2013 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Good Looks

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The gas-electric Sonata may be the best-looking hybrid sedan out there. This is a loaded $32,000 Limited model. Hyundai photo
The gas-electric Sonata may be the best-looking hybrid sedan out there. This is a loaded $32,000 Limited model. Hyundai photo

Last August, we complained bitterly about this car, scolding Hyundai for its double whammy of disagreeable driving characteristics and disappointing fuel economy. (One may offset the other, more or less, but when both are bad, forget it.)

Oh, what a difference a model year can make—and how gratifying it is when a carmaker listens and then takes action.

It wasn’t just us. Everyone who drove that Sonata Hybrid agreed that, while there were plenty of reasons to buy a Sonata, the electrified version was not one of them.

The current Sonata, the sixth generation of Hyundai’s mid-size, mid-price front-wheel-drive sedan, has been a smash hit since 2009. It’s more aerodynamic, more comfortable and more competent than any previous Sonata. It has a roomy interior, performance that varies from good to better (depending on which engine is under the hood), solid handling, scads of features and options (a backup camera, keyless ignition, two sunroofs, Bluelink telematics and a whole lot more) plus 5-star crash-test ratings.

Add great looks, a price that generally undercuts the competition and, finally, those long Hyundai warranties. What’s not to like?

Then, in 2011, Hyundai rolled out a hybrid-drive Sonata that stood out for a number of reasons beyond its blacked-out grille:

First, the gas-electric Sonata weighed less than other comparable hybrids, thanks to lighter batteries and how its electric motor was mated to the drivetrain. Second, it had a proper 6-speed automatic rather than a continuously variable transmission lifted from a lawn tractor. Third, starting at about $26,500, it too was a bit cheaper than the competition. Fourth, the battery pack came with its own lifetime warranty. And, finally, its fuel-economy ratings were “backward”—higher on the interstate than in town.

Unfortunately, the car also stood out for the flaws mentioned above.

But that was then. Now, Hyundai says the Sonata Hybrid can reach 75 MPH on watts alone (at least for a couple of heartbeats); its EPA-DOT efficiency ratings have inched upward to 40 MPG in highway driving and 36 in the city; and it has labored long and hard to fix the prior car’s failings. (No, they didn’t admit to “failings”; just read between the lines.)

I believe it. In four days of driving that included about 150 miles with the cruise control set in the low 70s, the trip computer in our 2013 Sonata Hybrid indicated 40.3 miles per gallon overall at an average speed of 49 MPH. (It also gave us a Total ECO Score of 197 points, whatever that means.) Compare this to the 29 to 32 MPG we achieved with previous Sonata Hybrids.

Not only that, but the earlier car’s maddening hesitation under throttle is gone—as is much, but not all, of the energy-recapturing brakes’ sponginess and unpredictability. (The other familiar shortcoming of green cars, the shudder when the gasoline engine automatically re-starts, was and still is virtually nonexistent in the h-Sonata.)

These are outstanding improvements, which Hyundai says are due to a higher-output electric motor, a more powerful yet still lighter and smaller battery pack, fine-tuning the gas engine and the transmission, and an “optimized hybrid operating strategy.” In short, Hyundai went back to the lab and made everything better.

The combined output of the two motors has actually gone down slightly, from last year’s 206 horsepower to 199, but you’d never know it; the car feels more than adequately powerful, even in the default Blue Drive economy mode. (Blue means “green” at Hyundai.) It’s easy to change modes, but the apparent difference between Blue and regular Drive is so slight that we rarely bothered to do so.

Some portion of hybrid cars’ fuel stinginess comes just from the way we naturally tend to drive most of them—gingerly and with one eye on the gas-o-meter. We almost can’t help it. This is rewarding and self-reinforcing behavior, and it’s why the same person (myself, for instance) ultimately can tolerate such a car right alongside the others I’ve been driving for the past two weeks: a BMW M3 and a Jaguar F-Type.

Scorching speed, crushing g-forces and testosterone overload are just what the psychotherapist ordered—some of the time. And the rest of the time, we appreciate fuel-sipping efficiency and environmental stewardship. “Performance” comes in many different flavors.