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Two years after it made its debut in North America, the Sonata Hybrid remains Hyundai's first and only hybrid.
Fortunately, the South Korean automaker pulled out all the stops on this one, not only stuffing the mid-size sedan with -- at the time -- the newest fuel-saving technology available, but making it one of the best-looking fuel-sippers out there -- sleek and modern rather than odd or frumpy.
The 2013 iteration still looks good, with the sibling Kia Optima Hybrid as well as the new Ford Fusion Hybrid the only four-door family sedans that rival the Hyundai in bold styling. It might take a keen eye to discern the differences between the Sonata Hybrid and non-hybrid models, but they are there.
The Hybrid gets reshaped front and rear fascias, a deeper air dam with active air shutter, extended rocker panels, low-drag wheels and a five-millimetre-lower ride height to reduce the resistance of air flow over the car. At just 0.25, Hyundai says the Sonata Hybrid's coefficient of drag is among the lowest in the industry.
That, however, is mere window dressing. The real news is the 2013 Sonata Hybrid has seen its powertrain tweaked, the upgrades -- a more powerful electric motor and greater battery output -- designed to improve the car's all-electric operation.
Pardon me while I slip on the techno-nerd hat for a minute: The improvements to the Hybrid Blue Drive -- Hyundai's catchy term to describe the system -- are courtesy of a high-capacity 8.5-kilowatt Hybrid Starter-Generator (HSG), a higher-output 35-kW electric motor, a more powerful 47-kW lithium polymer battery pack and an "optimized hybrid operating strategy." The upgraded components are paired with a 2.4-litre Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder and six-speed manumatic transmission. (Yes, Hyundai eschews the more common -- among hybrids -- CVT for a conventional automatic with manual mode. Hallelujah!)
According to Hyundai, the 199-horsepower (combined) Hybrid Blue Drive system now offers greater fuel efficiency by increasing the overall available electric-drive power. Although horsepower has dropped by seven units (from 206), combined system torque rises 40 pound-feet to 235.
What's all that mean, you ask? Less pain at the pumps! With better kinetic energy recovery and increased charging efficiency, thanks to the new 35-kW electric motor, the car can be powered in all-electric mode for longer periods. With less need to run the gas engine, less fuel is used. Hyundai won't say exactly how more fuel-efficient the new setup is, but when I first drove the Sonata Hybrid two years ago, my test average was 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres for the week -- fairly auspicious parsimony for a 1,574-kilogram family sedan. My week in the 2013 model, under more or less the same driving conditions, generated even better fuel economy -- 6.7L/100 km.
I admit being lulled by the serenity of the Sonata and, when traffic conditions warranted, I took it easy on the gas pedal, though I ignored all the touchscreen's silly Earth-hugging and vine-growing graphics. (Eco-nerds can still geek out on the 4.2-inch Hybrid Technology Display, which features such information as driving mode, energy flow within the vehicle, engine and motor movement, fuel level, battery power levels and charge status and average and instant fuel-economy figures.) Yet when I needed to pull away in a hurry, that extra 40 pound-feet of torque comes in handy, moving the Hybrid smartly toward the desired speed. Reaching 100 kilometres an hour from a standstill will take about 9.5 seconds, hardly quick enough to get the pulse racing, but not embarrassing either.
Hyundai has made other improvements to the car's drivability. There's better feel to the Hybrid's steering (though there is still room for improvement), and the dead pedal feel that some hybrid car brakes are known for -- a result of the regenerative setup to recharge the batteries -- is mostly absent in the Sonata. Stops are sure and progressive, with little grabbing.
While by no means a luxury car, the Sonata covers the bases when it comes to comfort and amenities. Even the entry-level model ($27,999) is fitted with Bluetooth, heated front seats, keyless entry with push-button ignition, dual-zone automatic climate control and more.
The new-for-2013 Limited trim ($30,199) adds a power driver's seat, auto-dimming rear-view mirror with Homelink and compass, panoramic sunroof, and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The tester was the top-line ($33,999) Limited with Technology Package model, which means leather seats, heated rear seats, a seven-inch touchscreen navigation system with backup camera and a nine-speaker Infinity audio system. Everything seems well-integrated and easy to find and use. As for the cabin, there's certainly room enough for six-footers both front and back.
One other minor, but no less appreciated, improvement is the new lithium polymer battery pack, which is smaller and lighter than the unit it replaces. Total weight has been reduced by 2.3 kg while trunk volume has improved to a more usable 12.1 cubic feet from 10.7.
What I like most about the Sonata Hybrid is the lack of compromises, which makes it a good family car, not just a good hybrid family car. It is a seriously attractive sedan with plenty of room for four, with hybrid technology that obviously works. It offers a complete list of features and it's not outrageously priced. Not everybody is into hybrids, but for those who are tired of weekly wallet-busting fill-ups at the pumps, the Hyundai is one of the nicest remedies around.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013