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Hyundai Enters the Hybrid Race

Just in time for the latest round of high gasoline prices (although they are dropping somewhat at the moment),

the gasoline-electric hybrid version of the redesigned Hyundai Sonata sedan has arrived.

The car is EPA rated at 35 mpg city/40 highway, which isn’t quite as high as the fuel economy of the best-selling hybrid, the Toyota Prius, officially 51 city/48 highway.

But also unlike the Prius, the Sonata hybrid has an almost identical gasoline-only version, which arrived last spring as an early 2011 model. This is a regular-looking car, not a vehicle that screams “hybrid” as it rolls down the road.

Prices of the Sonata and Prius hybrids are similar when configured the same. There is just one trim level for the Sonata, and the base price is $25,795 (plus $750 freight). Options can run the price into the low $30,000s, but those extras aren’t necessary to have a really nice hybrid sedan with ample room for five passengers and their luggage.

That price is nearly $800 less than the base price of the Sonata’s closest Japanese competitor, the Toyota Camry hybrid sedan, which starts at $27,050 (plus $760 freight). But the Sonata is more than $2,800 less than the Ford Fusion hybrid sedan, which begins at $28,600 (plus $795 freight), also a direct competitor both in size and configuration.

Equipped with Hyundai’s own Direct Hybrid Blue Drive system, the Sonata has a four-cylinder gasoline engine combined with an electric motor. Its fuel economy easily beats the Camry’s 31 city/35 highway ratings, but the Fusion has an edge with its 41 city/36 highway mileage estimates.

The Sonata’s drive system was developed in-house by Hyundai and includes several technical firsts, the South Korean automaker said, allowing it to offer some features not available on its competitors. For instance, the Sonata can go up to 62 mph on electric power alone; the competitors are limited to about 25 mph. Range on electric power alone is limited to a mile or so, however, as it is in most of the competition.

For the Sonata’s hybrid system, Hyundai uses a 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-polymer battery pack that weighs only 95.9 pounds, versus 123.9 pounds for the Camry Hybrid’s nickel-metal-hydride battery. Even with the lighter weight, the Sonata’s battery is 10 percent more efficient than the Camry’s, Hyundai says.

A question most potential hybrid customers ask about is battery life, and Hyundai says the Sonata’s battery pack shouldn’t have to be replaced during the 10-year life of the car.

It also holds its charge 25 percent longer than a nickel-metal-hydride battery, Hyundai said, which means it will have more available power after sitting for several days without charging or use. Toyota does not yet use lithium-type batteries in its U.S. hybrid models.

Nissan’s new Leaf electric car and Chevrolet’s new Volt plug-in hybrid have lithium-ion batteries. Hyundai said its lithium-polymer battery is the next generation of lithium-ion battery technology.

In the Sonata, a 30-kilowatt electric motor is combined with the gasoline engine and a conventional six-speed automatic transmission. Most other hybrids use a continuously variable automatic transmission, but the Sonata model’s transmission is essentially the same one used in the gasoline-only versions of the car.

Startup power was quite impressive in our test vehicle, especially for a hybrid. There is up to 151 foot-pounds of torque available immediately from the Sonata’s electric motor, which is connected to the transmission’s input to replace the torque converter. A multidisc clutch pack is used inside the electric motor to disconnect it from the 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine for electric-motor-only operation.

The gasoline engine by itself provides 166 horsepower and 154 foot-pounds of torque. Together, the electric motor and gasoline engine turn out 206 horsepower and 193 foot-pounds of torque (not all of the torque of the electric motor and the gasoline engine are available at the same time).

The gasoline engine uses the so-called Atkinson cycle system like the engines in many other hybrid models, including the Fusion sedan and Ford Escape crossover hybrids.

Top speed is well over 100 mph, although we didn’t test that aspect. But the Sonata cruised with the rest of the traffic at interstate highway speeds and had plenty of zip available for passing, even at those higher speeds.

The interior is just as comfortable as that of the regular Sonata. It’s one of the best midsize sedans on the market now, whether gasoline or hybrid, and there is no appreciable difference in the smooth rides of the two models.

To dress up the hybrid, the Premium Package ($5,000) can be added. It brings a touch-screen in-dash navigation system, back-up camera, panoramic double sunroof, leather seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel/shift knob, heated front seats/rear-seat bottom cushions, Infinity premium speakers/subwoofer/external amplifier, auto-dimming rearview mirror (with universal garage opener and compass) and premium metal-grain doorsill plates.

A second electric motor in the Sonata hybrid is used to start the gasoline engine, and it converts to a generator to recharge the battery pack as the vehicle is braking or running on the gasoline engine.

It’s called the Hybrid Starter-Generator, and it’s belt-driven from the gasoline engine like a traditional alternator. But it operates at 270 volts rather than the 12 to 15 volts of a regular car’s alternator.

Standard are electric power steering and an electrically operated air-conditioning compressor. In conventional cars, these systems usually are powered by belts off the engine, but that doesn’t work well for a hybrid because the gasoline engine is designed to stop automatically when the car comes to a stop and to remain off when the car is running just on the electric motor. With the electric air conditioning, the cooling continues even when the engine cycles off at stoplights.

At 3,483 pounds, the Sonata is the lightest hybrid in its segment, 237 pounds lighter than the Fusion.

The Sonata hybrid has the same general exterior as the gasoline-only model, making use of Hyundai’s “fluidic sculpture” design theme. But there are some differences, including unique front and rear fascias with a deeper air dam, extended rocker panels and special wheels that allow air to flow around the body with less resistance, the company said.

That gives the hybrid a very low 0.25 coefficient of drag, the measure of how much wind resistance a vehicle has. That beats the 0.27 coefficient of drag of the high-performance Nissan GT-R supercar.

Gasoline-only models of the 2011 Sonata range from $19,395 to $27,245 (plus $750 freight). Under the hood of most of the gasoline models is a new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 198 horsepower and 184 foot-pounds of torque.

Just added to the mix is a new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which cranks out an impressive 274 horsepower and 269 foot-pounds of torque. It eliminates the need for a V-6 engine option like Hyundai had in the previous generation of the Sonata. It’s connected to a six-speed automatic; no manual is offered.

EPA ratings for the 2.4-liter gasoline-only models are 22 mpg city/35 highway with the automatic transmission and 24/35 with the manual. For the turbo model, the ratings are 22 city/33 highway.

By: G. Chambers Williams III

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