When I first tested the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, I came away impressed by its driving dynamics and ability to drive at highway speeds solely on its electric motor. In fact, those two features remain its two key differentiators in the hybrid sedan market. Yet, in the 18 months since I last tested the electrified Sonata, I've tested newer hybrids that have a level of refinement that's simply impressive. This leaves the Sonata Hybrid fighting new battle where the opponents now have better weapons in their arsenal.
Where most, if not all, hybrids, include a continuously variable transmission for their inherent efficiency, the Sonata works its mojo through a six-speed automatic. This transmission gives it more conventional driving dynamics that's familiar to most drivers.
Where a CVT will cause engine speed to constantly rise and fall in search of power or economy, the Sonata Hybrid's automatic is refreshingly conventional in function. When you're in search of power, it downshifts responsively and gives you the gear you need. One trick this Sonata has up its sleeve - unlike the Toyota Camry Hybrid - is that it will run solely on electric power at highway speeds, if sometimes too briefly.
Any hybrid is all about the numbers. Under the hood is a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine that makes 166 horsepower and when combined with the electric motor, total output is 206 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque.
The Sonata Hybrid is rated at 4.7 L/100 km city and 4.8 highway. In my mostly urban test, the Sonata averaged 9.7 under my heavier than average foot. My previous and predominantly highway test resulted in a 7.1 average, which is impressive for me. For comparison's sake, the venerable Toyota Camry XLE Hybrid is rated at 4.7 city and 5.1 highway.
Often the brake pedal feel is compromised by an electrified car's regenerative braking system and thankfully that's not the case with the Sonata. Pedal feel is above average and the brakes can be modulated with precision.
There is an unnatural heft to the steering and the driver has to apply more effort than should be necessary in a mid-sized sedan. Road feel through the wheel is a little numb, but the steering is saved by its precision.
Ergonomics / Comfort / Quality
One of the highlights of the Sonata's interior is the comfort of the front seats. I find them almost German in character with great all-around support and just the right firmness for comfort during long road trips.
As well, the interior of this modern Hyundai is what American cars used to be - simple and straightforward. The instrument panel as well as the controls for the audio and climate systems are easy to use and within reach.
The trouble with the base and premium models is that you're forced to take leather upholstery, which in my opinion, has no business in a hybrid.
Functionality / Usability
The Hybrid is not just visually distinct from the gas-only Sonata, but the Hybrid badging and styling cues are on the verge of being conspicuous. I'd rather see a more understated approach.
The Hybrid uses a lithium-ion battery which is smaller and lighter than conventional hybrid batteries, but the point it moot given that its main rival, the Camry Hybrid, posts similar fuel consumption numbers.
After driving some of the latest hybrid technology from Toyota and being pleasantly surprised by their drivability, coming back to the Sonata Hybrid has left me wanting more. With rivals' powertrain systems improving in terms of refinement, Hyundai may have to revise the Sonata sooner rather than later.
Production for the 2013 model hasn't started at the time of this writing, so it's just the 2012 model that remains on sale for the coming months. The 2012 model starts at $28,999, with the Premium model priced at $33,999.
The Camry LE Hybrid starts at just $27,710, but fully loaded runs to $35,320, eclipsing the Sonata's price. Kia's Optima Hybrid, a virtual twin underneath the skin starts at $30,595 with the premium model reaching $35,695, making it the most expensive mid-sized hybrid sedan - but arguably the best looking.