The Sonata hybrid is unusual in that does not employ a CVT but uses a six-speed automatic instead. This makes for much more conventional, and more pleasant, response when accelerating. It also helps the hybrid powertrain recede into the background.
Interestingly, it appears that the Sonata hybrid can dip into EV mode even at highway speeds (I had the EV light come on when cruising just under 80 mph).
This has to be one of the worst traction-control programs I’ve seen in a while. I had to jump out into traffic in the rain, and it very abruptly swung back and forth between killing the power and letting the front wheels spin.
What most surprised me about the Sonata Hybrid, though, was the suspension. As much praise as has been heaped upon the Sonata, one noted weakness has been the chassis tuning. One might expect the hybrid version to be worse, what with the extra weight of the batteries and the electric motor. Certainly with the Camry Hybrid, we noticed more body motion at the rear of the car. But the Sonata Hybrid seemed impressively tight. It also thwacked (loudly) over bumps, but the ride remained quite serene. I’m guessing part of the credit for the excellent ride quality goes to the sixteen-inch wheels wrapped in 65-series tires. Those high sidewalls make for pretty lazy turn-in, but they go a long way toward taking the sharpness out of impacts.
The interior is a mix of good and bad. The former includes the excellent, clear switchgear and the overall spaciousness. The latter refers to the vast expanses of hard and semi-hard grained gray plastic as well as the bizarre, wavy-gravy seat upholstery.
Joe Lorio, Senior Editor
The hybrid’s 2.4-liter engine is so refined and quiet; even under heavy acceleration it felt much quieter to me than same-size engine in our Four Seasons nonhybrid Sonata. The Sonata Hybrid uses a six-speed automatic transmission, unlike every other hybrid in its class, which all use a CVT. The automatic in the Sonata desperately wanted to go straight to sixth gear and stay there; it was slow to kick down and was abrupt in its gearchanges, almost as though it was scolding you for not being eco-minded at all times. It’s really too bad that the transmission is so poorly sorted, as the rest of this Sonata has been upgraded over the regular model, with a high-grade information display, more attractive gauges, and LED exterior lighting — Hyundai obviously put its all into making the Hybrid the cream of the Sonata crop.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
Although the Sonata Hybrid’s distinct face may have had more to do with wind-tunnel testing than the work of Hyundai’s talented designers, I actually think I prefer it to that of the standard Sonata. It looks sporty and slightly futuristic, which suits a hybrid vehicle. (The Buck-Rogers-esque wheels, are really, really awful, though.) Plus, it eschews the Prius profile, so everyone doesn’t instantly know that you’re driving a hybrid. The EPA numbers aren’t best in class, but they are better than the Toyota Camry Hybrid by 4 mpg (combined).
What I found most impressive about the Sonata Hybrid is how seamlessly it transitions between its two power sources. The shudder at startup and shutdown of the engine is almost imperceptible, and the noise is barely audible especially when the stereo is on. It’s a bit sluggish at low speeds, but midrange power is excellent and it has no problem merging into traffic or keeping pace with highway leadfoots. The only negatives are its slightly busy ride — a carryover from the standard Sonata — and the brake pedal’s complete lack of travel.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
Whether you’re in Blue Drive mode or not seems to make a big difference in the Sonata Hybrid’s acceleration rate. No matter the mode, though, this car feels like it’s powered by a very laggy turbo engine, particularly when you want to quickly pull away from a stop. Wait, wait, wait, ZOOM!
If you keep an eye on the propulsion graphic, it’s clear that the powertrain is shuffling its efforts almost constantly at times — say, if you’re cruising on a flat back road at about 60 mph. The gasoline engine seems anxious to turn off when you lift off the gas pedal, which obviously is very good for fuel economy. Another plus is that the electric motor is enough to keep the car rolling down long, slight grades at 60 mph. That graphic also revealed a somewhat dirty secret that the Sonata says it’s in EV mode when the engine is running and charging the battery but not sending power directly to the wheels (perhaps this is how Joe Lorio saw the EV light while driving 80 mph).
Trunk space is diminished by the hybrid equipment but it still should be large enough for most day-to-day duties. The cabin features a nice dash-top covering that’s firm, attractive, and good-fitting. I also like the silver door-trim accents. The Hybrid’s cool taillights differentiate its exterior styling from that of the regular Sonata. The trapezoidal grille does, too, but I’m much less a fan of that. And unlike some of my colleagues, I think these wheels look cool.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Hyundai clearly spent a lot of time and money further developing and refining the Sonata for the 2011 model year. The addition of a turbocharged four-cylinder and a hybrid option to the powertrain menu is certainly impressive, and the fact that Hyundai created the hybrid system in-house is even more so.
The six-speed automatic transmission used by the Sonata is certainly interesting in the mid-size hybrid sedan segment, where a CVT is the default choice, but even more impressive is the use of lithium-polymer batteries. Most hybrids are using nickel-metal-hydride battery packs while lithium-ion battery packs are becoming the norm for the newest hybrid entries on the market. Hyundai has jumped one step ahead and launched with lithium-polymer battery packs that reduce weight and supposedly last longer than nickel-metal-hydride or lithium-ion packs. This battery pack helps keep the Sonata’s curb weight about 200 pounds lower than a Fusion or Camry hybrid.
Despite all that, I’m still more impressed by the regular version of the Sonata. I find the base Hyundai Sonata to be the best mix of performance, comfort, fuel economy, and easy-to-use technology on the market today. The hybrid just doesn’t offer enough fuel economy benefit to make me choose it. Yes, it will save you a few hundred dollars a year in fuel costs ($664 when compared with a regular Sonata, according to the EPA), but all Sonatas, even the turbo, have pretty incredible EPA ratings. The hybrid is certainly cool if you’re into the tech, but it’s not needed to save gas.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
My late-night commute home left me extremely disappointed with the Sonata Hybrid’s steering. The tall-sidewall, low rolling resistance tires clearly worsen what is already rather artificial steering feel. There’s a strangely elastic resistance in the steering wheel as you turn it just off center, almost as if it were connected to the front wheels via rubber bands.
The integration of the gas engine and electric motor is well done. As Joe Lorio notes, the six-speed automatic helps provide a much more conventional throttle response than we’re used to with hybrids. You can hear the gas engine turn on at higher speeds, but the actual acceleration is smooth. The only other clue you’re driving a hybrid is the usual sponginess in the brakes.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
Base price (with destination): $26,515
Price as tested: $26,650
Tire pressure monitoring system
2.4L Atkinson Cycle 4-cylinder engine
Permanent magnet high-power density motor
270V lithium polymer battery
Hybrid starter generator
6-speed automatic transmission
Electronic stability control with traction control
16-inch alloy wheels
Automatic headlight control
Proximity key entry with push button start
Dual automatic climate control
AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 audio system with six speakers
XM satellite radio
Premium cloth seats
Options on this vehicle:
Carpeted floor mats — $100
iPod cable — $35
Key options not on vehicle:
Premium package — $5000
17-inch Eco-spoke alloy wheels
Rear backup camera
Infinity 400-watt sound system
Heat front and rear seats
Leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob
Auto-dimming interior mirror
Premium door sill plates
Piano black door surround and exterior mirror housing
35 / 40 / 37 mpg
Horsepower: 166 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 154 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Horsepower: 40 hp
Battery type: 270V lithium polymer battery
Combined horsepower: 206 hp @ 6000 rpm
Curb weight: 3578 lb
Wheels/tires: 16-inch alloy wheels
P205/65R16 all-season tires