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2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. (Hyundai)
2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. (Hyundai)

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Sonata's beauty is more than skin deep Add to ...

Hyundai engineer Mark Guin argues that the beauty of the 2011 Sonata Hybrid ($29,999 base) runs more than sheet-metal deep and he might just have a point.

Moreover, if necessity is the mother of invention and a spur to innovation, then coming late to the gasoline-electric hybrid game has helped Hyundai, not hurt the South Korean car company.

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Guin, a senior Hyundai engineer at the Hyundai-Kia America Technical Centre in Chino, Calif., argues that because Hyundai has followed Ford, General Motors, Honda, Toyota, Porsche, Chrysler and others into hybrids, the company needed to “come up with our own hybrid system while working around existing patents. We believe that the solution we came up with is elegantly simple.”

Simple and effective. The Sonata Hybrid ties the Ford Fusion Hybrid ($34,199) for class-leading highway fuel economy (5.4 litres/100 km), which is not a bad thing given that research shows North American drivers spend 58 per cent of their time driving on highways.

Sure, the Fusion Hybrid bests the Sonata Hybrid in the city (4.6 litres/100 km for the Fusion Hybrid versus 5.6 for the Sonata Hybrid), but the Hyundai has a considerably lower sticker price and more net horsepower (206 for the Hyundai and 191 for the Ford).

Where the Sonata Hybrid absolutely stands out is in electric-only mode. This hybrid can do 120 km/h in electric drive only. No other direct hybrid competitor comes close.

And only Honda’s approach to hybrids is as clean and fuss-free as Hyundai's. If you believe simple is better, then Hyundai has an interesting solution. Basically, Guin and his engineering gang decided to use a standard six-speed automatic transaxle rather than the commonly used – in hybrids, at least –transmission-motor assembly.

Of course the transaxle was modified to work with what Hyundai calls a transmission-mounted electrical device or TMED. The latter has two main parts: a powerful electric drive motor and a solenoid-activated clutch pack.

In a nutshell, between the gasoline engine (a 166-hp, 2.4-litre, four-cylinder) and the driven wheels, Hyundai has plugged in the TMED with its 40.8-hp electric motor, and voila – a hybrid. The clutch pack orchestrates the dance between electric and gasoline power or both, thus this Sonata is a parallel hybrid. To get the motor running, an alternator-starter motor is connected to the crankshaft.

Then there is the battery pack – a 43-kilogram lithium polymer battery job developed with LG Chem. This pack is lighter, smaller and more efficient than the nickel-metal hydride batteries currently used in other hybrids, says Hyundai, adding that the 72-cell pack is more durable and stable than ones using lithium ion cells. Hyundai says the battery pack can last for nearly 500,000 kilometres’ worth of rechargings with only a 10 per cent loss of performance.

Performance? Hyundai says the Sonata Hybrid accelerates to 100 km/h in 9.2 seconds. That makes it quicker than the Fusion and Camry hybrids. Certainly the Sonata Hybrid is more aerodynamic: shutters behind the grille close at highway speeds and the car's underbody is sculpted to reduce drag.

In the cut and thrust of commuter traffic, the six-speed transmission gives the Sonata Hybrid something more of the regular feel of a mainstream sedan without the electric motor and batteries. Drivers can choose performance or economy mode and the former gives this hybrid a pretty racy feel to it from an acceleration point of view.

Nonetheless, the Sonata Hybrid is no lightweight, tipping the scales at a hefty 1,574 kg, 137 kg more than the base Sonata sedan. In a straight line that bulk is not particularly noticeable, but in cornering there is a lumpy leadenness to the car that becomes immediately obvious the moment you turn the steering wheel.

Less obvious are the design changes. The Sonata Hybrid has a different front fascia with a hexagonal grille opening, while the tail lamps at the rear differ from those on the regular Sonata. Inside, you’ll find an electro-luminescent instrument panel and liquid-crystal display between the tachometer and speedometer. It’s there as a graphic reminder of what’s going on with the hybrid system and to encourage economical driving.

For the most part, it’s tough to pick out when the hybrid system is actually doing its work – to determine when the car goes from gas to electric and back, or is using both. The hybrid machinations are mostly seamless to the point of being just about invisible. And, of course, the rest of the car is identical to the everyday gasoline Sonata.

Hyundai does not expect to sell great stacks of Sonata Hybrids. The point of this exercise is to plant the Hyundai flag on Planet Hybrid and go carefully forward from there. This car says Hyundai has some serious technical savvy and should not be taken for granted. Invention and innovation are now part of what Hyundai brings to the marketplace.

jcato@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Type: Mid-size hybrid sedan

Price: $29,999

Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder, DOHC

Horsepower/torque: 166 hp/154 lb-ft

Electric motor: 40.8 hp/151.2 lb-ft

Battery pack: 270-volt lithium polymer

Combined net power: 206 hp

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 5.6 city/5.4 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Fusion Hybrid, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Toyota Prius, Kia Optima Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid

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