Hyundai this week announced a price of $25,795 for the base-level 2011 Sonata Hybrid, with the premium package going for $30,795. That means the Sonata Hybrid will beat the Ford Fusion Hybrid ($28,240) and the Toyota Camry Hybrid ($26,575) on price. It already has an edge on fuel efficiency, aerodynamics, light weight, and enjoyable driving.

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 Toyota Camry Hybrid falls behind at 33/34.

Hyundai believes that its use of a six-speed automatic transmission gives the Sonata Hybrid an edge on driving enjoyment. “There’s nothing specifically synergistic between a CVT (continuously variable transmission) and a hybrid,” said John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai USA, who rode with us during a recent drive of the Sonata Hybrid. 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.”

Based on our driving experience, and now the announcement of a compelling price, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid raises the bar for hybrids in a mid-size model aimed for the heart of the mainstream market. It’s the first hybrid for Hyundai (which on a winning streak) and it’s the first affordable hybrid model to use lithium ion batteries. While not as exciting as the first mainstream electric cars being delivered to consumers this week, it offers the promise of hybrid technology being incorporated into the most popular models on the road, and therefore having a major impact on reducing fuel consumption.

The Sonata Hybrid hits dealerships in January. Unfortunately, that’s right after the expected $1,300 hybrid tax incentive will have already expired.