Hyundai raises MPG bar with new Sonata hybrid, turbo

Often overlooked Hyundai appears to have substantially raised the MPG bar in the family sedan category with two new Sonata models due out later this year.
Written by John Dodge, Contributor

The car maker that's impressing me these days is Hyundai. The company ranked fourth in overall reliability in Consumer Reports 2010 ratings out last month and its Elantra tops the best small sedans for the second year in a row.

But how Hyundai ranks on paper among its peers is not what I'm here to talk about today. Rather, two model introductions last Wednesday at the New York Auto Show caught my eye. Both promise to raise the bar on fuel efficiency and power in the hotly competitive family sedan category.

credit: Hyundai

The new 2.0T has a 274-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder power plant that gets 22 MPG city and 34 highway and burns regular gas. Typically, turbos require premium fuel, which for some is a deal breaker and for sure, irritating.

The other model is a Sonata hybrid that has the smallest differential I've seen yet between city and highway driving - 37 city and 39 highway.

Now the Sonata, which just underwent a complete makeover that has won  praise from the auto bloggers, is considered a family sedan, meaning it can comfortably seat five.  It's not some barebones econo-box trying to eke out high MPG at the expense of substance and polish.

By comparison, the Camry hybrid gets 31 city and 34 highway and has no vehicle stability control option (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has urged every car maker to make ESC standard). All Sonatas come with ESC and there's no reason to believe the forthcoming hybrid will the exception.

Sonata hybrid. credit: Hyundai

Sonata's substantially better mileage which is just on paper at this point, comes from several reported innovations. Hyundai claims its lithium polymer battery runs cooler and is "shape-able for optimum packaging." And a story in USA Today says the Sonata hybrid will be 263 pounds lighter than a Ford Fusion hybrid and has more efficient electric motor direct drive to the wheels instead of to a set of once-removed-from-the-road gears.

It should be noted that the Ford Fusion hybrid which starts at $28,000 gets 36 city and 41 highway. Fusion's better mileage  virtually assures the Sonata hybrid will be aggressively priced.

Power and torque junkies with an eye for economizing might consider the 2.0T.

With this car, Hyundai just may have trumped Honda's Accord lineup. With 4 cylinders, the Accord does a touch worse on mileage at 21 city and 31 highway, but delivers a measly 190 horsepower by comparison. The Chevy Malibu claims to be the 4-cylinder family sedan leader in MPG at 22 city and 33 highway, but appears to have just been trumped by the 2011 4-cylinder Sonata at 22 city and 35 highway.

The 6-cylinder Accord delivers 271 horsepower, but far less efficiently at 19 city and 28 highway.

The new Hyundai models will reportedly be out at the end of the year and much will depend on price, sex appeal, drive-ability and reliability over time. And not every car writer is as sanguine as me. At least not yet. Says NY Times auto blogger Jerry Garrett:

"Is it real?Yes, but in the “believe-it-when-I-drive-it” category. We will wait until it arrives in showrooms in late 2010 to do anything but quote the Hyundai-supplied power claims. What they didn’t say: The Sonata will use 4-cylinder engines of somewhat questionable provenance to compete in classes dominated by those offering V-6s."

Fair enough, but perhaps because I've owned a Hyundai, I am confident the Korean auto maker will stand and deliver. My 2003 Elantra was incredibly reliable until I sold it last month with 100k on the odometer. The fit and trim wasn't was the greatest nor did I ever expect it to be. I loved that little car.

I think Hyundai is raising the bar while no one is really looking.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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