Hyundai: Sonata and Other Hybrids Are Here to Stay

Ten years late to the market, Hyundai is ready to make hybrids a critical part of its lineup. The popular Sonata Hybrid will be priced to sell.

Hyundai took the wraps off its first hybrid, the Sonata Hybrid, last week at the New York Auto Show. As we reported, the company is taking direct aim at competitors in the mid-size hybrid sedan market. The Sonata could match or beat the Ford Fusion Hybrid and the Toyota Camry Hybrid on fuel economy—and undercut them on price by a couple thousand dollars. Moreover, Hyundai believes they’ve produced the best riding hybrid so far. The Sonata Hybrid goes on sale in December.

To learn more, we spoke with Michael Deitz, the product manager for the Sonata line. We started by talking about the design of the hybrid Sonata, which is expected to match the Toyota Prius for aerodynamics, by using sculpted front and rear bumper fascias, an alloy wheel design that’s filled in, and full cover underbody.

Deitz: The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid will be highly differentiated from the conventional version. When a perspective buyer sees this car on the road, they’ll say that it looks like a Sonata, but there’s something different about it. They’ll immediate know it’s a hybrid.

The grille, which looks very different, is actually functional, because there are air dampers behind there so that when you’re at low speed, they’re open to provide more air flow. Then, as you increase your speed, they close (for better aerodynamics). We cut the side of the rear bumper. It’s almost like it’s been sliced. We’re projecting that we’re going to have a 0.25 drag coefficient. For a substantially larger vehicle [than the Toyota Prius], there’s a lot more car for this coefficient of drag.

Is it difficult to change the design, like for better aerodynamics, while maintaining your brand identity?

Right now, we have leadership in fuel economy and we want to maintain that leadership. As somebody that’s coming out with a hybrid after when the Japanese Big Three have, we want this car to be distinctive and to deliver on what consumers are looking for most. We designed our hybrid so you get the best fuel economy when you’re on the highway.

We’ve done our research. Most US drivers are operating in a highway mode, roughly about 57 percent of the time. That’s why we’ve geared our hybrid to highway fuel economy. On the Prius as well as the Camry, frequently one of the concerns or—I hate to say it—complaints on a hybrid that they don’t get the fuel economy they expected. So, they’re not happy. They get good fuel economy, but it’s not what they anticipated.

I’d rather take a conservative approach, and get better fuel economy in the real world than project something high, and they don’t get that.

What strategies did you use to get the better fuel economy?

We’re the first to employ a six-speed automatic transmission as opposed to a CVT (continuously variable transmission). It’s one of our internal developed transmissions with lower weight and fewer moving parts. Overall, it provides less maintenance and better weight.

Through the electronic control unit, we’re able to calibrate and do the torque lockup for highway driving rather than city driving. We’re projecting 37 in the city and 39 on the highway. We still need to be competitive in the city, but we want leadership on the highway.

The other advantage is that it’s more fun to drive. Most of the CVTs have a feeling of surging. We’ve heard from consumers that they don’t like the surge feeling. It feels unnatural to them. They’re more accustomed to cars having a natural shift pattern.

What do you mean by surging?

As you’re about to pass somebody or if you’re going up and down hills. From a traditional transmission feel, it almost feels like it’s slipping. You press the accelerator, and feel the engine rev, and then suddenly there’s surge. With our six-speed transmission, you step on it and the car moves forward much quicker and smoother.

What’s your pricing strategy?

We are a value brand. We want to maintain that value position in the market place. You have some of these (mid-size hybrids) coming in at $26,000 to $27,000. I would hope that we would be able to do better than that.

By a couple of thousand dollars?

Yes. But that’s as much as I can share right now.

Does that mean upselling Sonata buyers to a hybrid, or moving against competitors into the growing hybrid market?

It’s growing market, and it’s a market that some of our Hyundai buyers have asked us for. We have one of the highest loyalty rates out there in the market. Our buyers are looking for hybrids, and we currently don’t have it in the brand. Number one, this is about meeting buyer demand. And Sonata is our mainstream most popular model, so it makes sense that this would be the platform to come to market first.

As a leader in fuel economy, we will continue to expand our offerings with alternative powertrains. We need to have a hybrid. At some point, we’ll expand our offering of hybrids, but we’re not announcing that at the current time.

What about pricing compared to the other Sonatas?

It will be right within the Sonata price band. Our Sonata starts just under $20,000 and goes to $27,000. Fully packaged out, the hybrid may come in a little higher than the Limited model—still probably under $30,000. We’ll have either three or four packages on it, with the base level in the middle of the range.

You’ve invested to create your new proprietary parallel hybrid system. Why?

Hybrids are here to stay. It’s something that we’ll continue to expand. A hybrid powertrain is something that every auto manufacturer will need to meet rising fuel efficiency standards.

Americans don’t want to all ride around in compacts. Continued powertrain development is important. We weren’t first to market with a hybrid, but we’ll be different—hopefully meeting some of the needs that have been deficits for the competitors.

The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is just a start. Coming into the North American market with such a popular model makes a key statement that we have hybrid technology and we’re confident enough to put it in our best selling model in America.

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  • Yegor

    Yep, that is what we really need another – another mid-size hybrid sedan. We already have three: Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion – what we have been missing is the fourth one. Mid-size hybrid sedan is the only market right now that has the competition – so real smart move Hyundai. Why not fill an open niche? Why not to make a Hatchback out of Sonata? Or make a Santa Fe hybrid?

  • Mr. Fusion

    Yegor, I agree with you. I think sedans are one of the most impractical types of automobiles as far as cargo capacity goes. But for some reason, people in the US love them and Hyundai is going after the meat and potatoes.

    The fact that Hyundai is getting serious, will really heat things up in the hybrid/EV arena. Should be interesting…

  • Dom

    “We’re the first to employ a six-speed automatic transmission as opposed to a CVT (continuously variable transmission) …… The other advantage is that it’s more fun to drive. Most of the CVTs have a feeling of surging. We’ve heard from consumers that they don’t like the surge feeling. It feels unnatural to them. They’re more accustomed to cars having a natural shift pattern.”

    Dude, you want fun to drive? Give us a six-speed manual transmission, and THEN it will be fun to drive.

  • usbseawolf2000

    Michael Deitz did a great job pointing out positive side of the Hyundai Blue Drive (HBD). I thought I should add some negative side to balance things out into proper perspective….

    HBD has complexity of a non-hybrid with 6-speed automatic transmission. In addition, it has a clutch to disconnect the gas engine from the transmission. Fixed gear ratios would restrict the most efficient gas engine RPM. Why would shifting gears during acceleration be considered “natural”? I wouldn’t want Boeing 747 taking off and while shifting gears. The feel of jet propulsion is natural and the cars should accelerate like it.

    The starter and alternators are combined into one — Integrated Starter / Generator (ISG). There are no spec how much power ISG can generate. It is a big question mark because HSB only has one e-motor. It can not create and consume electricity at the same time. It can consume 40 hp but something needs to charge the HV battery. If ISG can not recharge the HV battery fast enough, the e-motor will need to act as a generator. This restricts the e-motor role to support the very tall 4th, 5th, and 6th gear — especially climbing long hills and you will be forced to down shift because there isn’t enough torque (no battery charge left).

  • Yegor

    I want to add that I am happy that Hyundai is entering hybrid market. 🙂
    Do the batteries block access from the trunk to the passenger area? Unfortunately this article and the previous one say nothing about it. Hyundai batteries are 40% smaller. If Hyundai managed to provide a good access from the trunk to the passenger area (like in conventional sedans) then they got the winner.

  • Yegor

    Unfortunately even with 40% smaller batteries they still managed to block access from the trunk to the passenger area! 🙁 You can see it in this youtube video:

    Not a winner. 🙁

  • Yegor

    Redbeard, yes mid-size sedan is the biggest market in USA with 20% of sales but why mid-size sedan hybrids do not sell as well as Toyota Prius in the smaller market segment? The answer is simple – blocked access from the trunk to the passenger area and a small trunk. At first Honda Civic Hybrid had the same amount of sales as Toyota Prius when Toyota Prius was a sedan but it all changed when Toyota changed Prius body style from sedan to hatchback – the sales went through the roof. It solved both hybrid problems – it increased cargo space and provided access from the cargo to the passenger area.

  • Shines

    Well Yegor I agree with you that the hatchback design helped Prius sales, but the 50 mpg (about 20% better than any of the competition at the moment) is also a huge factor. As far as the hatchback design. I think Ford needs Escape (small SUV) sales to allow it to sell more gas guzzling pickups (this maybe keeping them from making a hatchback version of the Fusion). I also would like to see something like a hybrid version of the Honda Crosstour or Toyota Venza – maybe a cross between the Escape and Fusion – a hatchback version of the Fusion or a streched version of the Prius.
    The style of the new Sonata looks like it could be made in a hatchback version with its sloping roofline.
    As far as the 6 speed transmission – if the CVT could handle towing it would be a better choice – I agree with usbseawolf.

  • Yegor

    Shines, I see your point. Thank you. I do agree that it is the reason for hatchback absence. It is a pickle. I bet that we are going to see some engineering in the next couple of years to solve this hybrid mid-size sedan problem.

  • DC

    Can we stay ‘Stupid to the last drop?’. Building hybrids for consumers is a waste of time and resources we done have. Hybrids are a unnessary step and a wasteful one at that. A typical american non-response to a very real problem. Got a debt problem?, fix it with MORE debt, got an energy, pollution problem?, “solve” it with marginally more fuel-efficent and vastly more complicated cars. When oil shocks become a permanet fact of lfe, it wont really matter how “efficent” your over-engineered hybrid is, and reality wont care if americans “dont like” compact cars or not. Just keep fixated on non-solutions right up to very end…

  • Robert Acree

    By all means…come up with a better solution that you actually think will succeed. That’s right…there isn’t one. You aren’t going to convince people to move away from their gas guzzling vehicles right away. Hybrids are a step in the right direction.

    Mass transit is the real answer, but in many places it’s not useful. There are too many rural areas in the US for public transit to be the solution. Personal vehicles will always be around and until our electrical grid can handle everyone charging a vehicle, we’re going to use hybrids.

    What are you driving that’s better than a hybrid? If you’ve got something that’s better, share it with the world. I guarantee if it’s better, it will succeed.

  • PaulRivers

    “Unfortunately even with 40% smaller batteries they still managed to block access from the trunk to the passenger area! 🙁 You can see it in this youtube video:

    Not a winner. :(“

    Hey, was wondering about this, thanks for pointing it out. 🙂

  • Marvin McKinley

    I would like to see Hyundai or someone develop a small Natural Gas or LPG engine to combine within a Hybrid. They would really have a clean car and very effecient one. Hopefully someone will market a conversion unit from gasoline to Natural Gas or LPG at a reasonable price. They have been around for a long time but not marketed to the general public to sell in large quantities to get the pricing down.

  • delray beach used hyundai sonata

    I think Hyundai is one car which continuously introduced some new and stylish model to the market. And that’s why this car manufacturing company is going to prove itself in this car industry.

  • syra

    Looks bad-ass! I’m not sure why they would have saved this very sporty look for the hybrid version though… Is it just too futuristic or something to put as the regular sedan and swap the other design as the Hybrid? I think the regular one is gorgeous as well, but usually car companies go the other way with their Hybrid’s and make them somewhat uglier than the regular car.

  • devvon

    I haven’t got my chance to test drive a Hyundai Sonata yet but I won’t miss my chance with the Hyundai dealers NH, they promised to let me know when they’ll have events of this kind. I am dreaming about that day already.