It wasn’t all that long ago that a new Hyundai model would arrive with the modest hopes of simply “getting on the radar” of potential purchasers.

How times have changed.

These days, the latest Hyundai models have moved to the top-level of their sedan and SUV segments. Now, along comes Hyundai’s 2011 Sonata Hybrid, a vehicle that arrived with such glowing recommendations from colleagues that my expectations were raised to unrealistic levels.

In the hybrid world, the Toyota Prius has established the bar — at least in the American driving public’s consciousness — based on its long-established levels of drivability, fuel economy, and reliability. No other manufacturer has been able to alter that perception, even though there’s an ever-growing list of competent hybrids on the market. It’s similar to the way Chrysler’s minivans ruled that segment during the 1980s.

If you’ve been hiding under a barrel for the past 15 years, Hyundai has made one of the world’s most remarkable brand-name turnarounds, going from the bottom of that barrel to becoming a major player with all of its new models.

This hybrid takes the critically acclaimed Sonata’s good looks and improves upon them strikingly with restyled and deeper front and rear fascias, extended rocker panels, lower-drag styling around the wheel openings, and blue-toned accents. Frankly, it’s an eye-catching vehicle.

Hyundai offers the model in one trim level with a base price of $26,515 (including destination). The one significant option available is a $5,000 premium package that adds navigation, rearview camera, panoramic moonroof, heated (front and rear) leather seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, and an upgraded Infinity audio system. Our test ride was the base model with only carpeted floor mats and an iPod cable in the extras column for a bottom-line MSRP of $26,650.

Hyundai’s EPA fuel economy ratings for the Sonata Hybrid are 35 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. We were stumbling along at 31.8 mpg after a couple of days of around-town driving, but a July 4 weekend trip bumped it to 38.7 mpg.

The Hyundai hybrid system has its electric motor sandwiched between the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 166 horsepower and 154 lb.-ft of torque, coupled with a six-speed automatic transmission instead of the CVT (continuously variable transmission) found in most hybrids. Adding the electric motor results in a vehicle rated at 206 horsepower and 193 lb.-ft. of torque.

Hyundai came close to hitting a home run with the combination, but the ball only has made it to the warning track so far, leaving the expectation that further refinements will perfect this system. Initially, if you’re accelerating slowly, this hybrid will stay in electric mode. However, once you enter real-world traffic conditions, you’re pushing harder on the accelerator and the computer algorithms are still thinking economy. As a result, the transmission on occasion shifts a bit hesitantly in the lower gears.

On the other hand, if you say, “forget economy,” and push the pedal down, the Sonata moves out smartly. But the driving experience doesn’t feel quite the same as in a non-hybrid. Maybe it’s a case of driver guilt for leaving the gas-saving mindset.

It’s a similar situation on the highway. The Sonata wants to stay in economy mode to maximize fuel economy. Hyundai has programmed the car to allow it to be in EV mode up to 62 mph. However, use your “lead foot” and you’ll discover it rockets away (relatively speaking). Hyundai has set up its hybrid drivetrain to allow a variety of engines to be combined with its six current automatic transmissions, positioning itself nicely for additional models if the hybrid movement continues to gain momentum.

The interior is totally up to contemporary standards with electroluminescent gauges and quality materials. Pairing my iPhone was a breeze, and the voice recognition system completed three consecutive calls. The system then switched over to playing the music on the phone at the touch of a button. The driver’s seat has power controls and a lumbar support. After some adjusting, it was fine for longer trips.

Hyundai has done an exemplary job of squeezing its lithium polymer battery pack into the Sonata, leaving adequate rear-seat space and enough trunk room. The trunk space took the bulk of the hit, though we still were able to fit a three-day weekend’s worth of gear back there. The rear seats do not fold down.

The Sonata Hybrid is borderline excellent as it stands today. Attention competition: It’s only going to get better.

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $26,515 / $26,650.
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 35 city / 40 highway.
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 38.7 mpg.
Drivetrain: 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, 40.2 horsepower electric motor, six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel-drive.
Body: Four-door, five-passenger sedan.

Horsepower: 206.2 (combined gas and electric motors)
Torque: 193.4 lb.-ft. (combined)
Overall length: 189.8 in.
Wheelbase: 110 in.
Height: 57.7 in.
Width: 72.2 in.
Curb weight: 3,483 lbs.

THE GOOD: Styling, fuel economy, standard features, new-generation lithium polymer batteries

THE BAD: Some quirkiness in drivetrain at low speeds, suspension less refined and compliant than some competitors

THE BOTTOM LINE: An impressive start down the hybrid road

ALSO CONSIDER: Hybrid models of the Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry

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