The 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid andmay not be twins, but they share much of the same DNA. The sheet metal looks different, but under the skin they are virtually the same.
Built on the same platforms, both the Sonata and Optima Hybrids use a 2.4-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine, complemented by an electric drive system using a 34-kilowatt lithium polymer battery pack. Both offer similar cabin electronics, a flash-memory-based navigation system with traffic and weather, solid MP3 playback, and a Bluetooth phone system. They even use the same Infinity audio systems.
Priced about the same, the only question remaining is whether you like the looks of one over the other. The Sonata Hybrid's body exhibits Hyundai's fluidic sculpture design, with organic contours and curves over the body. It appears futuristic, a car for a new space age, whereas the Kia shows more-traditional lines.
Hyundai fits its hybrid system, called Blue Drive, into the midsize Sonata sedan.
A nice comfort feature of the Sonata Hybrid is the glass roof, which allows dual sunroofs inside the vehicle, one over each set of seats. Of course, the Optima Hybrid also gets this feature.
Responsive cabin interface
The cabin tech suite in the Sonata Hybrid, which all comes as part of a $5,000 package, includes navigation, the Infinity audio system, and some useful connected features. Navigation uses maps stored in flash memory, and here Hyundai really demonstrates how well this technology can work.
Using the center touch screen, the system reacts promptly to every button push. Moving the map around by touch shows absolutely no delay. There is no frustration or double tapping while waiting for the system to respond. But Hyundai also limits this system to 2D maps--there is no perspective view.
Hyundai uses the car's satellite link to bring in data, such as weather and stock prices.
The system uses traffic data from satellite to offer detours when it finds traffic jams on a programmed route, and also shows traffic flow information on the maps. Other connected data includes weather, stocks, and sports. Again, the interface is very responsive for these features.
Along with the iPod integration, USB drive compatibility, and satellite radio you might expect in a modern car, the Sonata Hybrid adds HD Radio and Bluetooth audio streaming. Typically, the Bluetooth streaming does not include track information, just skip and pause controls, through the car's interface.
The Infinity audio system, with a 400-watt amp and seven speakers, including a subwoofer, delivers a very nice listening experience. The system is tuned for balance, with crisp, detailed highs and ample bass. The frequency spread does not sound quite as broad as from some other high-end systems, but it is still quite satisfying.
The Bluetooth phone system features a full interface, with a number pad and access to contacts on the touch screen. Voice command also lets you dial by name with this system.
An upcoming divergence in cabin tech between Kia and Hyundai is UVO voice command in the former, andin the latter. Kia's UVO system will offer voice command over MP3 players, something not available from Hyundai. Blue Link will bring in a telematic service to Hyundai vehicles, with a voice command system to a variety of offboard data, such as weather and local search.
Graphic hybrid displays
Hyundai also uses the touch screen to display an abundance of information about the hybrid power train and the efficiency of your driving. A screen titled Earth shows the globe with an engine on one side and motor on the other. The more you use the engine, the browner the globe appears, while the motor greens up the earth.
The Sonata Hybrid gets many pretty displays but shows little detailed data about the hybrid system's operation.
This set of screens includes a power flow animation and one showing an Eco score, presumably going up with more-efficient driving. But while the graphics are pretty, Hyundai does not include much numerical information. There is no data for how long it has run in electric mode, or to rate fuel economy over set periods of time. This sort of data is limited to the trip computer, which only shows your general average miles per gallon.
And speaking of fuel economy, although the Sonata Hybrid's EPA numbers show 35 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, we only achieved 29.6 mpg after a wide range of driving. Car reviewers are not noted for economical driving habits, yet the Sonata Hybrid fell far below the EPA range. We found a similar issue with the Kia Optima Hybrid.
What should be the most wasteful moment in driving, starting off from a stop, the Sonata Hybrid generally accomplishes under electric power, its 34-kilowatt lithium polymer battery pack giving it the juice to go. Even with the accelerator halfway down, the Sonata Hybrid stayed in electric mode as it took off from a light, where most other hybrids only let you get away with a quarter throttle.
Along with that electric start, the Sonata Hybrid dishes out the usual hybrid goodness, such as traveling under electric power at steady speeds and using brake regeneration. Better yet, the car showed no problems going into electric mode at freeway speeds, although usually when coasting.
The Sonata Hybrid's hand-off between electric power and the engine feels smooth, but there is a distant clatter, especially under heavy acceleration. The car's cabin is well-insulated, but the 2.4-liter four-cylinder sounds unrestrained.
Combined with the electric motor, the total system output is 206 horsepower and 193 pound-feet of torque, which leads to adequate acceleration for passing and merging maneuvers. Strangely, even though the Sonata Hybrid weighs in at 3,483 pounds, 200 less than the Toyota Camry Hybrid, it feels heavy.
The trunk space is compromised by the battery pack, but one standard CNET editor still fits inside.
The battery pack, situated in the trunk, is only 96 pounds, but the Sonata Hybrid drives like it has extra weight down low in the chassis. You can feel it when going around corners and when accelerating. Weight-centered low is not a bad thing in the turns, but the Sonata Hybrid's suspension is tuned for comfort.
The soft suspension soaks up a lot of road harshness but gets unsettled in the turns. After driving over a winding mountain course, we concluded that the Sonata Hybrid is unhappy on these types of roads. Not only does it drift and sway in the turns, the ascents seem to tax the hybrid system.
A button on the steering wheel engages Hyundai's Blue Drive, essentially eco mode with the car. During most of our testing, we left it in this mode and felt that the car was perfectly drivable. Turning off Blue Drive leads to an increase in accelerator sensitivity, but the change is not dramatic.
With its lithium polymer battery pack and drive motor assisting the engine, the Sonata Hybrid earns good marks for its performance technology, although we found the difficulty in keeping close to the EPA fuel economy range problematic. The tuning of suspension and steering make it a good general commuter car.
Its cabin tech, although not cutting edge, brings in enough high-quality and useful features to satisfy most. The Infinity audio system is a nice bonus, especially coupled with the broad range of audio sources. The interface for the cabin tech suite is also very easy to understand, and the responsiveness of the touch screen is especially appreciated.
Hyundai wraps up this hybrid sedan in a pleasing exterior design, and only compromises trunk space slightly.
|Model||2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid|
|Power train||2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, 34-kilowatt lithium polymer hybrid system, six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||35 mpg city/40 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||29.6 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional solid-state-memory-based with Sirius Satellite Traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with phonebook sync|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth audio streaming, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Infinity seven-speaker 400-watt system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$31,650|