By Aaron Bragman on April 30, 2013
When it appeared in 2011 to counter rivals like the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid generally didn't fare too well in head-to-head matchups. Complaints of a lack of refinement in the hybrid powertrain and braking feel were cited, and the Sonata routinely under-delivered on the fuel economy front. Hyundai seems to have been listening, as these are exactly the areas the company focused on for the 2013 Sonata Hybrid, and the result is a top-notch, fully competitive hybrid sedan ready to take on the competitors.
Changes start with the powertrain: The same 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine remains, but it now makes slightly less power, 159 horsepower compared to the 2012 model's 166. This is made up for by a more powerful electric motor, rated at 35 kilowatts instead of the last model's 30. Net power thus drops from 206 in the 2012 model to 199 in the 2013, but this is the only trade-off for superior performance, fuel economy and cargo room. The 2013 Sonata Hybrid's lithium polymer battery has a higher capacity, but it's also lighter and better packaged, allowing the trunk's cargo room to grow from 10.7 to 12.1 cubic feet.
Hyundai also tuned these new components far better than the last version. The car exhibits improved smoothness in its electric-to-gas hybrid transition, better regenerative braking feel and much more seamless acceleration. A light in the gauge cluster will light up when the engine shuts off while cruising on flat, level roads indicating that the car is operating electrically — and it will do so even at highway speeds. Although there is no dedicated EV mode button, the car seems like it's engaged in all-electric driving over more distance and under harder acceleration than the competition.
The Sonata Hybrid has a conventional six-speed automatic, which makes the car feel more "normal" than many other hybrid sedans on the market that use continuously variable transmissions. There is no loud, buzzy drone under hard acceleration as there is with a CVT, just smooth acceleration and barely perceptible shifts. At speed, the Sonata's ride is well damped, and the cabin is quiet with just minor wind noise.
The improvements boost the Sonata Hybrid's fuel economy as well, with the 2013 rated at 36 city, 40 highway and 38 combined, compared to the 2012 model's 34/39/36 (the 2013 Limited trim level gets 37 combined, due to the extra weight of equipment). This matches more favorably against the Toyota Camry Hybrid LE (43/39/41) and XLE (40/38/40) than the Ford Fusion Hybrid (47/47/47), although the average reported fuel economy for the Fusion is nowhere near the EPA rating, according to government website fueleconomy.gov. My test loop consisted of a morning's worth of high-speed highway, some stop-and-go traffic and a few hard acceleration moments to pass slower traffic, returning a respectable combined 37 mpg. This compares favorably to the consumer-reported averages for the Camry and Fusion.
That number becomes even more impressive when one considers the car that delivered it. The '13 Sonata Hybrid is a big midsize sedan with plenty of room inside, comfortable seats and high-quality materials throughout. Exterior styling is differentiated from conventional Sonatas through different front and rear ends, headlights, taillights and wheels. My Limited model had leather seats, navigation, a nine-speaker Infinity sound system, heated front and rear seats and a massive panoramic sunroof. The only aspect of the Sonata Hybrid's interior that did not impress was the infotainment system's subpar graphics. Hybrid functions and monitoring displays are located in several different places throughout the hierarchy of screens, and the ones that are available look extremely dated and offer limited information. This is an area that can easily be updated to look better, yet looks nearly a decade behind the times in its sophistication.
Pricing is still reasonable for the Sonata Hybrid as well, starting at $26,445 (including $795 delivery fee) for the base Hybrid and climbing to $31,345 for the Hybrid Limited. The only option is a $1,000 panoramic sunroof on the Limited model. The Camry Hybrid LE starts at $26,935 (including $795 destination fee), jumping to $28,465 for the more luxurious XLE. The XLE price does not include a leather interior ($1,185) or integrated back-up camera and alarm ($695), bringing a comparably equipped XLE to $30,345. The Ford Fusion Hybrid is more expensive, starting at $27,995 (including $795 shipping) for an SE trim model and jumping to $32,895 for the Titanium. Load it up with comparable technology goodies and a moonroof, however, and the Fusion Hybrid Titanium can easily top $36,890.
Hyundai's updated Sonata Hybrid removes all the complaints many had about the operation of the old model, displaying a welcome refinement that further demonstrates the company's ability to do something that previously the Japanese had been known for: continuous improvement.Related:
Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman grew up in the Detroit area, comes from an automotive family and is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Email Aaron