Silvio Calabi: Hyundai’s gas-electric Sonata needs help

Silvio Calabi

Wise men from Shakespeare to Cervantes have noted that “comparisons are odious.” (Shakespeare actually wrote “odorous,” but the point is made.) Hyundai may agree, at least when it comes to stacking up this week’s Sonata Hybrid against the TCH, Toyota Camry Hybrid, that we drove last week. Seat-of-the-pants contrasts don’t get any fresher than this.

First, the good news. The Sonata, Hyundai’s mid-price, mid-size sedan, has been a smash hit for Hyundai since it was re-done a couple of years ago, sleeker and larger and more competent. And why not? It’s got terrific looks, a surprisingly roomy and high-quality interior, performance that varies from good to better (depending on whether the base 4-cylinder or the turbo four is under the hood), solid front-wheel-drive handling, buckets of desirable features and options (including a rearview camera, two sunroofs, voice control and Bluelink connectivity), 5-star crash-test ratings and, finally, a price that undercuts the competition from Japan, Germany and sometimes the USA.

To capitalize on the Sonata’s success, Hyundai wasted no time in rolling out this car, a hybrid model that is distinctive for several reasons (beyond its blacked-out grille):

First, the gas-electric Sonata weighs less than other comparable hybrids, due to lighter lithium-polymer batteries and how its electric motor is mated to the drivetrain. Second, it has a proper 6-speed automatic rather than a continuously variable transmission lifted from a lawn tractor. Third, at about $26,000 it’s notably cheaper than other similar hybrids. And its EPA fuel-economy ratings are “backwards”—that is, 40 MPG on the highway and 35 in the city. (Since most hybrids’ batteries are used up in an eyeblink at 70 miles per hour, the electric motor usually provides more assistance in town, at slower speeds.)

But, but: The last Sonata Hybrid we drove traveled just 31.8 miles on each gallon of regular gas, on a 250-mile highway stint averaging 69 MPH. And this time our overall in-town efficiency was just 29 MPG at 26 MPG.

This is especially disappointing in light of how disagreeable the car is to drive in traffic. Step on the throttle and the h-Sonata pauses for a moment and seems to wonder—OK now . . . gas or electric?—while the transmission waits for a decision; then, consensus reached, it downshifts hurriedly to catch up with what the driver wanted. Meanwhile, you’ve put the pedal halfway to the floor in irritation, while thinking, “So where’s that 206 horsepower and 195 pounds of torque?” Then, when all the electronic sorting-out is done, the car suddenly slingshots away, engine revving awkwardly.

Stopping isn’t any better—the energy-recapture brakes offer little feedback and grab unpredictably.

Shifting the Sonata out of Bluedrive mode—blue is Hyundai’s “green,” if you get my drift—greatly reduces this rubber-band effect, but presumably drops the fuel efficiency even further. Bluedrive is the default setting, too, automatically engaged every time the car starts up.

After a while, we can get used to about anything. But now we have that fresh comparison mentioned earlier. The Sonata Hybrid’s behavior is in stark contrast to that of the Camry Hybrid—the smooth and delightfully responsive gas-electric Toyota sedan that this Hyundai competes against. The only thing the Hyundai has in its favor is that it is nearly $4,000 cheaper and it’s prettier.

There are plenty of excellent reasons to buy a Sonata, but, at least for now, skip the hybrid and go straight to the traditional gas-only models. With efficiency ratings of 24 MPG city and 35 highway (22 and 34 for the turbo), they’re hardly less economical than the hybrid, but they’re a whole lot more enjoyable to drive.

Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of IMPA, the International Motor Press Association, whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at, or 207-592-2619.