EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 16, 2012

Hyundai Sonata moves hybrids forward

Motor Mouth
Jeffrey Zygmont

---- — During my first quarter mile or so in a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, the car grabbed and pitched when I pressed the brake near a turn. Okay, it was a hybrid, and hybrid-drive cars typically brake more sensitively than standard autos. That’s because hybrids turn on their generators to help slow a car, sucking off some of the auto’s kinetic energy so the brakes themselves do less work. The spinning generator, in turn, pumps electricity into the batteries that power the electric motor that helps the gas motor move the vehicle.

Called regenerative braking, the set-up is a nifty bit of energy conservation. It’s one of the ways that hybrid cars get more miles from a gallon of gas. It doesn’t affect driving. The small change in pedal feel from regenerative braking is the sort of alteration a car owner adapts to at once. After just a few stops the mental adjustment gets made. Everything about a hybrid’s braking seems normal after that.

It did for me in the Sonata Hybrid. In fact, the sharing of power beneath the sedan was so smooth and seamless that I quickly forgot I was driving a hybrid at all. My only reminder was the musical chime from the dash when I pressed the start button to turn on or shut down the car. The chime is necessary, because at rest the Hyundai can be dead silent.

Hyundai introduced the hybrid version of its popular, four-door, front-drive Sonata sedan in 2010 as a 2011 model. The 2012 Sonata Hybrid sells at a list price of $26,625. That puts it in the mid-upper range of the Sonata line, which starts at a manufacturer’s price of $20,520 for a Sonata GLS equipped with a four-cylinder gasoline engine and six-speed manual transmission.

For the extra money, the Sonata Hybrid adds in more than its sophisticated, gas/electric drive system. The car also comes with such premium features and accessories as fog lights, LED tail lights and front accent lights, filtered automatic climate control, Bluetooth phone connection with steering wheel controls, eight-way power driver’s seat and six speaker audio system. The $5,000 premium option package adds larger, 17-inch wheels, a big, wide-spanning sun roof, leather upholstery, seat heaters, navigation, back-up camera, upgraded audio, and more.

The smooth operation of Sonata Hybrid shows just how well Hyundai engineered the car’s drive system. In other hybrid vehicles you often feel little hints that something different is happening. A common one is a shudder when the gas engine switches on as you accelerate from standing, and the stillness when the gas engine cuts off at a stop. Not so with the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, even though it dutifully performed its power switching between gas and electric drive effectively enough to let me average 35 miles per gallon in fuel consumption through one week of driving.

Clearly this model is more than a me-too hybrid, sold to buff a car company’s image as much as to advance the state of gasoline/electric hybrid drive. The Hyu

ndai Sonata Hybrid advances it far.

The official government fuel-economy rating for the Sonata Hybrid is 35 mpg city, 40 mpg highway. Yes, you can buy hybrids with higher fuel-economy ratings. But they’re smaller cars – often much smaller – than the Sonata Hybrid, points out Austin Adams, a sales manager at Salem Ford Hyundai in Salem, N.H.

In the dual-power, gas/electric Sonata Hybrid, “you gain 11 mpg in the city and 5 mpg on the highway,” compared to a conventional, gasoline-fueled Sonata, he said. “That’s significant for a car this size. This is a big car.”

The Sonata falls into the mid-size category, joining such sedans as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. But the Sonata’s cabin pushes into the upper limits of the mid-size class. It’s roomy.

What’s more, Hyundai reserves more of the Sonata Hybrid’s interior space for people to use. It is the first car company to employ advanced, lithium polymer batteries in a hybrid. They operate more efficiently than the big batteries used in hybrid cars to date. But at the same time they’re smaller, as much as 40 percent smaller than the batteries you’re likely to find in a similarly sized hybrid. Therefore you get more cargo space in the trunk of the Sonata Hybrid, because it needs less space to conceal its batteries and power-management gear. Significantly, the car also gives you a fold-down rear-seat back and pass-through for long, bulky gear. The feature is common in sedans, but had been missing in hybrid-drive sedans before the Sonata came out.

Durability and longevity are other advantages of lithium polymer batteries. They stand up better to the extremes of automotive activity. That enables Hyundai to give the battery packs in Sonata Hybrid a lifetime warranty (applicable to the original owner) that can run for more than 10 years and who knows how many miles.

And because of their greater power density and efficiency, the Sonata batteries make more electricity available to propel the car, according to Hyundai. Under ideal conditions, the company reports, the Sonata Hybrid can run in all-electric mode – no gas power at all – at up to 62 miles per hour. In other words, the Sonata Hybrid tips the gas/electric balance more to the electric side than other hybrids.

Austin Adams of Salem Ford Hyundai cites U.S. car-industry statistics that rank the Sonata Hybrid second in sales behind the Toyota Prius. That’s an enviable position for a hybrid model that is only in its second year.

In Salem, Adams sees the model going primarily to commuters who like the Sonata Hybrid’s combination of high mileage and ample size.

“Mostly it’s people who live in North Andover, Salem, Pelham, who commute to Boston,” he said. “They’re getting 40 miles to the gallon. When they’re sitting in traffic, they getting 35.”

Undeniably the conventional, gas-driven Sonata outsells the hybrid version by a large margin. Adams estimates that Salem Ford Hyundai moves at least 15 gasoline versions for every Sonata Hybrid it sells.

But the Sonata Hybrid brings some noteworthy improvements to hybrid technology at a time when gas prices are trending

steeply upward. Locally we could see $4-per-gallon gas when autumn begins six days from today. Stay tuned.

2012 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive mid-size hybrid sedan Price: $26,625 (plus options) Warranty: 5 years/60,000 miles basic warranty; 10 years/100,000 miles powertrain warranty; 7 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 5 years/unlimited miles roadside assistance Engine: 2.4-liter I4 and electric motor Power: 206 horsepower at 6,00 rpm; 195 lb.-ft. torque Transmission: 6-speed automatic Fuel economy: 35 mpg city; 40 mpg highway Wheelbase: 110 inches Length: 190 inches Width: 72 inches Height: 58 inches Weight: 3,457 pounds Fuel capacity: 17.2 gallons Turning circle: 35.8 ft.