Sonata Scores With Hybrid, Turbo

Hyundai Motor America's meteoric rise from ordinary to outstanding continues with two new variants of its screamingly successful '11 Sonata sedan. The Sonata Hybrid and Turbo driven in Southern California are great additions to the Sonata lineup and should further elevate the nameplate, stealing sales from other makes, including the Japanese. Since Ward's June test drive of the new Sonata variants,

Hyundai Motor America's meteoric rise from ordinary to outstanding continues with two new variants of its screamingly successful '11 Sonata sedan.

The Sonata Hybrid and Turbo driven in Southern California are great additions to the Sonata lineup and should further elevate the nameplate, stealing sales from other makes, including the Japanese.

Since Ward's June test drive of the new Sonata variants, Hyundai has tweaked them as their market launches approach.

Especially impressive in our most-recent test of the Sonata Hybrid is the 55.8 mpg (4.2 L/100 km) we achieved.

Additionally, the Sonata Turbo now is a quieter car than the pre-production model from June, thanks to more insulating material placed between the passenger cabin and engine bay.

The Sonata Hybrid, set to go on sale this month, mates a 166-hp 2.4L DOHC Atkinson Cycle I-4 with a 30-kW (40-hp) permanent-magnet synchronous motor.

Overall output is 206 hp, higher than that of competitors Toyota Camry Hybrid (187 hp), Nissan Altima Hybrid (198 hp) and Ford Fusion Hybrid (191 hp), which all use nickel-metal-hydride batteries.

Hyundai believes its LG Chem Co.-supplied, 270-volt lithium-ion polymer battery delivers 63% greater power density, 12% higher energy efficiency, a 25% longer cycle life and lower volume (44%) and weight (25%).

All that means the Sonata Hybrid's Li-ion polymer pack should generate less heat, hold a charge longer and its state-of-charge should be better-estimated than for NiMH batteries, Hyundai claims.

To give the Sonata Hybrid better highway mpg, Hyundai uses an Active Air Flap to lessen resistance. Flaps hidden behind upper and lower grilles open automatically at low speeds and with high coolant temperatures, and shut when the inverse is true, reducing the regular Sonata's 0.25 drag coefficient 10%, Hyundai says.

The electrified Sonata uses a parallel system much like that of other hybrids. It's able to run solely on battery power at launch and during cruising conditions, relying on the engine during even “gentle” acceleration; regenerative braking occurs during deceleration.

The Sonata Hybrid's standard 6-speed automatic shifts differently from most hybrids, which rely on continuously variable transmissions. Hyundai's use of the 6AT is smart, based on research showing consumers prefer step-gear automatics.

Ward's finds the 2.4L gas engine kicks on at around 20 mph (32 km/h). Hyundai says staying in EV mode is possible up to 62 mph (100 km/h), but we found that difficult, even on flat surfaces.

Fuel economy reached the impressive (for a 3,618-lb. [1,641-kg] sedan) 55.8 mpg during downhill coasting. But we ended the day at an average 40.4 mpg (5.8 L/100 km) after stop-and-go city driving and some uphill highway stretches.

In a fuel-economy challenge, the winning team managed a road-rage-inviting 60.4 mpg (3.9 L/100 km) at an average speed of 30 mph (48 km/h).

On the road, the Sonata Hybrid handles much like the regular Sonata in that it is a middling performer: not transmitting too much — but also not totally isolating — road irregularities into the cabin. The car remains fairly flat in curves, and steering is neither too light nor heavy.

The Sonata Turbo, on sale now, is another animal entirely. Taking the place of a conventional V-6, the 2.0T variant is designed for fun. Still, we returned a respectable 34.3 mpg (6.9 L/100 km) at an average speed of 50 mph (80 km/h) over 53.6 miles (86.3 km).

The 2.0L turbocharged direct-injection I-4 with dual variable valve timing makes 274 hp at 6,000 rpm and 269 lb.-ft. (365 Nm) of torque.

Those specs best all rivals. Hyundai touts its use of a twin-scroll turbocharger, which boosts torque with a split-wall design between the exhaust paths.

The Sonata Turbo tested has a crisper on-road feel than the base Sonata, which is sometimes floaty. Steering also is heavier than that of the base model.

Gear shifts with the standard 6-speed automatic transmission are softer than might be expected. But this car will duel with the current midsize V-6 contingent, not known for their sporty nature.

Shifting via paddles is fun, and necessary, to boost torque at lower cruising speeds. It isn't easy to deduce the car's turbocharged disposition unless mashing the accelerator.

The noise-reduction improvements, as well as excellent fuel economy, should prod V-6 loyalists to embrace the 2.0T. With coming fuel-economy rules, they may not have a choice as sixes likely will dwindle.

The Sonata Hybrid's unique exterior is a winner, with less ornamentation than the chrome-laden regular and 2.0T models. With a blacked-out lower grille and stubby nose, the car is attractive and immediately identifiable as a hybrid Sonata. The Sonata Turbo, on the other hand, is virtually identical to the regular Sonata.

A wine-leather interior will be offered on the 2.0T's Limited trim, $27,045 to start. A $24,145 SE grade also is available.

The Sonata Hybrid interior inspected during the drive has good fit-and-finish, although a B-pillar trim piece doesn't meet cleanly.

The Sonata Hybrid's human machine interfaces are cool, namely the 4.2-in. (10.7-cm) liquid crystal display trip computer next to the speedometer.

Overall, the success of the regular Sonata is bound to rub off on the two variants. Pricing for the 2.0T starts at $24,145, and hybrid pricing had not been announced as of mid-November.

If Hyundai can price the Sonata Hybrid under $25,000, it will have a hot-seller on its hands.

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