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 One short year later, it’s now the 2011 Sonata Hybrid making the Fusion Hybrid seem outdated and bland.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.