Hyundai's new Sonata Hybrid: slippery, and the "new kid on the block" is great on the highway. (Jim Motavalli photo)
NEW YORK CITY--When I referred to this new 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid as "sleek" in the headline, I didn't just mean that for effect: It's really sleek, with a coefficient of drag (a measure of aerodynamics) at just 0.25. That means its ability to slip through the air is at the very top of the industry, and it's a big factor in its being able to do well in the green sweepstakes.
One of the knocks on hybrids is that they don't do well on the highways that Americans insist on using regularly (57 percent of their time on the road, according to a recent survey). Hybrids achieve their savings mostly in start-and-stop driving. That's why the Sonata stands out: It gets 39 mpg on the highway and 37 in the city. This is a hybrid built for American driving cycles. It offers 40 percent better city fuel economy than standard Sonatas. "It's for people who drive a lot," said Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik.
Admit it: You don't think of Hyundai as a green company, and indeed it hasn't emphasized that area. But Hyundais average an impressive 30 mpg, and the Sonata Hybrid demands serious considerations. It's "Blue Drive" architecture is a full hybrid using unique lithium-polymer batteries that, according to Krafcik, are 20% lighter than nickel-metal-hydride packs in most hybrid cars.
The Sonata is a full hybrid, meaning its batteries and motor can actually drive the car on their own--in fact, up to 62 mph (but not for long). I haven't driven it yet, but it should be a decent performer, offering 209 horsepower from both gas engine and electric motor. The drivetrain is attached to a six-speed automatic, rather than the continuously variable transmission (CVT) used in most hybrids. Another advantage the car has is weight: At 3,457 pounds with a heavy battery pack on board, the car is more than 200 pounds lighter than the Ford Fusion Hybrid. Weight is everything in fuel economy. To get the new Chevrolet Cruze Eco up to 40 mpg, engineers thinned panels by a fraction of an inch and even shaved welds to make them weigh less.
"The Sonata is the new kid on the hybrid block," Krafcik said. The car, which will be released late in 2010, isn't priced yet, but given Hyundai's budget approach it could end up being quite affordable.
How many Sonatas will be gas-electric models? "The take rate could be higher than with other hybrids," said Erich Merkle, president of and analyst with Autoconomy.com. "People will like the better fuel economy on the highway, and though you can tell it's a Sonata it's also easily distinguishable from non-hybrid models."
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