Sonata goes green … and blue

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata is singing a sweet song these days. Not only has the automaker’s anchor-leg sedan been flying out of dealer showrooms since its early 2010 launch, but the impending introduction of a gasoline-electric hybrid version provides you with a viable option that’s not actually a Toyota or Ford.

But is it as good?

The Sonata Hybrid has plenty going for it in addition to its fuel-sipping power supply. The styling, though reminiscent of the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class sedan, still seems pretty daring compared to the rest of the midsize crop. The Hybrid features a distinctive gaping grille that differentiates itself from the mainstream gasoline-powered Sonatas, although that feature doesn’t necessarily improve on the original shape. However from certain angles it actually looks sporty.

There is no such tinkering with the Sonata’s roomy interior design and appointments that provide a warm and inviting environment. However, there’s a display screen between the odometer and tachometer that indicates the state of affairs of the Hybrid’s vital components and gives “Eco Level” points to encourage efficient driving.

But that’s where the similarities between the standard and Hybrid Sonata end. Under the hood is what Hyundai refers to as its “Hybrid Blue Drive” architecture that functions on electric or gas power — or in varying combination — depending on vehicle speed, road conditions and what the driver is doing to the accelerator pedal. The system consists of a 169-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine connected to a 30-kilowatt (40-horsepower) electric motor for a net output of 209 horsepower.

The Hybrid Blue Drive’s other critical ingredient is the use of a 270-volt lithium-polymer battery. Hyundai claims that it’s lighter, more durable and delivers more power than both nickel-metal hydride (currently featured in most hybrid applications) and lithium-ion batteries that are being installed in the much ballyhooed 2011 Chevrolet Volt and the upcoming Nissan Leaf electric cars.

The Sonata’s battery comes with a 10-year/150,000-mile warranty, which is comforting insurance for any first-ever technology.

The system operates in conjunction with a special six-speed automatic transmission that functions without a traditional fluid-coupling torque converter, again a departure from most hybrids that use continuously variable (CVT) transmissions. The top three gear ratios have been specially designed so that the engine runs at the lowest-possible engine speed to help save fuel.

As well, all of the usual tricks of the hybrid trade are integral to the Sonata Hybrid, such as low-rolling-resistance tires and regenerative braking that helps to recharge the batteries. An integrated starter-generator shuts off and instantly restarts the gas engine when the vehicle is stopped in traffic and the electrically operated power steering and air conditioning cuts engine drag.

An examination of the Hyundai-supplied data would appear to confirm the Hybrid Blue Drive’s effectiveness. The Sonata is capable of 60 mph on electric power alone, compared to 47 mph for the Ford Fusion and 42 for the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima Hybrid. Additionally, the Sonata Hybrid’s estimated 37 mpg city and 39 mpg highway tops both Camry and Altima, but falls short of the Fusion’s 41 mpg city rating (but beats it by 3 mpg on the highway cycle).

As for content, the Sonata Hybrid covers all of your basic comfort needs right from the get-go. But for full-load status, the Premium Package adds a panoramic sunroof, touch-screen navigation, leather seat covers, backup camera, 17-inch wheels (16-inchers are standard) and a premium sound system.

Official pricing has yet to be announced, but somewhere in the $26,000 range (including destination charges) seems quite likely. That would definitely make the car competitive within its peer group and leave environmentally conscious Sonata lovers whistling a happy tune.

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