The 2011 Sonata Hybrid’s Secret Ingredient: Six-Speed Automatic Transmission

Last year, the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid racked up award after award for its silky smooth hybrid drivetrain that made Toyota’s hybrids seem clunky and Honda’s weak. One short year later, it’s now the 2011 Sonata Hybrid making the Fusion Hybrid seem outdated and bland.

I recently spent a sunny afternoon in San Diego with the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, and came away feeling that the bar has once again be raised on how much driving pleasure can be offered by a fuel-efficient hybrid sedan.

First, let’s examine the Sonata Hybrid’s numbers compared to the award-winning Fusion Hybrid:

  • The Sonata Hybrid offers 206 net horsepower compared to the Fusion’s 191 hp.
  • The Sonata Hybrid’s aerodynamics, rated at a very slippery 0.25 drag of coefficient, is superior to the Fusion’s 0.33 Cd.
  • The use of lithium batteries, rather than the Fusion’s nickel metal hydride, provides just as much power, but allows the Sonata to weigh 263 pounds less.
  • Fuel economy for the Sonata and Fusion Hybrids are nearly identical, but with highway and city numbers swapped. The Sonata Hybrid offers 36 in the city and 40 on the highway, while the Fusion Hybrid is rated at 41/36.
  • The Sonata Hybrid’s price has not been announced, but it’s very likely to come in for a couple thousand dollars less than the Fusion Hybrid.

Then, there’s the visual design. The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is hands-down more attractive and better designed than the Ford Fusion Hybrid or Toyota Camry Hybrid. The Sonata has better lines, cooler LED head and taillights, more passenger and trunk space, a better layout and feel for the driver, and unique visual cues to separate the hybrid model from its conventional and turbo siblings.

Fusion Hybrid Dash
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Dash

Top: 2010 Fusion Hybrid dash.
Bottom: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid dash.

But ultimately, the real innovation that Hyundai is bringing to the hybrid world is the use of a six-automatic transmission instead of the continuously variable transmission (CVT) found in powersplit hybrids from Toyota, Ford and others.

Hyundai might have good business reasons to use its off-the-shelf automatic six, instead of a CVT—for example, lower cost and the ability to emphasize highway rather than city fuel economy. But at the end of the day, it’s customer appeal that counts.

John Krafcik, Hyundai America CEO with Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

John Krafcik, Hyundai America CEO with Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. (Photo: Brad Berman. All Rights Reserved.)

“There’s nothing specifically synergistic between a CVT and a hybrid,” said John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai USA, who rode with me during my drive of the Sonata Hybrid in San Diego. Krafcik’s complaint about CVTs is the “non-linearity” between pedal input from the driver, and the sound you hear. On the other hand, with the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Krafcik believes that “you get back exactly what you expect based on what your foot is doing.”

During my 30 or so miles of driving with the Sonata Hybrid—with a couple of short stints in the Ford Fusion Hybrid (which Hyundai had on hand for me for comparison)—I slowly came to appreciate the differences between the six-speed versus the CVT.

Keep in mind that these are relatively subtle distinctions. Yet, my hour or so behind the wheel of Sonata Hybrid showed me what I had been missing—even if I wasn’t totally aware of it—from the 2006 Toyota Prius and 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid that I’ve been driving for years: an immediate response in terms of engine sound and shifting that makes a car feel like, well, a normal car.

Removing the Motorboat Feel from Hybrids

Hyundai didn’t trust its drivetrain strategy to an arbitrary preference expressed by its CEO. The company set up a hybrid driver’s clinic—kind of like a focus group on wheels—to determine what a mix of hybrid owners and conventional drivers like and dislike about various hybrid models. The evaluation, a blind test that hid the make and model of the hybrids, was designed by Mark Guin, powertrain tuning analyst for Hyundai-Kia Motors.

“Most customers feel discombobulated by the feeling of the CVT and are uncomfortable with it,” Guin told me at the San Diego event. I asked Guin if he thinks the CVT is what gives the Toyota Prius an appliance-like feel to the drive. “That’s a dominant factor. There are two pieces. First, the feeling of acceleration in the seat is minimized by that motorboat rubber band feel. And it’s reinforced by the motor boat sound, as opposed to what we feel when we hear something that reinforces our expectations [of acceleration].”

Fusion Hybrid and Sonata Hybrid

The Fusion Hybrid and Sonata Hybrid, side by side, in San Diego.

As an engineer who spends his whole day living and breathing engine noise, vibration, and throttle response, he gave a perfect imitation of the Prius’s whir and whine that might occur on a highway on-ramp. “For a lot of people in our study, the CVT undermines driver confidence. That sound says strain when it’s up high.”

Guin contrasted his rendition of the CVT with the guttural sound of a gear-shifting racecar. “You hear kids making this sound. That says power to people,” Guin said. With the Sonata Hybrid, you get more of that visceral response from acceleration especially as the engine reaches the top limit of one gear, and pauses for a half-beat until the next gear kicks in.

“That’s something people connect with a stepped transmission. There’s something familiar, comfortable and normal about the driving experience with our car and our architecture,” Guin explained. “The interaction of sound with your perception of acceleration gives confidence in available power. It’s subconscious, but it’s there.”

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Bridge
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Of course, the high-torque but silent launch of a pure electric car is still an entirely different drive flavor. Describing the differences in drive feel between a CVT, automatic six, and EV almost requires the vocabulary of a wine snob: “ethereal yet austere, with notes of fresh cherry, a hint of blackberry and a velvety finish.”

Like wine, preferences for these hybrid and EV drivetrains are a matter of taste. During the first decade of hybrids in the United States, the mild and slightly detached feel of CVT hybrids, combined with engine shut-off and low-speed electric driving, was the only item on the menu. Hyundai is opting for more bite with its first hybrid. “We wanted something that could feel fun,” Guin said.

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  • Anonymous

    Looks like a winner to me.

    for the comment:
    > an immediate response in terms of engine sound
    > and shifting that makes a car feel like, well, a normal car.

    Well, yes – you were trained by many years driving rough shifting – but is it really better if you hear the engine ‘screaming’ when shifting? I much prefer the smooth shifting of my Prius. Yes also my wife is complaining it does not feel ‘powerful’ – but this is just bad perception since she was ‘trained’ that only loud noises and rough shifting mean ‘powerful’

  • FamilyGuy

    I agree with Anonymous above. We have the Nissan Altima Hybrid with the CVT and never use the phrase “lacking power”. Yes it’s different from what was the standard automatic transmission and the CVT is a new technology. I find that the CVT gets me right to where I want to be. I do not miss anything about as “the engine reaches the top limit of one gear, and pauses for a half-beat until the next gear kicks in.” Why do I want to pause for half a beat? Especially when I’m trying to accelerate.

    As the article said, it’s about preference. If I’m in the minority of drivers who’s confidence is not undermined by the CVT, I’m okay with that.

    In the end, I’m excited to see more options out there. Although I have no plans to replace the family sedan in the near future, it’s good to see the bar being raised, MPG being increased and more car makers making things interesting.

  • Nelson Lu

    I must say that I am not overwhelmed by the idea that the six-speed transmission is somehow superior because it shifts. One major thing that I’ve come to appreciate with the Fusion Hybrid’s CVT is how smooth it is. While I’ve never driven a Hyundai, I can’t imagine that the shifting would be completely seamless. (Indeed, the article implies that it was not.) I’d take the smoothness myself.

  • Old Man Crowder

    I thought the whole point of a CVT was that it was better on fuel than having distinct gears. Maybe I’m wrong?

    Hey… if the 6-speed Hyundai gets better mileage and costs a couple grand less to make, then I’m all for it. Who cares what it sounds like?!

  • Art Newell

    Bought a Nissan Versa with the CVT powertrain new in 07…it was supposed to be more fuel efficient, it isn’t. As for the ‘seamless shifting’, it is, but the description of the CVT driving like an outboard motor is right on. All noise, buzz and revs under acceleration and very little get up and go.

    With the cruise control set on 70 mph it will wind up like a runaway mix master on a hill, trying to keep the speed. Don’t like to see the tach up in the red just to get over a hill, kills the mpg dead and the engine sounds like it’s being tortured.
    I think Hyundai’s decision to go with a 6 speed auto with a good tall gear on top for great highway mpg is the way to go. They have my vote, and probably my cash next year when the Versa is finally paid off..
    (note, don’t ever finance a vehicle for over 36 months)

  • Frank Redfield

    I agree with family guy. Who needs
    shifting, when you want to pass someone. Motor boat sound is exciting,
    like drag racing!!! I love my 2007 Camry Hybrid!

  • PaulRivers

    In my Prius, I think the CVT transmission is *fantastic*. I’ve never had a problem with it, or hardly even noticed it. In fact, I find the responsiveness of the Prius (the way it just straight up accelerates at low speeds when you hit the pedal, vs the “hit the pedal and wait” approach of my previous non-hybrid) to be very refreshing.

    But it’s funny, I drove a Nissan Rogue with a CVT transmission (not a hybrid) which had better 0-60 times and that kind of stuff, and there I really didn’t like the rubber band feel of the transmission. Maybe it’s the lack of the of the electric motor which provides lots of torque at the low end. Or maybe it’s just more noticeable with an engine with more power.

    But I don’t see much of that “rubber band” feel in my Prius.

    The pictures of the red Sonata look really good though…wow….

    P.S. It’s funny, my entire life I’ve always felt like most gasoline engine felt underpowered. I think it’s the lack of torque – my Prius doesn’t have this feel at low speeds, but does have it at high speeds. Guess they’re trying to call that “feels powerful” now, lol.

  • veek

    -Thanks for the informative article. Nice to have even more choices.
    -We have an Escape hybrid, which uses a CVT system similar to the Fusion. It is very responsive and torquey but does seem like the clutch is slipping when we hit the gas pedal, and there is no way of knowing if the gearbox is going bad. Speaking of which, I have heard CVT’s are terribly expensive to fix and repair (the same could be true for six-speed automatics, though).
    -That being said, it will be hard for the Sonata to duplicate the proven, overall quality of Ford-built cars. Our Escape has been trouble free for over 50,000 miles and the Hyundai is definitely not revolutionary enough to make me feel like the Fusion would be outdated or a bad choice.

  • Hex Head

    It sounds like it is time for a transmission tutorial. It is true that hybrid cars and some non-hybrid cars both use CVT transmissions, however this is where the tranmission similarity ends! The CVT used in a Toyota hybrid or Ford hybrid has absolutely nothing in common with a CVT used in a non-hybrid. A CVT transmission in a Toyota/Ford hybrid uses an extremely siimple SINGLE plantary gear set. You see, it turns out that you can build a CVT with just a single planetary gear set when you have three sources of power under the hood – namely an engine & two electrical motors. A CVT in a non-hybrid uses a fancy metal belt with variable size sprockets. These are realtively expensive and, due to the belt, cannot handle a lot of torque. A non-CVT automatic transmission such as your typical 4, 5, or 6 speed automatic uses MULTIPLE planetary gear sets and MULTIPLE clutch packs. These have a whole lot of parts and therefore tend to be the largest in size and I would say certainly less reliable than a hybrid CVT and probably less reliable than a non-hybrid CVT. The single planetary gear set transmission in the Ford/Toyota hybrids is an extremely ELEGANT device and I cannot imagine a more efficient and capable design. Hyundai problably went with a standard type of auto transmission becasue they did not want to license the hybrid single planetary gear set design from Toyota. Note that the Hyundai hybrid gets worse MPG in the city compared to the highway – this is becasue of no CVT and definitely is not a selling point.

    hybrid single plantary gear set link:

  • Rob Acree

    I fail to see how the Sonata’s styling is “hands down” better than the Fusion. I prefer the Fusion styling “hands down” to the outdated two-tone photo that’s shown of the Sonata. The amount of information fed to the driver in the Fusion Hybrid is incredible and judging on the photo in this article, I doubt it comes close to that of the Fusion.

    As for the transmission, why do you want to feel the gear shift when you hit the gas? I find that quite an annoyance especially when using cruise control going uphill for quite some distance. Set the cruise control on a six-speed transmission and drive up into the mountains. See how much you like the transmission shift up and down after about 5 minutes. Chances are, you’d be quite annoyed and would be begging to have the smoothness of a CVT.

    The transmission shift sound is something that drums up thoughts of a traditional gasoline powered car. You’re buying a hybrid…not a traditional gas powered car. If you’re buying a car for the sound, a hybrid is probably not what you’re in the market for anyways…

  • John K.

    Why does the article say, “The Sonata has better lines, cooler LED head and taillights” when you can clearly see a light BULB in the middle of both of the rear turn signal (yellow) and backup light (white)??? If they mean only the brake light portion of the taillights, they should say that.

    Frankly, I think w/a new 2011 model hybrid, there should NOT be any light bulbs used, inside or out, except for the headlights and fog/driving lights. LEDs are so much more energy efficient, but esp reliable. No more having a cop pull you over and give you a $200 fix-it ticket for a stupid, burnt out $2 light bulb.

  • MM

    Even with Sonata Hybrid “better designed” and more net horsepower, the old grandfather of the group the Camry Hybrid motorboat pass the pokey sonata Hybrid and the Fusion Hybrids form 0-60.

    Sonata Hybrid 9.2
    Fusion Hybrid 8.4
    Camry Hybrid 7.7

    Also in real world mileage tests conducted by Consumer Reports the Camry Hybrid matched the Fusion Hybrids on it highway/city test loop, the Sonata Hybrid has yet to be tested by Consumer Reports.

    I will say the Sonata Hybrid is an attractive car.

  • Hybrid King

    CVT and cruise control. OK you are the driver – not the passenger! Try this – before reaching a hill tap the cruise control up 3 to 5mph and then as you climb the hill tap it down 5 to 10 mph – depending on length of the hill. You will find your revs stay more constant and you trade speed for better MPG overall. Plus you will be driving instead of sleeping at the wheel!

  • Cezar P

    1 – Design is 100% very nice in & out, I wish Toyota & Lexus will learn at once to design futuristic more contemporaneous cars!

    3 – Toyota sold about 6 years ago (2004 I think) the hybrid patent to Ford (the Hybrid Synergy) so in exchange to let them sell in US so many hybrids (a market underground agreement)

    2 – Hyundai just try to make excuses for not using the High Teach 100% perfect efficient mechanically CVT – Continuous Variable Transmission with an infinity of gears, versus the old much cheaper since no need for developing, just only 6 gears!
    Now compare # 6 with an infinite # to see what is best efficient! Simple as that.

  • LordKinbote

    In response to veek, I have a 2004 Hyundai Sonata with close to 108,000 miles on it and have not had problems with it. I bought it pre-owned with 14,000 miles on it from a dealer in 2006. I’ve had regular maintenance with it and the mechanics I take it to said that they have come to really appreciate Hyundais because they are really well built. Much more so than any of the guys in the shop assumed they would be because you hear more about the reliability of Toyotas or some classic American cars. They said the Hyundais that come in tend to all hold up really well considering their age and they say something to this affect for the last 3 times or so that I bring it in for an oil change. They suggested a 100k electrical tune-up since it’s over that, but they said, “It’s in really good shape though.” I feel confidence that it will be all right for the time period I have to save up for the tune-up. If I could get a Sonata as a hybrid or EV, I’d take it in a heartbeat.

  • My First Hybrid

    I predict the mileage for the 6-speed transmission will not be as good as the EPA ratings (just like for most gas version cars). They will try to sell on the great ‘highway’ mileage, but most owners will end up getting closer to the ‘city’ mileage instead. That would put it sub-par in terms of fuel economy, compared to the other hybrids that emphasize better city mileage.

    The ’11 Camry is my first hybrid vehicle, and I keep wondering why the EPA fuel ratings (31/35 mpg) are lower than Fusion’s… I’m averaging better than 40 MPG in mixed driving (25/75), and that’s a whole lot more than the EPA estimates. So, it seems Comsumer Reports is right when they reported that Camry and Fusion both get similar mileage, with Fusion actually costing more than the Toyota! Maybe it’s all in the marketting and publicity generated for the Fusion… Such as is now occurring for the Sonata…

  • Chang

    I completely agree with you. I appreciated my Nissan Altima’s CVT from the beginning. To me, it is quicker and more exact to respond to my accelerator operation. Though many modern 6 speed AT successfully minimized gear hunting, they still show inefficiency in choosing right gear in high speed uphill situation, which results in slower response to the operation and lower gas mileage compared to CVT. If 6 speed is perceived more powerful than CVT, it is based on uneducated myth.

  • E

    Sorry, but your wife is right. Your Prius is not powerful.