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Review: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

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On: Fri, Oct 28, 2011 at 11:23AM | By: Mary McRae

Review: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

On the subject of hybrids you are thought to simply have two options: You can buy a Toyota Prius - a hard-core, 50-mpg hybrid with trendy styling and a utilitarian interior - otherwise you will pay more and get less-spectacular mileage in a more leisurely sedan, like a Ford Fusion or Toyota Camry hybrid. Hyundai joins the second group with the first hybrid, which is based on the Sonata sedan.

So what is it that will make the Sonata Hybrid stand out from the Camry and Fusion hybrids? It features a more advanced battery pack, better mileage on the highway, a traditional six-speed automatic transmission … and it looks cool, too! Overall, the strategy works well. It's flashy enough to shout “hybrid,” additionally it provides a feeling of cool, not of smugness.

Hyundai's first hybrid is impressive in nearly every way. In almost all areas, the hybrid version of the Sonata is just as impressive as the regular sedan is in its segment. It all begins with a significantly enlarged grille and unique LED headlights. There are even flaps behind that grille that open and close, according to your speed, to maximize aerodynamics. Lightweight, aerodynamic wheels and low-rolling-resistance tires also reduce drag.

People stuck in traffic around a Sonata Hybrid will probably stare at its taillights, which mix LED elements with a funky starburst pattern. I've never seen anything like it on a production car. In spite of its pluses and minuses, though, the Sonata Hybrid's unique looks could pull buyers who have been hesitant to buy a hybrid sedan before since the available options did not have bold enough styling. The interior is just perfect, neither dull nor lavish, using materials and a level of detail over the standard for a volume family car.

And how does it do at the pump? Mileage is rated at 35/40 mpg city/highway, which out performs the 2011 Camry Hybrid's 31/35 mpg rating and bests the Fusion Hybrid in highway mileage; the Ford is rated 41/36 mpg.

The Sonata Hybrid is unique because Hyundai engineers expect the car to get greater highway mileage than city mileage. The increased highway ratings are a result of the system’s ability to perform efficiently at higher speeds, the fairly light battery pack, and the aerodynamic bodywork.

With a 17.2-gallon gas tank, the Sonata Hybrid has a theoretical range of 766 miles.

The Sonata Hybrid includes a 166-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a 30-kilowatt electric motor that produce a combined 206 hp. This is a popular build for a hybrid, however the Sonata Hybrid's gas engine is a bit more robust than most others.

Two elements make Hyundai's system distinctive.

For one, it uses a lithium-polymer battery instead than the nickel-metal-hydride one found in other hybrids. Lithium-ion batteries are more efficient and take up less space; they're the kind of batteries that power your cell phone and laptop computer. Basically, this kind allows companies to customize the size of their battery packs - not forgetting they're incredibly light.

The Sonata Hybrid's six-speed automatic transmission is also a hybrid first. Hybrids typically employ continuously variable automatic transmissions (CVT) to optimize fuel efficiency. Hyundai preferred the six-speed, hoping it to provide a better driving experience, one which non-hybrid consumers are accustomed to.

Once the Sonata Hybrid isn't in fuel-sipping mode, shifts are crisp and acceleration is strong. It seemed to hustle quicker versus the base Sonata four-cylinder.

Now, Hyundai has introduced a hybrid version of the Sonata that offers excellent mileage and can be driven in zero-emissions, full-electric mode at speeds up to 62 mph.

Compared to lithium-ion batteries, just like those used in electronic appliances, lithium-polymer batteries offer a similar energy density but decreased heat generation, which increases cycle life. The difference between lithium-ion and lithium-polymer is in the chemistry and packaging. Engineers seeking to take advantage of lithium-ion's superior power density have struggled with its propensity to overheat and weaken as charge cycles accumulate. Hyundai engineers say that the lithium-polymer batteries can withstand tens of thousands of charge cycles, without having to use a liquid-cooling system. All this results in a battery pack which is smaller, easier to cool and less likely to overheat, which results in a car that operates on electric power more often, and for greater periods of time.

Like most hybrids, it's quiet off the line. Once the Li-PB pack gets hot, a light cooling-fan noise can be heard.

Braking, usually a little strange in hybrid vehicles, is also near ideal in the Sonata. Hard braking yields a straight, hard stop, with moderate-level pedal feedback from the ABS system. It feels just like any other car with four-wheel disc brakes and four-channel ABS.

Sonata Hybrid feels about as responsive as a front-wheel-drive family sedan ought to be, and possibly a little better.

There are no individual trim levels for the Sonata Hybrid, which includes a gamut of standard features and simply one option package.

Standard are cloth seats, 16-inch alloy wheels, low-rolling-resistance tires, cruise control, a hybrid trip computer, keyless entry with push-button start, a power driver's seat, a USB port for iPod connectivity plus a six-speaker stereo.

The Premium Package adds 17-inch alloy wheels, heated front and rear seats, leather upholstery, a panoramic sunroof, a navigation system, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, a nine-speaker Infinity stereo, a backup camera and an auto-dimming rearview mirror with a garage-door opener.

The Hyundai Sonata is one of only two cars available which have received both a Top Safety Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and a five-star overall safety rating from the federal government under its new crash-test procedures.

Starting at about $26,000, the Sonata Hybrid is cheaper than the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Toyota Camry Hybrid, and Nissan Altima Hybrid. Hyundai has been, a brand built on value. There are plenty of things to like about the Sonata Hybrid, plus some very promising engineering as well.

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is your best choice if you’re looking for a car that mixes great fuel economy with strong performance, an upscale interior and affordability.

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