traveling paraphernalia, as well as conveniences that make ownership more enjoyable. Switchgear is smooth and accessible, controls are simple to operate — including navigation — plus there is an expansive dual-panel sunroof with a power sunshade. You lose some trunk space with the hybrid edition, and the back-seats no longer fold, but the cabin is not negatively affected.

Sonata Hybrid driving dynamics are not as crisp as with the conventional sedan, but this was never a sports sedan to begin with, so most buyers will not be inconvenienced — nor will many even notice. The Sonata is like-sized to its primary rivals as well, 190 inches long on a fluid 110-inch wheelbase.

While a base GLS Sonata starts at just over $20,000, the Hybrid combines features from several trim levels to start at $26,625. As with the base Sonata, the Hybrid undercuts its rivals pricing while offering more standard equipment.

With more and more focus on electrically powered cars, vehicles whose relevance seems elusive, the hybrid-powered models currently available seem much more practical and viable for the masses. The price variances will eventually get smaller for hybrids, but unless you do lots of miles, over many years, you may need to make an emotional appeal to the accountant side of your brain for purchasing one of these innovative cars.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.