2012 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

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The bluedrive Sonata feels a lot like a real car.

THE FORMULA for automotive model proliferation seems to be to roll out the most vanilla version of a new car—mid-performance, mid-price—and then work feverishly to spice it up while awaiting reactions from the market.

Then, at the first hint of a home run, or at least a solid base hit, announce that luxury/performance and hybrid variants are soon to appear.

Hyundai has a monster smash on its hands with the nifty new Sonata, so here’s the followup gas-electric model, poised to swoop up buyers who’d prefer to spend less on fuel or burn less carbon. Pretty much all of us, isn’t that?

This generation of the Sonata, which appeared early in 2010 as a 2011, has been such a success for two reasons: First, it’s really good-looking; and second, nearly everyone over-guesses its price by a few thousand bucks. This is enough to get people in for a road test, and then the car’s swanky interior and competent manners seal the deal.

If not, the salesperson pulls some kind of incentive or rebate out of his sleeve and, next thing you know, you’re driving home in a shiny new something Toyota never thought you’d own, a Korean car.

Along with its beguiling sheet metal and improved suspension, the new Sonata added inches, so it evolved into a comfortable and desirable full-size four-seater. The sleek profile makes it look smaller than a Camry or an Accord, but even from the back seat a Sonata seems a lot bigger inside than out.

The hybrid Sonata weighs less than the competition, due to lighter lithium-polymer batteries, and it has a proper 6-speed automatic rather than a continuously variable motor-scooter transmission. The base Sonata’s 4-cylinder gas engine makes 198 horsepower, which is plenty, and the car earned a respectable EPA highway rating of 35 miles per gallon.

Hyundai’s “bluedrive”—blue is Hyundai’s “green,” if you get my drift—hybrid delivers a combined gas-electric 209 horsepower and is rated for 40 MPG on the highway and 35 in town. Unusually, this promises better fuel economy at speed than in the city (most hybrids’ batteries are used up in an eyeblink at 70 miles per hour), which makes it seem more like a real car.

But after a 250-mile dash home one night the computer informed me that I’d averaged 69 MPH and 31.8 MPG. Not bad, but not up to par. Since then I’ve been driving around town and my fuel efficiency has inched up to 32.3 while my average speed has declined to 46 miles per hour.

Still disappointing, but here are some better numbers: quite well-equipped, with $135 worth of extras (carpeted floor mats and an iPod cable) and a $720 freight charge, the sticker is just $26,650.

Step on the throttle and the h-Sonata seems to pause for a moment to think—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. When all this sorting-out is done the car accelerates briskly, and it will cruise easily at speed.

There is still some of that rubber-band non-linearity of the gas-electric car, and the brakes grab at low speed, but Hyundai has moved the hybrid a step closer to mainstream.

For 2012 the Sonata got a cosmetic re-trim of the front end, which added Audi-style LED “eyebrows” and reduced its aerodynamic slipperiness to the same as the Prius’s.

It doesn’t compare to Toyota’s hybrid otherwise, though.

Driving a Prius always makes me feel like I personally am doing penance for all of Western Society’s egregious excesses, while the bluedrive Sonata might make a hybrid believer out of me—if it can be tweaked to deliver another 10 MPG without losing any of its good Car-ma.