This was pretty much inevitable, wasn't it?
Hyundai has been a big player in most of the important automotive segments in the U.S. for a while now -- trucks glaringly excluded -- so the advent of the 2012 Sonata Hybrid came as little surprise.
But rather than showing up with last decade’s technology borrowed from another automaker, as many first-timers do, the mid-size car comes packed with cutting edge, home-grown technology.
Most notable is its compact lithium-polymer battery pack, something that even the undisputed hybrid champion, Toyota, has yet to toy with it its mainstream hybrid models. It’s mated to a drivetrain comprised of a four-cylinder engine, electric motor and a six-speed automatic transmission that promises fuel economy of 35 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, according to the EPA. Combined power is on par with the conventional four-cylinder Sonata, but the car weighs about 250 pounds more. Its base price of $26,625 also represents about a five grand premium over the standard car. This sort of efficiency still doesn’t come cheaply.
Some of that money goes toward the Hybrid’s striking bodywork. Its gaping-mouth, deep side skirts and reshaped rear bumper both improve aerodynamics and offer a more aggressive appearance. The slim, chrome-trimmed upper grille sitting like an upturned nose over the headlights and giving it the gaze of a rhinoceros ready to charge.
Inside, the Hybrid is the same as any other Sonata, and there are no complaints there. This is an enormous car for its class, with comfortable seating and a contemporary design. The only major difference is the size of the trunk, which on paper drops from a cavernous 16.4 cubic feet to 10.7 cubic feet, thanks to the installation of that battery pack, but seems larger than that.
Aside from paint colors, only two options are available. There’s a leather package that includes heated seats for $1,500 and the $5,500 Ultimate Package that includes that plus dual sunroofs, navigation, a 400-watt Infinity HD stereo, some added trim and 17-inch food-processor blade rims -- the better to cut through the air with. Hyundai’s new Blue Link telematics system comes standard and offers a suite of concierge and safety services similar to GM’s OnStar, but please don’t tell Hyundai that I told you that.
Boot up the Sonata (hybrids don’t really start, right?) hit the accelerator and you usually pull away in battery-powered mode accompanied by a louder than usual, but somewhat cool, electric motor sound. If there’s enough juice in the battery, it will run like this for a fair bit. When the gasoline engine kicks in, you’ll know it. Not so much because of the noise, but thanks to a light surge in power that often accompanies it, or a slight hesitation as it decides what gear it wants to use. Bothersome? Not really, but definitely noticeable.
Move on to cruising speed and things smooth out. The hybrid information displays in the instrument cluster and on the center console monitor indicating a robust use of the electric motor. On flat or downhill stretches it can switch into all-electric mode at speeds up to 74 mph, and often does.
On the highway I found it entertaining to shift the transmission into manual, locking it in sixth gear, and floor the throttle, which calls on the electric motor do most of the accelerating rather than downshifting and revving the engine. I’ve no idea if this is at all efficient, but as other hybrids that use “gearless” CVT transmission don’t allow you do this, something I enjoyed.
Hit the brakes, however, and another hybrid bugaboo surfaces. The pedal does little at first, then bites harder than you expect as the electricity-generating regenerative braking system kick in, eventually becoming easier to modulate as the discs take over to slow the car. A couple of more coding marathons could be in order here for the programmers.
The Sonata Hybrid is a rookie effort and it shows at times. The transitions between gas, electric and combined drive are not always seamless. You get the feeling the car is still sort of figuring it out, but never quite does. For the most part, it’s entirely acceptable, but my job is to nitpick and there’s that last 10 percent of refinement where it falls short of more seasoned efforts in the hybrid field.
Unfortunately, fuel economy may be another of those areas. Despite the lofty numbers on the window sticker, the best I saw in mostly highway driving was 32 mpg, and my overall average was 27.5 mpg. Granted, I don’t run the EPA cycle, but something closer to the low end of the Sonata’s official figures would’ve been more impressive.
One thing that continues to impress is Hyundai’s suite of warranty coverage, which is augmented in the Sonata Hybrid with a lifetime, though non-transferrable warranty on the battery pack. This only covers major failures, not the fractional reduction in charge capacity that happens over time, but is added assurance given the all-new technology involved. Hyundai says its tests show that it’s good for 300,000 miles, so this was a no-brainer for the marketing department.
Choosing the Hybrid over the standard Sonata and its 24 mpg city, 35 mpg highway fuel economy rating may be less of one, which is probably why they made it look so good. I predict a lot of customers will love it simply for its body, something you can’t say for too many eco-friendly cars.
As for the rest of it, no one, not even Porsche or BMW, gets their hybrids perfect the first time around. Based on its track record with everything else it’s made over the past few years, you can be sure that Hyundai will next time around.
It’s pretty much inevitable.
2012 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
Base price: $26,625
As tested: $31,485
Powertrain: 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor
Power: 206 hp, 195 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 35 city, 40 hwy
Do you own a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid? Let us know what you think in the comments section.
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.