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May 02, 2012
By Alex Nishimoto

Going up against the major players in the highly competitive midsize sedan class requires guts, but sales of the latest Sonata suggest Hyundai has what it takes. But challenging the reigning champ Toyota Camry means offering a full range of vehicles, from a base four-cylinder, higher-performance turbo I-4 or V-6 to a range-topping hybrid. We recently got behind the wheel of a 2012 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid to see whether the hybrid sedan is a viable alternative to the class-leading Toyota Camry Hybrid.

On the highway, the Sonata Hybrid is a smooth ride, with the MacPherson strut front and independent multi-link rear suspension transmitting very few road imperfections to the cabin. The car is also right at home in the city, where it can make the most of its start-stop and regenerative braking tech. During my five-minute, stop-and-go drive from the office to the freeway on-ramp, I only noticed the engine restart once. Since there's no tachometer, it's already difficult to tell when the engine is turning off and on, but the buttery smooth operation of the start-stop system makes the process even more seamless.

The regenerative braking functionality was slightly less impressive, with pedal feel that's far from linear. However, getting accustomed to the brakes' grabby nature took just one gridlocked trip from L.A. to Long Beach, and by the time my three-day stint in the car was over, the left pedal felt like that of any other car. The brakes' regenerative ability helps recharge the Sonata's somewhat unorthodox 1.4-kW-hr lithium-polymer battery pack, chosen by Hyundai over more conventional lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride units for its weight- and space-saving advantages, a decision that benefitted the cargo space in the surprisingly adequate trunk. Longevity was another reason Hyundai chose lithium-polymer, as the automaker says the batteries can last more than 10 years, and it backs each Sonata Hybrid battery with a non-transferrable lifetime warranty.

Pushing the Blue mode button on the steering wheel changes the transmission's shift points around, which is supposed to optimize the car's ability to run on all-electric power. Hyundai claims the electric motor alone is capable of powering the car up to 62 mph. But even with Blue mode on, and with the slightest application of the throttle, I never got much further than 20 mph before the gas engine kicked on.

Attempting to pass at speed required some planning, as the combined 206 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque from the car's hybrid drivetrain is motivating up to 3578 pounds, depending on equipment. Accelerating with any amount of gusto from a stop was also less than inspiring, with the naturally aspirated 2.4-liter I-4 panting and wheezing the whole way. The gasoline engine works so hard in part because it's paired with a relatively low-output electric motor. That motor reaches its peak of 40 hp between 1400 and 6000 rpm, and generates peak torque of 151 lb-ft between 0 and 1400 rpm. Compare this to the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which is equipped with a 141-hp, 199-lb-ft electric motor, and the difference in acceleration we saw in our last comparison test (the Sonata Hybrid was 2.3 seconds slower to 60 mph at a sluggish 9.5 seconds) is easy to understand. The hybrid model is also slower than its gasoline-only counterpart, the non-turbo Sonata SE, which we've clocked at an 8.2-second 0-60 mph time. Though the hybrid model is carrying a roughly 300-pound weight penalty, its similar net output to the non-hybrid Sonata makes it hard to justify the 1.4-second gap between the two cars.

To see how our $32,260 Sonata Hybrid compared price-wise against its non-hybrid sibling, we priced out a 2012 Sonata Limited using Hyundai's online configurator. Equipped with 18-inch alloy wheels, heated leather seats, a rearview camera, and upgraded stereo system with navigation, our fantasy non-hybrid Sonata came to about $2700 less than our tester's price tag. The extra money spent for the hybrid could be worth it if the model lives up to its 35/40 mpg city/highway EPA estimates, compared with the 24/35 mpg rating of the standard 2.4-liter-powered Sonata. However, the Sonata Hybrid didn't impress us with its observed 27 mpg average fuel economy (well below its estimated average of 37 mpg) in our last comparison test.

The catfish-like front styling of the Sonata Hybrid is among its most polarizing qualities, but the slender chrome grille and wide-mouthed hexagonal front valance opening grew on me over the course of a weekend. That front end is functional, too, as the headlights, grille area, and front air dam are all streamlined to redirect air around the car's body lines.

The jury is still out on whether that fluidic sculpture design language is a success on the outside, but it at least works inside the futuristic hybrid model. At the very least, the Sonata's sharp-looking dashboard and center stack, and generous use of curves throughout the cabin, are more interesting than the interior of the last Camry hybrid we tested. The simulated brushed metal trim on the center console, door panels, and surrounding the HVAC vents give the cabin a contemporary feel, a theme reinforced by the modern graphics in the central gauge display. That display can be set to show a diagram of the drivetrain that works as a visual aid to help drivers understand (on a basic level) what the car is doing at any given time. I was irritated by how light the door pulls are. There's so little resistance to them, it feels like the door is open all the time, even when it's firmly shut. Despite that minor gripe, the cabin is well-executed, and plenty comfortable for long trips.

Venturing into the competitive midsize hybrid sedan category was yet another ambitious move in a series of revolutionary first steps for Hyundai, and the brand is laying the ground work for becoming a formidable force in the industry. But taking down the segment's performance leader is a tall order the Sonata Hybrid just can't fill. However, with its bold styling, it just might appeal to style- and eco-conscious new car buyers. Here's hoping there is enough interest to justify a second-gen attempt. After all, we love hosting rematches.

Read more: 2012 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid First Drive - Motor Trend
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