Hyundai Sonata Hybrid: Good for 2012, Great for 2013
The updated Sonata Hybrid has more poise than other hybrids, but still lacks stellar fuel economy
The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (MSRP: $25,650, as tested $32,260) got a slight refresh for 2013, after just two years on the market. New battery management software, engine controls, and a lighter battery pack give it slightly better fuel economy and a little more cargo space. It also packs in standard features and inexpensive option packages, not to mention one of the best warranties in the industry.
Even with its improvements, the Sonata Hybrid gets similar gas mileage to a slightly smaller, non-hybrid sedan, and doesn't come close to the Toyota Prius' 50+ mpg rating. We suspect that won't matter to hybrid Hyundai buyers, however. They'll recognize this car for what it is: a traditional, well-equipped, midsize five-seater that just happens to squeeze out a few more miles per gallon thanks to a hybrid drivetrain.
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The Sonata Hybrid also offers Hyundai's Blue Link telematics service
Hyundai's navigation and infotainment system is simple, but effective. There's no smartphone connectivity, but there is an easy-to-read touchscreen with little lag time. We think the interface could be simplified — too many virtual and physical buttons have essentially the same function — but it's not particularly frustrating. One bigger drawback: Hyundai bundles its nav system on the Hybrid Limited. That means you'll have to pony up a few grand in other options.
In addition to pulling the Sonata over and entering a destination or point of interest manually while the car is stopped, Hyundai also allows drivers to sign up for BlueLink, an optional service that costs between $79 and $279 a year based on how many features are on deck. On our tester, which had the highest level subscription, it offered voice-operated point of interest search and destination entry in addition to crash response and a number of other features.It's similar to GM's OnStar, except it tries to use advanced voice recognition whenever possible instead of deploying the customer service agents right off the bat.
On a good day, it takes less than a minute for you to say the name or address of a destination and have the Sonata's nav system take over with directions. Another cool feature is that it offers restaurant reviews, though they're somewhat limited. Other cars feature a Yelp app on the dash. In this Hyundai, you might want to pull over and ask a local where to dine.
If you haven't seen a Hyundai in the past five years, the Sonata Hybrid's interior will be a pleasant surprise.
Hyundai's new design language started with the Sonata and expanded across their lineup. The Hybrid adds chrome trim and plenty of badges touting their "Blue" hybrid drive system. The Hybrid is visually different from other Sonatas thanks to its larger air intake at the front. We asked around for opinions and it's definitely a "love it or hate it" design. For 2013, Hyundai also gave the Sonata Hybrid two new wheel choices.
Inside, there are more references to hybrids, batteries and electric power than the minutes of a California Air Resources Board monthly meeting. While other cars use the central display in the gauge cluster to display turn-by-turn directions or to show what song is playing, the Hyundai's is little more than a glorified trip computer. It does plas a few short bars of a song that's reminiscent of Mariah Carey's "Hero" when the car is shut off.
Another benefit of the 2013 refresh: A battery that's slightly smaller, which increases cargo volume by 1.4 cubic feet.
First off, fuel economy. The 2012 model we drove got around 33 mpg in a mix of city and highway driving. But the updated 2013 model managed around 35. While we didn't do hundreds EPA-approved test loops, that improvement is still in line with the official numbers: an increase in combined mpg from 36 to 38.
A Hyundai spokesperson said that none of the improvements to the 2013 were hardware-based, which means Hyundai just improved the already-existing hybrid setup. There's still a lifetime warranty on the battery, so Hyundai's engineers seem to be standing behind whatever magic they've worked out.
Overall, the Sonata Hybrid benefits from the fact it's based on one of the better mainstream front-wheel drive sedans on the market today. Like its conventional counterpart, the Hybrid has a great suspension that transmits just enough road feel without being too stiff for everyday driving. Its steering is a bit heavy at low speeds—meaning your arms will get a workout—and a bit vague at higher ones.
Unlike many hybrids, the Sonata has a conventional automatic instead of a continuously variable transmission (CVT). It's programmed more for fuel efficiency than for driving excitement.
On the 2012 model we drove, our major complaint was the nonlinearity of the hybrid drivetrain. The on-demand power of an electric motor combined with the lackluster acceleration from a smallish four cylinder gas engine made taking off from a full stop about as smooth and subtle as slipping on a banana peel.
That's been tweaked for 2013, and the handoffs between gas and electric power sources have also been smoothed out. In fact, only the slight distraction of a green "EV mode" lamp on the dashboard gave us a clue of when our 2013 tester was running on battery power. If you're trying to decided between a leftover 2012 and a brand new 2013, we recommend getting the newer car.
The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid seems to be a pretty good compromise: It's a traditional sedan with ample interior space, an eye-catching design, plenty of options, and a hybrid drivetrain.
Of course, a compromise inherently means sacrifices. You won't get the fuel economy of a Prius, nor will you get the low price of a base Sonata. But thanks to some improvements for the 2013 model, you'll get combined mileage in the high-mid-30s, plenty of room for people and cargo, and one of the smoother hybrid powertrains we've tested.
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