Mountain Wheels: Hyundai’s Sonata Hybrid emphasizes efficiency, good looks
January 24, 2014
2013 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
MSRP: $25,650; price as tested, $31,550
Powertrain: 159-HP 2.4-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine plus 35 kW motor and 47 kW battery (199 HP net), six-speed automatic transmission
EPA mpg figures: 38 combined; 36 city, 40 highway
I was gratified (and a little frightened) this week to be asked for some direct experience by an SDN reader on a potential Korean-made car deal — people tend to hold you personally responsible for the vehicle if you do give them any advice, so I usually leave that to my lawyer.
Interestingly, though my friend was happy to snap up a Kia, she wrinkled her nose at the notion of a Hyundai. "Ewww. Not a Hyundai," she said. I had to explain to her that both those Korean makes are more or less the same company — just like Ford and Mercury, in the old days — and that they've advanced light years, as I keep saying.
Yet another example of this is the newest iteration of Hyundai's Sonata Hybrid. The first-generation Sonata gas-electric was notable for its low-weight, space-saving lithium polymer battery and an Atkinson cycle variation that allowed the car to cruise at freeway speeds in all-electric mode. But the car drove poorly, halting and jerking and dragging as it shifted between gasoline and electric power.
That's all been cleared up in the 2013 model I've driven a few times in the last year, and the transitions are buttery smooth and, frankly, hard to notice. (The exception is if you're cruising on a very hot day in the summer and need a lot of AC, which does lead to noisier start-ups and more engine use. I suspect that the darkest days of winter are also going to see noise and lessened efficiency.)
Few carmakers today would boast about putting a less powerful engine in a new vehicle, but the 2013 setup's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine indeed has a little less boost than the old one. Instead, Hyundai considerably upped the electric motor and battery pack output — total combined horsepower is 199 — which results in smooth, fast starts, ample highway passing ability and improved fuel efficiency.
Over the course of a 700-mile journey last summer, much of it at 75 mph, I got at least 44 mpg. I made it all the way there on half a tank of gas, for goodness' sakes.
To differentiate the hybrid model, Hyundai has swapped in a black, Veloster-styled grille and some LED daytime running lamps around the headlamps; rear brakelamps are also a little bolder, and the car's rear is indeed a little wider and taller to emphasize aerodynamics. There are also unique 16- and 17-inch, propeller-inspired alloy wheels.
Otherwise, with the exception of a suite of none-too-subtle Blue Drive emblems all over the car, it's pretty much standard Sonata — perfect for those looking for a larger, more comfortable but still affordable hybrid automotive option.
All that extra yardage, especially the long nose, meant I had to fight a bit in the worst of the crosswinds, but the car's general character is smooth and quiet and its ride rather pleasant.
Despite shedding some pounds, the battery setup in the trunk is still pretty awkward — you might be able to shove a couple of lacrosse sticks through the pass-through gate into the rear seat, but the dimensions are tight (12.1 cubic feet), even with 25 percent more room than before.
Interior design is in keeping with the standard Sonata, and the Limited model I drove was outfitted with a good touchscreen navigation system (none of the map problems I recently found in the Santa Fe/Sorento). The voice-activation features were also pretty intuitive.
As an added value proposition — and extra peace of mind — Hyundai also offers lifetime battery replacement as one of the Sonata Hybrid's selling points. That may not be such a bad idea, if you plan on keeping the car for many years.
I will note that a repeat drive more recently was not entirely without its gremlins. I ended up with a huge power loss during one particular drive (I could no longer pull up steep inclines without totally flooring the car), but upon restart the problems had disappeared. Improved but not perfected technology, I gather.