2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid: First Drive

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We've told you many times about the upcoming 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid--delving into its cosmetic and technical changes in our live coverage from the 2010 New York auto show, discussing how it fits in the Sonata lineup in a New York preview, reporting live from Korea on the Sonata Hybrid's potential 40-mpg highway fuel economy rating, and figuring out how the Sonata Hybrid could be cheaper than a new Prius.

With all that, we've almost forgotten to tell you about our brief driving experience in the new Sonata Hybrid. Last month I took the new gas-electric Hyundai for a short few straight-line runs on the company's proving grounds near Seoul, as engineers worked on the final stages of development and tuning, trying to extract that final gas-mileage rating from the new sedan.

It's difficult to get any rational driving impression out of less than a mile in a prototype still a few revs away from production--but we appreciated Hyundai's determination to show us what could very well be the most important version of the new Sonata.

The Hybrid, we predict, will steal all the limelight from the stock four-cylinder car and even from the paddle-shifted, 274-horsepower Sonata 2.0T turbo, because of its stand-alone looks and what could be a 40-mpg highway EPA rating. Only the Ford Fusion Hybrid comes close to the Sonata Hybrid's predicted fuel economy, and its 41/36-mpg rating inverses the Hyundai's current 37/39 mpg rating in doing better in the city cycle.

Chemistry lesson

Briefly, since we've told you before: the Sonata Hybrid's 169-horsepower gas engine teams with a 40-horsepower electric motor and the special version of the six-speed automatic transmission to put out 209 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. Hyundai promises a 0-60 mph time of about 9.2 seconds while delivering at least that 37/39 mpg rating.

Hyundai's pushing hard to hit 40 mpg on the highway mode to give it the marketing edge--but as it stands, the Sonata Hybrid's a striking achievement. Not only is it Hyundai's first U.S.-sold hybrid, it's also unconventional in its battery chemistry (lithium-polymer, which it's developing with LG Chem) and in its transmission of power, through a conventional six-speed automatic without a torque converter.

The last detail is important: without the cost of developing a CVT to pair with the Hybrid's batteries and gas engine, Hyundai could afford to develop a second electric motor which decouples the Hybrid's engine to let it run on battery power much more often. Combined, the electric motors assist the engine, power the Sonata Hybrid entirely, assist the engine, or recharge the battery pack.


 
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