Hyundai Elantra

A hybrid version of the Hyundai Elantra, powered by lithium ion batteries, could arrive in the U.S. as early as 2010. But the lithium battery technology has not yet been proven safe, reliable and cost-effective.

The race for the coveted lithium ion hybrid has a new contender. Hyundai has announced intentions to build a hybrid version of the Elantra sedan using lithium battery technology. The vehicle could show up in the U.S. as early as 2010—but the wait for lithium batteries that are sufficiently safe and affordable might put Hyundai in the same “wait and hope” situation as General Motors with its Chevy Volt.

The use of lithium batteries in the next generation of hybrids and electric vehicles could yield significant increased in fuel efficiency.

The battery itself is being developed by Korea’s own LG Electronics. Hyundai is already testing a fleet of hybrid Elantras, according to Jae Won Lee, Hyundai’s senior executive vice president of product planning. Lee told Automotive News that he doesn’t expect much of a premium in cost for the new lithium ion batteries over the nickel metal hydride employed in today’s hybrids—but he didn’t explain how the company would bring down the cost of lithium batteries. Lee did express concern about stability and thermal issues related to the new battery technology.

Unlike Honda and Toyota, Hyundai has no plans for a dedicated platform for hybrid vehicles. It simply can’t afford that kind of initiative. But it does plan on utilizing hybrid technology in other vehicles in the existing model line.

Hyundai had planned to launch a hybrid version of their Accent subcompact sedan back in 2005, but halted all such plans citing market factors and low overall demand. Scandal in the top ranks of the corporation at that time also presumably played a role in the delays. The release of a lithium-powered Hyundai hybrid could help the company make up for lost time in the hybrid marketplace.