2011 Hyundai Sonata: A late arrival to the hybrid party

December 30, 2010: 10:31 AM ET

Despite a steep price tag and less than stellar drivability, the 2011 Sonata puts Hyundai in the hybrid game, giving shoppers another reason to consider a brand they might have snubbed a few years ago.

In 2010, the Hyundai Sonata came out of nowhere to break into the ranks of the 10-best selling vehicles for the first time. Don't be surprised to see it challenge for the top five in 2011. In addition to natural momentum, the plain vanilla Sonata Sedan is getting two new toppings: the Sonata Turbo and now the Sonata Hybrid.

Hyundai is late to the hybrid party but has come up with some original ideas that compensate for its tardiness.

I will leave it to the engineers to explain the technical details. To keep things simple: The Sonata hybrid is biased toward highway driving -- unlike most hybrids that get better mileage in city driving. It uses advanced lithium-polymer batteries, which are lighter and more compact than conventional zinc metal-hydride cells. And a novel transmission setup that utilizes the same six-speed automatic transmission used in the sedan allows the electric engine and gasoline motor to work independently from each other. Hyundai calls it Hybrid Blue Drive.

In appearance, the Sonata hybrid is similar to the sedan, which means it tiptoes just this side of "overwrought." A new feature is a gaping front grille that rivals Audi's and Mazda's in scale, and threatens to cross over the taste line. The interior is up-to-date, though without seeming as segment-leading as it did when the sedan was introduced.

On drivability, the hybrid fails to live up to the standards of its gas-powered predecessor. Notably, the weight penalty imposed by the batteries and the horsepower deficit imposed by the smaller 166 hp internal engine together limit the Sonata's zero-to-60 acceleration to the mid-nine seconds -- pokey for a mid-size sedan. The Sonata feels sluggish.

But nobody buys a hybrid for its looks or its performance; fuel economy is everything. Here, the Sonata hybrid gets an incomplete.

Much as Hollywood puts movies into limited release before New Years Day to qualify them for Oscars, Hyundai put pre-production hybrids in the hands of journalists for limited test drives in late December to build support for North American Car of the Year voting.

In this case, "limited" meant 24 hours. I had barely enough time to put 70 miles on the hybrid during a run to the Berkshires from northwestern Connecticut.

Despite an average speed of 37 miles per hour, and several stretches where I managed to crack 60 mph, I was only able to manage 34.7 miles per gallon. That's well below the 36 mpg city/40 mpg highway/38 mpg combined rating Hyundai expects to get from the EPA.

Those numbers compare unfavorably with the 50 mpg/combined of the Toyota (TM) Prius. And they even look a bit shabby next to the 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway of the plain vanilla Sonata.

I'd like to test the hybrid for a more extended period to see if I can boost those mileage numbers. But the bottom line comes up the same for most every vehicle that combines electricity with gasoline power: Buying a hybrid is not an economic decision but an act of faith and a vote for the future of the planet.

In Hyundai's case, the numbers are stark. In theory, you can get a barebones sedan for $19,995. But the entry level hybrid comes in at $25,795 while the up-market version will set you back $30,795. Until gasoline goes past $4 per gallon, that's not a compelling proposition.

Still, the Sonata hybrid gets Hyundai squarely in the game, and gives car shoppers another reason to consider a brand they might have snubbed a few years ago.

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