2011 Hyundai Sonata

Hyundai’s first hybrid debuts at the head of the class

Published: July 17, 2011, 5:00 PM

Hyundai 2011 Sonata rear

While it has no false hopes for big sales numbers, Hyundai has entered the hybrid race. The 2011 Sonata Hybrid is the company’s first effort on this front and goes up against main players like Ford and Toyota.

Combined sales of the Ford Fusion and Camry hybrids totaled a paltry 650 units across the entire country last year, Hyundai figures it can sell 300 of the new Sonata hybrids.

Why bother? Because it can.

Hyundai makes no secret of its drive to become a major force on the global auto scene and has reached or surpassed each of the goals along that path – ahead of schedule. With the Sonata Hybrid it has not only caught the established players, it has passed them on many technological fronts.

The Sonata is a full or parallel hybrid capable of operating on gas or electric power, individually or in combination – like the others. But it uses a six-speed conventional automatic transmission – a first. It aso uses lighter, more efficient lithium-polymer batteries – a – first and is optimized for highway fuel mileage - another first.

It all begins with the Sonata, newly restyled for 2011. The hybrid is differentiated with some unique exterior panels and pieces including a massive black-out grille, unique bumper, lower valance, wheels and side sills.

The differences inside are less evident, until you look at the instrument panel. Here you’ll find a unique LCD display between the circular instruments found in other Sonatas.

This screen is used to show the energy flow among the battery, electric motor, engine and drive wheels. It also shows the charge level of the big lithium-polymer battery pack behind the rear seat.

Included is a "score" or numerical rating for how you’re doing with respect to driving economically. In my case, not too well unless I really tried. The background lighting also varies from blue to grey, depending on your right foot.

Where a tachometer would normally reside in the left instrument pod in other Sonatas, the hybrid has a variety of displays related to the hybrid operation.

The centre stack is topped by a big 7-inch screen used for navigation, rear-view camera, audio and other information.

The biggest changes from the bon-hybrid Sonata lie beneath the hood and behind the rear seat. The engine is an Atkinson-cycle version of the company’s new Theta four-cylinder engine. Atkinson cycle means different timing for improved fuel efficiency – but at the cost of some power. That deficiency is more than offset, however, by the use of a powerful electric motor that fills in the power curve.

The gasoline engine produces 168 horsepower and 154 lb-ft of torque while the electric starter-generator puts out 41 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, starting at zero rpm. That last number is what makes the difference because all that torque is available from rest.

The combined output is 206 horsepower. You can’t add the peak power numbers from the IC engine and electric motor because they occur at different times.

If you are concerned about longevity or reliability don’t be. Hyundai ran a full slate of tests for these issues and discovered that performance dropped by less than 10% after 300,000 km, so they continued to the 450,000-km mark before giving up. The warranty says you’re covered for 240,000 km or eight years.

The six-speed automatic transmission looks the same as in other Soanatas from the outside but the conventional torque converter has been replaced by the electric motor and a powerful pump. This is a major departure from other hybrids – and a breakthrough in my eyes.

Hyundai says it is less expensive and less complex than a CVT. I say it eliminates the incessant droning of an engine held at its power peak while the vehicle catches up.

The battery pack that drives the electric motor resides behind the rear seat. The 270-volt, 72-cell unit comes from LG Chem, the same folks who provide the lithium-ion batteries used in the Chevrolet Volt. But these new-generation lithium-polymer batteries are lighter, run cooler and pack more punch into a given size/weight than the lithium-ion or nickel-metal-hydride batteries used elsewhere.

Still, the battery pack makes major inroads into trunk space which drops from 460-litres to 300 and eliminates folding rear seats or a pass-through. The batteries are recharged using regenerative braking and engine power, a process you can watch yourself on the display – or rather your passengers can watch since you’ll be busy driving, right?

The Sonata has been optimized for efficiency on the highway rather than city driving. This is a complete reversal from other hybrids, which benefit primarily from electric-only operation and shutting the engine off when at rest, which the Sonata also does.

But Hyundai figures there is a greater likelihood in North America for folks to drive in more rural areas where stop signs and lights are further apart and average speeds higher.

Thus you start off under electric power in most situations and continue to rely on volts instead of litres at speeds of up to 100 km/hr. with a light foot and a flat or declining road. The engine cuts in and out relatively seamlessly, noticeable only on occasion.

There is a slight "catch" in the brake pedal as brakes are applied, when the regenerative system cuts in, but otherwise you are only aware it is a hybrid when you start off so silently.

The Sonata is the least expensive of the mid-size hybrids, starting out at $29,999. My test vehicle topped out near $35,000 thanks to a Premium Package.

With its new-generation batteries, conventional transmission and thorough development, the Sonata Hybrid raises the stakes, pushing others to catch up.