Published on October 4th, 2013 | by Jo Borrás3
I Go to Texas With Honda, Part 2: the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
I wanted to like this car. As I walked up to the shining white Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, admiring its bold styling that didn’t remind me of any other single animal in the automotive kingdom, I really wanted to like it. After spending a few hours behind the wheel of Honda’s new-for-2014 Accord Hybrids and hitting the long “loop” of twisty, canyonesque roads surrounding San Antonio’s Èilan hotel hard in one of Ford’s excellent Fusion hybrids, however, it became clear that Hyundai’s Sonata Hybrid is in a different league.
Not in a good way.
As I said, I wanted to like the Sonata. My first new car, in fact, was a Hyundai. A Scoupe. That car’s tiny, 1.5 liter Alpha 3v engine gave back decent mileage and reasonable performance back before airbags and side-impact protection were things that made cars heavier. I liked it, even if I did only get 42,000 miles out of it before it went irretrievably bad. The early 90s were a different time for Hyundai, though. Besides, I liked the car in exactly the same way any teen likes their first real car that’s really theirs, you know? My next new car was also a Hyundai. A first-generation Tiburon that looked oh-so-much like Hyundai’s gorgeous HCD-iii concept coupe from 1995.
I followed that car up with a purple Sonata less than two years later.
This newer Hyundai Sonata Hybrid had nothing in common, visually, with that first one. That’s a good thing. In a world where too many cars can only be distinguished by their badges, the Sonata Hybrid looks like nothing else – except, perhaps, other Hyundais. Good on Hyundai’s design team, then. The interior of this Sonata Hybrid, also, is visually appealing. Still, the mouse-gray interior and something about the instrument cluster seems noticeably “cheaper” than the interiors of, for example, the Ford and the Honda hybrids. The other big interior difference was the 1-2-3-4-5-6 visible in one of the dashboard’s selectable LCD screens.
Every other hybrid Honda had on-hand at the Accord reveal/comparison drive that had a transmission in it at all (I’ll get to that) had a CVT. Hyundai’s Sonata Hybrid is fitted with a 6-speed automatic transmission.
CVTs have their critics, sure – but I’m a believer. After a few miles of riding shotgun while Temple of VTEC‘s Jeff Palmer drove me around in the Honda Accord Hybrid with its “eCVT” and talking with the engineers on hand about how to get the most out of it, driving the eCVT “clicked”, and it stopped feeling like a slippy clutch, and started feeling like the most normal, natural thing in the world.
The Hyundai’s 6-speed? Not so much.
Left to its own devices, the Sonata Hybrid’s transmission seemed to “hunt” for gears in the hilly roads like an 80s Buick. It never found the right gear to hold, and switching into the car’s manu-matic mode just seemed to make things worse, with the transmission upshifting on its own mid-corner at least twice.
After the smooth, seamless drives I’d made earlier in the day, driving the Hyundai seemed downright tumultuous. I got out of the car feeling queasy and wishing my day was over – an uneasy feeling that followed me into the driver’s seat of the Toyota Camry Hybrid I drove immediately after the Sonata, and found me, eventually, horking on the side of the road a few minutes later.
So, is the Hyundai a bad car? Probably not. It’s probably just the thing for- I dunno. Let’s say “for your aunt”. It gets decent enough mileage, has that 100,000 warranty, comes with Hyundai Assurance, and it’ll look and feel “sporty” and “modern” to baby-boomers.
As for the under-40 crowd? Well … for their own sake, here’s hoping that Hyundai swings big on some transmission upgrades in their next mid-sized hybrid.