Auto manufacturers are laying some serious bets on alternative technologies. It’s no longer good enough that you have a hybrid or a full electric, or some hydrogen powered pipe dream in your sub-sub-compact offering, or on the show circuit to display what your engineers have been up to. The year 2025 is right around the corner, and by then, all the auto manufacturers need to hit a corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon. That means that they need to start delivering outstanding fuel mileage not just on some cars, but all of them. Right now, Hyundai is placing its bets that turbocharging in some of its cars, and hybrid technology that offers full EV capability, can get it there. How does it stack up against its similarly sized and price rivals?
You don’t buy the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, the Ford Fusion Hybrid, or the Toyota Camry Hybrid on looks or interior appointments alone. But when you’re laying out $30,000 for a car, you should appreciate the way it looks and feels if you’re going to be spending time inside it, or looking at it in the driveway. Purely subjectively, the Ford Fusion Hybrid is the best looking of the bunch, with aggressive grille work that makes it look like a sedan built by Aston Martin. The Camry Hybrid is by far the Barry Goldwater of conservative sedans, with no aesthetic features that make it stand out positively or negatively. The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid? Hyundai calls it “Fluidic Sculpture” and it does have the appearance of running water along its flanks. It’s something you either like or loathe about modern auto design. If you like cars to look like cars, it’s a little off-putting.
What you do buy these cars for is technology and efficiency, and Hyundai turned up the dial on both this year. For 2013, the Sonata Hybrid saw tweaks that allowed it to offer even better fuel economy than before, along with greater power output. Its engineers and battery suppliers worked to improve the packaging of the lithium polymer battery assembly to allow 25 percent less weight, and 40 percent smaller dimensions, which also provided the benefit of larger trunk volume.
Fifteen years ago, when the Toyota Prius emerged as the first production-ready hybrid here in the United States, the most obvious drawback was that there was essentially no cargo volume at all. A decade and a half later, the Sonata Hybrid features a trunk just about as big as any other comparable sedan.
The Sonata Hybrid features an EV mode that allows it to drive completely on the battery. The improvements in battery technology allow the big 47-kilowatt electric motor to propel the Sonata Hybrid up to 74 miles per hour. Obviously, doing so for any length of time means that the battery is going to discharge at a rapid rate, but stuck in traffic on Route 1 on a Sunday, you can switch on the EV mode and negotiate all the stop and go, and quickly be able to scoot up to highway speed without ever having to run the gas engine. The Ford Fusion Hybrid features similar lithium ion technology, which allows it to execute similar bursts up to 62 miles per hour on electric power. The Toyota Camry Hybrid keeps speeds below 25 mph in EV mode.
The fuel economy winner in pure numbers is the Toyota Camry Hybrid, offering 47 mpg in both city and highway driving. Hyundai placed its bet on highway fuel economy, which delivers 40 mpg. City/highway fuel mileage in the Sonata Hybrid is much lower, at just 36 mpg. The Fusion splits the difference, offering 43 mpg in the city, and 39 mpg on the highway.
In most driving conditions, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is easily comparable to either the Ford Fusion Hybrid or the Toyota Camry Hybrid with one exception: braking. Hybrid vehicles feature regenerative braking that uses the friction produced by applying the brakes to spin motors that recharge the battery. It’s part of an overall plan to capture as much energy as possible. But it works best when it’s completely seamless to the driver. Apply the brakes in the Sonata Hybrid, and you know they’re turning those motors. It’s a sensation you’ll get used to, but it definitely will surprise you the first time it happens.
Pricing for hybrids has undergone a significant shift in the last few years. Gone are the days when manufacturers could ring up breathtaking prices for hybrids by offsetting it with significant tax incentives from the US government. You’re on your own now unless you opt for a car like the Nissan Leaf or the Chevrolet Volt. Either in base MSRP or comparably equipped, the Sonata Hybrid is the price winner, coming in at around $500 less than the Fusion Hybrid, and a shocking $3,500 less than the Camry Hybrid at $26,445 fully equipped. Driving the Camry Hybrid, you’ll spend about $100 less a year in gasoline, if you drive about 15,000 miles a year. But it’ll take you 35 years to make up that fuel mileage difference.
Of course, total cost of ownership includes resale value and maintenance. The big difference here is depreciation. According to Edmunds.com’s True Cost to Own calculator, the Hyundai takes a much bigger depreciation hit, eating up the Camry Hybrid’s price disadvantage over five years of ownership. Hyundai doesn’t yet have True Cost to Own data on the updated Fusion Hybrid.
You’re left with trying to decide which of these three super-competitive vehicles offers the advantages you’re interested in. The Hyundai is definitely the car that makes owning a hybrid much less expensive at the outset. It’s also a vehicle that emphasizes interior comfort and convenience and overall performance. With the exception of the braking in the Hyundai Sonata, you’re less likely to remember you’re driving a hybrid, which is true both on a highway onramp and at the fuel pump.Craig Fitzgerald is a freelance automotive writer living in Holliston, Massachusetts. He’s the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and he’s the creator of ClunkerNation.com. You can follow him on twitter at @vespafitz, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.