EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 7, 2013

Sonata Hybrid wins in many ways

Motor Mouth
Jeffrey Zygmont

---- — Some of the best evidence that hybrid-drive automobiles now are fully a part of the automotive mainstream can be seen in Salem, N.H. The dealership Salem Ford Hyundai carries regular versions and hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion and the Hyundai Sonata, two mid-size sedans that people like for all the usual, smart and sensible qualities that can make a model popular.

The Fusion and Sonata are stylish and slickly contemporary. They are well sized, with comfortable, spacious cabins. They are affordably priced and run with reasonable economy. Both models are well engineered and thoughtfully equipped with features. And both offer an ascending array of options and trim levels to appeal to varying tastes and preferences.

The fact that one of those options is a hybrid-drive version no longer seems remarkable at all. In fact, a lot of car shoppers approach the Fusion Hybrid and Sonata Hybrid not as special purchases, but merely as just another variation with added-on capabilities that just might work for them.

Let’s focus on the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, because that’s the model I most recently experienced. The Sonata Hybrid I evaluated last week showed the small quirks you quickly accept and cease to notice in any hybrid – a car that moves using both gasoline power and electric power, sometimes with both simultaneously and sometimes with one instead of the other.

For example, a signal on the instrument panel flashes “ready” even when the gasoline engine doesn’t start, because at lower speeds most hybrids can move on electric power alone. And at stop lights the gas engine shuts down automatically to save fuel, starting again without your notice when the car resumes motion.

After such special, hybrid-only operating traits blended with my general expectations, the Sonata Hybrid delivered a pleasant and satisfying driving experience in a top-notch auto. The only special quality that stayed apparent was the variant’s superior fuel economy. I averaged 42 miles per gallon after 325 miles of mixed driving that slanted more toward freeway cruises than around-town scampers. The official government gas-use estimate for the Sonata Hybrid is 36 mpg city, 40 mpg highway. By comparison, a conventional, gasoline-only Sonata, equipped with a 198-horsepower four-cylinder engine, carries a government rating of 24 mpg city, and 35 mpg highway.

The increased gas mileage remains the primary trait that moves shoppers to consider the hybrid version of Sonata, said Austin Adams, a sales manager of Salem Ford Hyundai. But he sees other qualities that cause people to elevate the Sonata Hybrid above the Sonata GLS, SE or Limited variations – the three trim levels in the gas-only Sonata.

A primary one is Sonata Hybrid’s appearance.

“I’ve actually had people go to the hybrid just because of its styling differences” Adams said.

True, the Sonata Hybrid is fundamentally a Sonata in shape, stature and general appearance. But that family resemblance is a good starting point, said Adams, because the Sonata sedan is widely regarded as a dynamically poised and dramatically sculpted, stand-out auto. To distinguish Sonata’s hybrid variant, Hyundai alters its nose and tail, with a deeper front air dam, and headlights and taillights that stand apart from gas-driven Sonatas. The flared sills along the bottom on the hybrid are extended and made more prominent, aiding air flow around the car while the change also helps it stand out from conventional Sonata versions. The same goes for Sonata Hybrid’s unique wheels, made to both distinguish the car and aid air flow.

The differences are enough to attract attention, Adams stated.

“Some people have moved from the conventional gas Sonata to the Sonata Hybrid because of its styling,” he affirmed.

The Sonata Hybrid starts at a list price of $26,445. That’s about $4,500 more than the starting list price for a Sonata GLS, at the base of the model’s range. But with current manufacturer’s incentives and discounts, Sonata Hybrids are leaving the dealership at under $25,000.

“They’re not terribly more expensive than an ordinary Sonata,” Adams said. “It’s a vehicle that anybody can afford.”

The economics becomes more attractive for long-distance drivers who will benefit most from the model’s fuel economy. In the Merrimack Valley, said Adams, “the typical buyer of a Sonata Hybrid is a Boston commuter between the ages of 30 and 45.”

They tend to go for the model not because it’s a hybrid, but because it’s an auto with a wide range of qualities that suit them.

“You’re not sacrificing style, because it’s a Sonata. You’re not sacrificing comfort, because it’s a big car with plenty of space. You’re not sacrificing mileage, because it’s a hybrid. It’s just win, win, win all the way around,” Adams said.

Car dealers still encounter hybrid shoppers who want a half-gas, half-electric drive system for the environmental statement it makes by reducing gasoline consumption, he explained. But increasingly, especially with well-rounded models like the Sonata Hybrid, the cars are sought not for the statement they make, but for advantages that suit some drivers perfectly.

Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction and non-fiction books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.

2013 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid :Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive mid-size hybrid sedan Price range: $26,445 to $31,345 (plus options) Warranty: 5 years/60,000 miles basic warranty; 10 years/100,000 miles powertrain and hybrid component warranty; lifetime hybrid battery warranty; 7 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 5 years/unlimited miles roadside assistance Engine: 2.4-liter I4 and 35kW electric motor Power: 199 horsepower at 5,500 rpm Transmission: 6-speed automatic Fuel economy: 36 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 feet