Cars

Sonata Hybrid: Small changes, big results

Whoever said, “A little goes a long way,” must have experienced the subtle updates employed on the 2013 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. Hyundai engineers have taken the route of making incremental improvements while retaining the appearance, standard equipment, and value that have made this Korean fuel-miser such a success.

The conventionally powered Hyundai Sonata family sedan burst onto the scene in 2009, with hybrid sales commencing in February 2011. By then, the Sonata was already crowned 2011 Green Car of the Year, edging out the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. Where the Leaf and Volt both require sacrifices in practicality and usability, the Sonata Hybrid benefits from having the standard Sonata family sedan as its root vehicle.

The Sonata Hybrid is visually quite different from its conventionally powered counterpart. While the 2013 Sonata is a study in attractive, staid design, the Sonata Hybrid looks like its replacement … from 2023. The massive, black mesh grille and curvaceous LED strip in the headlights let all passers-by know that this is not the standard Sonata.

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It may look like a Sonata from a decade down the road, but based on current fuel economy, it would more closely meet the national fuel economy standards set for 2017. Perhaps that is why Hyundai engineers are hard at work improving the Sonata Hybrid to achieve those exceptionally high—but necessary—Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

Improvements start on the outside, with reshaped front and rear lower fasciae, lower side skirts, and a lowdrag wheel design. Drag coefficient is the metric used to quantify the aerodynamic attributes of a vehicle. The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid achieves a drag coefficient of 0.24, which not only beats the Toyota Prius, but also is better than sports cars like the Nissan GT-R or Porsche 911 GT2 RS, where aerodynamics are essential to performance.

While those aero adjustments will marginally improve fuel economy, the key changes occur in the battery pack and electric motor. The battery pack, which wasa34 kW unit, has been replaced with a denser 47 kW lithium polymer system. This battery pack is not only capable of storing more power, but it is smaller, and takes up less space in the trunk. It sheds 4.6 pounds, to 87.8 pounds, while improving cargo space—a jump from 10.7 to 12.1 cubic feet of cargo room. It should also be noted that the battery pack comes with a lifetime warranty, and industry exclusive.

A 2.4-liter, Atkinson-Cycle, four-cylinder engine continues as the gas engine in the Sonata’s hybrid powertrain formula. While the 2012 model produced 166 horsepower, the 2013 model puts out 159 horses. Yes, that is a decrease in output, but power is distributed more evenly, which is key for the driving style necessary to achieve improved fuel economy.

While the output of the gas engine has decreased, electric propulsion capabilities have increased. The 30 kW electric motor from the 2012 model has been replaced with a 25 kW unit. Combined with a more capable battery pack, the 2013 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid now has improved all-electric driving capabilities. The Sonata Hybrid can travel under two miles on pure electric, which is an improvement over the 2012 model, and still more capable than other hybrids on the market. The Toyota Camry Hybrid, for example, can travel 1.6 miles on EV.

The proof is in the final mpg numbers when it comes to all of these minor improvements. City fuel economy jumps from 34 mpg to 36 mpg. Highway increases from 39 to 40, and combined fuel economy goes from 36 mpg to 38—that combined figure drops again to 37 MPG in the Limited model, due to the added equipment.

In the past year, Hyundai came under fire for misrepresenting its fuel economy numbers, as drivers were reporting that they were not achieving the advertised numbers. Hyundai was forced to revise and lower its EPA figures nearly across the board. It should be pointed out that EPA tests are favorable to hybrids, but are less reflective of your typical commute. These powertrain adjustments not only result in improved fuel economy numbers, but are more suited to real-world driving conditions. As such, the numbers you see should be the actual fuel economy that you get.

One may think these minor changes would be unnoticeable in the driving experience, but that is to severely underestimate the focus and expertise of an automotive journalist. Frankly, even the untrained driver could pick up on the improved drivability. The 2012 model really felt like you were driving a hybrid, wheezing under hard uphill acceleration. The 2013 will not blow the doors off a Supercharged Shelby Mustang, but it is a step toward no-sacrifice, everyday drivability. It feels less like driving a hybrid and more like driving a gas-powered car.

Here’s something you’ll notice: The hybrid Sonata price is $200 less than the 2012 model. At $25,650, it undercuts hybrid competitors such as the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid.The latter achieves more impressive fuel economy numbers, but for thousands of dollars more, thus negating the financial incentive ofahybrid—or at least pushing the “break even point” farther down the road.

Any automaker has the resources to build a hybrid, but can it be sold at a price that will engage consumers? And what sacrifices will the driver make for this choice? With the 2013 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, the driver gets more trunk space and a more conventional driving experience at a lower price. It sounds like Hyundai understands what it takes to makeahybrid compelling

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