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CarGurus Expert ReviewThe Good
The 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid offers an efficient, economical and spacious option with fresh styling to boot.The Bad
Complaints regarding the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid revolve around numb steering, some questionable interior materials and a lack of trunk space thanks to the hybrid battery packs.
The CarGurus View
Because of Hyundai’s approach to the Hybrid segment, the Sonata offers a smart blend of old and new that might be the least obtrusive entry into the class. By pushing the tech with lithium-polymer batteries and sticking with the familiar by using the traditional 6-speed automatic transmission, they’re easing the entry into a new arena for the consumer. With style that immediately announces your ecological intent and a price that doesn’t make the sacrifice too painful, the Sonata Hybrid stands a good chance of getting some of that eco-pie.
At a Glance
A bit of old with your new, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid has some of the latest hybrid tech – hello lithium batteries! - paired with some of the oldest for a combination that just might unseat some solidly cemented rivals. With the Fusion Hybrid impressing with sporty handling and class-leading fuel economy and the Prius sitting on more than a decade of experience, there wasn’t much pie left for the Sonata Hybrid to carve out a slice. Know Thyself is a bit of Delphinian wisdom that’s just as useful in the contemporary automotive industry as it was in ancient Greece. Hyundai knows this as well as any other manufacturer out there, and the strength of Hyundai has been in high quality/low price – at least lately.
Changes for 2011 include a new front fascia sporting a wide, black opening and new headlights with some fancy light framing. The rear taillamps are LEDS and are fitted in a redesigned rear fascia as well. The exhaust is hidden here, and new wheels show up as well. This isn’t all aesthetic either, as the side skirts and underbody fairing prove. All of this, coupled with an “active air flap” system in the front grille, cut the car's drag coefficient down to a Prius-tying 0.25 cD.
Most manufacturers have been stitching their hybrid lumps to a new-tech CVT – a costly and complicated piece of equipment. Hyundai decided to utilize its reliable old 6-speed automatic instead, and needed to develop some of its own new tech in order to do so. Ditching the torque converter that would normally weigh down the electric motor in order to mate it to the CVT, here the gas and electric motor are attached via a clutch, while the transmission is attached directly to the electric motor. Hyundai claims a combined 209-hp rating, but only 41 of those are from the electric motor. Still, it’s providing 151 lb-ft of the total 195 torque rating, and it’ll scoot the Sonata Hybrid around just fine.
Actually, the powertrain's performance is one of the best parts of the Sonata Hybrid. Because it employs the more traditional 6-speed transmission, it doesn’t feel as alien as a hybrid equipped with a CVT, which can leave you feeling very unsatisfied as you wait in vain for the system to shift while it continually builds the rpm. You can even use the manual shift gate here if you really don’t care about your fuel economy.
Speaking of which, testers have been split in their ability to recreate the EPA-estimated 35 mpg city/40 highway rating. Some have reported upwards of 58 mpg, while others have been unable to come even close to the much-ballyhooed 40 mark.
Ride & Handling
Tight electric steering is weighted well and quick enough to make you consider abandoning your ecological tendencies and push the Sonata Hybrid through the turns a bit harder, although some testers have complained of an overly numb feeling. The suspension encourages spirited driving as well, soaking up all but the largest road imperfections easily and still remaining stiff enough to offer a slightly sporty experience. However, the base suspension can be prone to some unnerving body movement over the larger changes in pitch and camber while avoiding the nervous jitteriness the sport suspension can exhibit. A turning circle at the top of its class is a big help around town at least.
Cabin & Comfort
Some small changes take place inside as well, with perforations gracing the optional leather and an extra panel in the sunroof. HVAC controls have been upgraded as well and are much more intuitive with a triad design, and the tach is missing here, replaced with a LCD “eco display” that I’d gladly trade to get back a nice tachometer. More noticeable might be the loss of trunk space due to the batteries, down from 16.4 to 10.7 cubic feet. However, it’s a welcome sacrifice, as the Sonata Hybrid is the first commercial vehicle to use a lithium-polymer battery bank, a more compact, lighter and more energy-dense setup than the NiMH units used by other hybrids.
Noise is well managed, with neither wind nor tires creating much of a ruckus. You will notice the whinge and whine of the hybrid drivetrain, but this is to be expected. A standard power driver’s seat offers a generous range of motion, providing ample room for head and legs of even 6-footers and above. The back seat is similarly spacious, even with front seats slammed aft. Materials are generally matching or exceeding class expectations, with the exception of a few hard plastics that look out of place and deride the overall ambiance of the cabin.
With standard traction and stability control, front-seat active head restraints, assisted 4-wheel antilock discs and 6 airbags, the 2011 Sonata Hybrid scored top marks in all test categories from both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
What Owners Think
With sufficient acceleration, a tight turning circle and a trendy redesign, buyers are happy with the ecological option the Sonata Hybrid offers. Abundant passenger room is another high point, although the lessened trunk space here thanks to the battery packs does present a bit of a drawback. Still, owners seem pleased with both the value and performance of the Sonata Hybrid, especially with regard to the stylish package it comes in.
by Michael Perkins
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