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2011 Hyundai Sonata arrives ready to impress

When you hear “mid-size sedan”, which cars come to mind?  Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chevy Malibu, or Ford Fusion?  If you didn’t think about the Hyundai Sonata, it’s time to think again.

2011 Hyundai Sonata - Photographer: Zane Merva

Specifications as-tested

Model Year: 2011
Make: Hyundai
Model: Sonata SE

Engine: 2.4L DOHC  direct injection 4-cylinder / 200 hp at 6300 rpm and 186 lb.- ft. of torque at 4350 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drivetrain: Front-wheel-drive

EPA Fuel Economy: 22mpg city / 26mpg combined / 35mpg highway
Observed Fuel Economy: 29.7mpg

Base MSRP: $22,595
As tested MSRP: $25,915

Standard Equipment: Traction/stability control, key-less entry, steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, USB/Aux/iPod port, dimension audio system, automatic headlight control

Equipped Options:
Navigation & Sunroof Package [$2,600]

Required Fees:
Delivery Charge [$720]

>>See our full 2011 Hyundai Sonata Road Test Photo Gallery<<

Driving Dynamics & Performance

2011 Hyundai Sonata - Photographer: Zane Merva

The 2011 Hyundai Sonata is fun to drive. Let that sit in your mind for just a moment. In a segment usually promoted using safety and fuel economy, “fun to drive” is not a term you’d expect out of a family sedan.  Yet, the Sonata delivers.

On the road we were immediately surprised by how quick and agile the Sonata felt.  We never expected the base 200-horsepower model to feel so good. In this market base engines are almost expected to feel sluggish and anemic. Somehow, Hyundai has bucked the trend. The base 2.4L inline-4 in the Sonata feels more than adequate, in fact it feels quite healthy. Only minimal fanfare is required to accelerate on the highway and around town low end torque provides quick getup and go. Should you desire more power, look for a 274-horsepower turbocharged 2.0T option later this year.

In addition to proper acceleration, the Sonata can be tossed around and feels comfortable on any road surface. A solid chassis and communicative steering empower the driver to feel in control behind the wheel.

There are two factors that contribute to the Sonata’s handling prowess.  First, it weighs 200lbs less than Malibu and 100lbs less than Camry and Fusion.  Second, the Sonata’s base engine, rated at 200-horsepower,  is  30-horsepower up on Camry/Malibu and 25-horsepower up on Fusion/Accord.

The Sonata, which equals rivals at 22mpg city also tops with more highway fuel economy. Even with a horsepower advantage, Sonata is rated at 35mpg on the highway. That’s 4-mpg better than Accord and Altima,  2mpg better than Camry and Malibu, and 1mpg better than Fusion. Have no doubt that 35mpg in a four door family sedan is impressive but we found that advertised economy allusive.  Our best observed highway mileage was 31mpg.

Design Execution, Appearance, Fit & Finish

2011 Hyundai Sonata

There’s something new, yet familiar about the styling on the 2011 Sonata.  Its sweeping exterior side profile is semi-reminiscent of a Mercedes CL and the HVAC “torso-body” button on the interior center console is a close duplicate of what you’d find in a Volvo.  However, set next to a  Toyota Camry or Chevy Malibu the Sonata looks crisp and refreshing. It’s a touch of style that makes a statement without coming off as in your face. The Sonata’s styling will appeal to a wide audience.

Hyundai calls the new design “Fluidic Sculpture” and has also started using the design philosophy in other models, such as the new Tuscon.  Sculpture like or not, we really enjoyed both the interior and exterior styling of the new Sonata.  It felt stylish and interesting without being too busy or distracting. Every button and switch was easy to use and fell within arms reach.

While Hyundai has done many things right with the Sonata, it didn’t take very long to find a few things that felt needed improvement.  Many of our gripes centered around the interior. The choice of plastic found around the cup holders is prone to scratches. At night, we also found that many of the interior indicator lights did not dim as much as they should. For example, the gear shift selector back-light stayed too bright for our eyes.  The same was also true for the headlight/fog-light/high-beam indicators in the gauge cluster.   After dark when night adjusted vision is at a premium these brightness issues were annoying and compromised our ability to see the road in front of us.

Audio, Electronics, & Technology

2011 Hyundai Sonata - Photographer: Zane Merva

The new Sonata continues to impress with its technology offerings. Standard Bluetooth hands-free is a segment first.  Standard USB/AUX input jacks are also well appreciated. For $35 Hyundai offers a iPod/iPhone integration cable that plugs into the USB and line-in port at the same time. While we appreciate that Hyundai and Apple are playing nice, we’re confused why you need the special cable. The Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu allow customers to use their existing USB cable for iPod/iPhone control. If you try that on Sonata, it just won’t work. If you don’t have an iPod/iPhone, you can always load up a spare USB drive with music for your listening pleasure.

If you splurge for the optional integrated navigation system you’re in for a treat. A high-resolution display allows for easy readability at a glance.   Hyundai has also partnered with Sirius XM to offer Weather, Stocks, and Sports information.  Just like Sirus/Ford Travel-link, you can view weather maps, warnings, sports scores, and stock prices on your screen. Stock and sports information is handy and weather features are not only cool but could be life-saving in severe situations.

Comfort & Ergonomics

2011 Hyundai Sonata - Photographer: Zane Merva

In concert with the typical job of everyday commuting, the new Sonata is comfortable and easy to live with. Steering wheel controls are comfortable to use without contorting your thumbs, audio and navigation operation are intuitive, and Hyundai’s switch-gear feel is solid and precise.  We did find it odd that Hyundai does not offer an automatic climate control option.  We found the manual system to require small adjustments every 10-20 minutes to stay comfortable.

The seats in the Sonata are comfortable for long and short hauls alike. During our week with the car we always arrived at our destination without cramps or aches. That’s not something we’ve always been able to say of the other cars in this class.

>>See our full 2011 Hyundai Sonata Road Test Photo Gallery<<

Conclusion

A right-sized car with a beefy base engine and a thrifty price.  Engaging driving attributes, good looks, and great fuel economy make the Sonata deserving of careful consideration for anyone in the mid-size sedan market.  Hyundai has taken everything good about family sedans and improved on it while simultaneously injecting the Sonata with a spark of style and fun.

Strengths

  • Lowest base price & highest fuel economy among Camry, Accord, Malibu, and Fusion.
  • Standard iPod/AUX/USB input
  • Optional Navigation system includes XM Weather/Sports/Stocks
  • Class leading engine feels more powerful than 200-hp

Weaknesses

  • Semi-soft plastic on steering wheel and center console scratches easily
  • Gear-selector back-lights and gauge cluster headlight/foglight indicators are  too bright for sensitive eyes
  • iPod/iPhone audio control will only work with exclusive Hyundai cable

AutoInsane.com exclusive 360 Video Walk-around in HD

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid – the best executed hybrid yet?

Hybrids have seemingly been on the cusp of mainstream fame for years now as the US consumer searches for ways to reduce fuel consumption. But, could it be that the car of the future is actually already on sale today?

Specifications as-tested

Model: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
Engine: Duratec 2.5L I-4 Gas Engine [156-horsepower] & Permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor [106-horsepower/275V]
EPA Fuel Economy: 41mpg City, 39mpg combined, 36mpg highway
Observed Fuel Economy: 38.44mpg [SmartGauge reported as 40.7mpg]
Total Miles Driven: 542 miles
Base MSRP: $27,270
As driven MSRP: $31,940 (includes $1,270 in “rapid spec” savings)
Available Government Tax Credit: $850 until April 1st, 2010
Transmission: Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (eCVT)
Equipped Options & Features: Rear View Backup Camera, BLIS (Blind Spot System), Moonroof, Sony Premium Sound System, Leather/Heated Seats, Navigation System, SYNC

Driving Dynamics & Performance

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Generally, hybrids are not the most exciting vehicles to drive.  Not true with the Ford Fusion. It’s the first hybrid we’ve tested that doesn’t feel somewhat lifeless and numb at all the control points.  Typically, over-boosted steering and a mushy brake are just par for the hybrid course. Not so for the Fusion, which drives much more like its non-hybrid counterpart than one might expect. On the road, if not for the CVT transmission and EV mode, it would be difficult to tell you were not driving a fully gas dependent Fusion.

Acceleration is also non-hybrid like. Lay into the throttle and you’re met with a decent push of grunt from the internal combustion engine (ICE) and electric motor combination.  Although it’s hard on the conscious to mash the accelerator in a car meant to save fuel, you won’t be disappointed if you have to.

But we digress, the reason you would buy a hybrid is for fuel economy and the Fusion Hybrid does a pretty damn good job at that.  On the backwoods roads of New Hampshire we traverse daily, our Fusion averaged a cool 38.4mpg. That’s almost exactly on par with the EPA’s combined driving average of 39mpg and 2mpg lower than what the SmartGauge system indicated.  More impressively, during our stint we could only muster through a half tank of gas, despite traveling 378 miles during fuel economy testing (we traveled 542 miles in the Fusion Hybrid total).

Like most other hybrid vehicles, the Fusion can run under either full electric power or a combination of electric and gasoline engine power. The real difference is how the Fusion acts under electric only power versus the competition. The Toyota Camry Hybrid, just for example, is tuned for low end torque, making moving off from a start under electric power a snap. The caveat is that EV mode cuts out at 40mph and it’s hard to maintain speed.  The Fusion Hybrid is a little different as it’s almost impossible to get underway without starting the internal combustion engine. Once at speed however, the Fusion enters and stays planted in EV mode with ease all the way up to 48mph.  That small 8mph difference may not seem like much until you consider how many roads in the US are posted at 45mph- a speed at which the Camry Hybrid’s gas engine would be running and the Fusion Hybrid’s engine would not.

Design Execution, Appearance, Fit & Finish

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Similar to how the Fusion Hybrid drives, it’s styling doesn’t exactly scream “hybrid vehicle” either. That’s a good thing, the Fusion is already a stylish automobile. On the outside the only hint of being a hybrid is the specialized hybrid badges and unique wheels.

We have to note the great sounding doors. I know, you’re asking yourself why we’d mention the doors. It’s just that they shut with a mechanically precise sound that you rarely hear, even on more upscale vehicles.

On the inside, you’ll find a plush environment. Gaps are kept to a minimum, although we’re still not satisfied with the quality of the plastics on the lower and upper consoles, door trim, and surrounding the emergency brake. With that said, for this price and the amount of technology included, you’re going to have to give a little.

Worthy of noting, Ford decided not to include LED rear tail-lamps on the Fusion Hybrid. We find it odd considering the reduced energy use that LEDs provide over typical incandescent bulbs. Hopefully this will be an upgrade in model years to come.

Audio, Electronics, & Technology

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid: SmartGauge

This is perhaps the ringer category for the Fusion Hybrid. With the SmartGauge system and SYNC, Ford has a decisive edge on any competitor in this segment. When you factor in the extra large 8-inch navigation system screen, Sirius Travel Link, a Sony Sound System, rear backup camera, stability and traction control, and automatic climate control- the Fusion Hybrid stands supreme.

The highlight of the Fusion Hybrid is Ford’s SmartGauge system, an extremely innovative dual LCD paneled gauge cluster (as seen above).  Configurable to display information in one of four formats, this car wouldn’t be the same without it. It shows you exactly how much juice you can give the throttle before kicking on the gas engine or conversely, how much you need to let off the throttle before EV mode takes over.  SmartGauge makes driving a hybrid for maximum fuel economy less of a game of skill and more a walk in the park. Our only concern is how much the system will cost to fix years down the road when something goes bad.

Read more about the Smart Gauge system

Comfort & Ergonomics

The interior of the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Another huge surprise was how comfortable we were in the Fusion. The 8-way power driver seat gave firm support without feeling hard and supported my sensitive back after hours behind the wheel.

We also appreciated Ford trusting us to adjust the SmartGauge system while in motion. Sometimes automakers lock out the settings and configuration menus on navigation systems and driver information systems at speed. It’s an annoying trend. Ford, showing respect for the driver, has opted to allow access to the SmartGauge configuration menu while on the road. Ford, thank you.

Other creature comforts to note include excellent heated seats (they get nice and hot!), Sirius Travel Link, Sirius radio, and an excellent functioning navigation system.

The rear trunk is slightly smaller than in a “regular” Fusion, as Ford packs the batteries between the trunk space and the rear seat-backs, but you still have plenty of room for larger luggage.

Final thoughts

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

It’s not often we are sad to see a hybrid leaving our office. While we love saving gas, the driving experience that comes along with most of these eco-machines left much to be desired – until now. The 2010 Fusion Hybrid thoroughly impressed and left us with the refreshing feeling that the bar for these types of machines had been raised and raised far. This is the new flagship of FoMoCo.

Conclusion

Perhaps the most refined and best executed hybrid to date.

Strengths

  • The only hybrid that can operate in EV mode over 45mph
  • SmartGauge is a  revolutionary step in presenting information to the driver
  • All the benefits of a hybrid in a “regular” car package

Weaknesses

  • Dash and door coverings are too hard and plastic-like in spots
  • SYNC voice commands are tedious to use, navigation system adds obnoxious layers to otherwise simple actions
  • Priced higher than a Toyota Prius

Check out our 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid photo gallery

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid Road Test Photo Gallery

Road Test Gallery: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Hybrids have seemingly been on the cusp of mainstream fame for years now as the US consumer searches for ways to reduce fuel consumption. But, could it be that the car of the future is actually already on sale today? Check out our full road test later today.

Specifications as-tested

Model: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
Engine: Duratec 2.5L I-4 Gas Engine [156-horsepower] & Permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor [106-horsepower/275V]
Base MSRP: $27,270
As driven MSRP: $31,940 (includes $1,270 in “rapid spec” savings)
Available Government Tax Credit: $850 until April 1st, 2010
Transmission: Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (eCVT)
Equipped Options & Features: Rear View Backup Camera, BLIS (Blind Spot System), Moonroof, Sony Premium Sound System, Leather/Heated Seats, Navigation System, SYNC

First Drive: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Ford’s new 2010 Fusion Hybrid is the latest introduction to the word of hybrid electric cars and we’ve had a chance to jump behind the wheel. How does it drive? Is it evolutionary or revolutionary? Does the SmartGauge system really work or is it just a gimmick? Here’s the details and our impressions of the 2010 Fusion Hybrid. You don’t want to miss this.

First Drive Verdict

A real, no compromises sedan that takes the hybrid movement to the next level. The Ford Fusion Hybrid is smooth, sophisticated, and extremely easy to drive. Ford’s new SmartGauge display is revolutionary- providing the information you need to drive the Fusion Hybrid most efficiently. On a couple mile city loop we achieved an impressive 59.4mpg. (FastCompany.com has even noted our eco-impressive figure)

Related: Zane’s driving the 2010  Toyota Prius on Monday and Tuesday (March 23rd/24th). We’re taking your requests- what do you want to know?

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid – the details

First Drive: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

From the outside, we’ll concede, the 2010 Fusion Hybrid could very well be mistaken for a regular Fusion Sedan. Aside from the Hybrid badges and some slight styling tweaks it does not stand out as the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight do.  There’s no odd shape and zero tacky hybrid decals plastered everywhere.

Even inside you’d be hard pressed to find where Ford might have skimped for weight savings.  Heated leather seats, a full navigation system, and all the options you’re used to can still be had with the Fusion Hybrid. Only the SmartGauge system in the dash gives any hint of the technology and fuel economy hiding under the bodywork- and that technology is impressive.

Ford made sure to avoid the “me too” Hybrid approach that General Motors has taken with the Chevy Malibu “lite”  Hybrid.  The Fusion Hybrid is a 100%, full fledged eco-machine. Like the Escape Hybrid- the Fusion Hybrid can run under electric motor only propulsion. Only when needed does the 2.5L 4-cylinder gas engine seamlessly start.

The Hybrid powertrain found in the Fusion Hybrid is the next generation of the system Ford has been using in the Escape Hybrid for the past few years. It features a 155-horsepower 2.5L Atkinson cycle four-cylinder gas engine mated to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission. Also attached to the CVT is a 250-volt,106-horsepower AC electric motor.   The Fusion’s smaller and lighter nickel-metal hydride battery is 20% more powerful than its predecessor and features a revised chemistry that allows it to be run at a higher temperature. The combined output of the gas engine and electric motor is 191-horsepower. Other upgrades to the hybrid powertrain include an electric A/C compressor and an improved regenerative braking system that can recover energy that would have otherwise been lost through brake pad friction.

Through these enhancements Ford was able to achieve an EPA estimated highway rating of 41 miles to the gallon. That’s an impressive 8mpg better than the Toyota Camry Hybrid in the city. On the highway, the Fusion Hybrid is rated at 36mpg, nearly 2mpg better than the Camry Hybrid. All told, a full tank of gas will take you over 700-miles. Most impressive of all is that the vehicle can travel under electric-only power at speeds up to 47-mph. This is a huge improvement over many other hybrids which automatically turn on the gas engine at speeds over 30-mph, even if you don’t need it.

Behind the wheel

First Drive: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Turn the key and not much happens. If the car is up to temperature the gas engine will not even fire. The Fusion Hybrid is so quiet Ford had to add a light in the gauge cluster telling the driver it’s ok to get moving. After the SmartGauge display has cycled on and you’re buckled up, only light pressure on the accelerator is needed and  the Fusion silently glides ahead.

Under electric-only power the gauges immediately begin updating. The power (PWR) gauge readout gives an instantaneous measurement to the amount of acceleration you’re requesting.  Think of it as a smart tachometer. Press the throttle and the needle-line floats up. Coast and the needle-line drifts back down. Under electric power part of the power gauge is shaded green.  If the needle is in the green shaded area the Fusion Hybrid stays in electric-only power and uses no gasoline.  The higher the speed, the larger the EV shaded area becomes. Simply put- the “PWR” gauge alone allows the driver to accurately control the transition between electric-only and hybrid-gas operation.

But when you do need the extra boost from the gas engine it’s possible you’ll never realize it. The transition and start-up of the gas engine is so smooth and seemless it’s hard to tell when its running.  Reading  gauges for confirmation may be the only way to truly know in most situations.   We’ve driven nearly every hybrid system on the market today and even we had troubles detecting when the gas engine came to life.

Driving the Fusion Hybrid on city streets outside Boston, MA we noticed Ford has really worked hard to mainstream the hybrid driving experience. The electric motor puts out more than enough torque to get the Fusion up to speed easily.  With a little bit of effort we found no problem keeping the gas engine off during most of our time driving. Only when leaving a stoplight or moving uphill did we find the gas engine kicking on for assistance.

The Fusion Hybrid is also outfitted with a refined regenerative braking system. A big complaint of the Escape Hybrid we’ve driven in the past was its numb on or off brake peddle. The upgraded system in the Fusion is surprisingly precise and linear, much like a conventional car.  During easy driving conditions its possible the mechanical brake pads will never engage, instead leaving the work of slowing the vehicle up to the regenerative system. A big plus with this approach is that the Fusion’s brake pads are used less and thus last longer.   Ford estimates that 94% of braking force can be recaptured through the system, leaving only 6% for the conventional pads to deal with.

All told after taking the Fusion Hybrid out for a couple miles in city driving we averaged an impressive 59.4mpg.

Ford’s revolutionary SmartGauge with EcoGuide

First Drive: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid - SmartGauge

So while the hybrid technology is impressive it’s only part of the equation. Last October, Ford introduced the brand new SmartGauge system and you’ll find it on the Fusion Hybrid. It’s a huge technological leap in driver information, comprised of a large center analog speedometer flanked by two high-resolution LCD screens. The display can be configured to show varying amounts of information. The driver can choose from one of four configurations.

Inform: Fuel level and battery charge status
Enlighten: Adds electric vehicle mode indicator and tachometer
Engage: Adds engine output power and battery output power
Empower: Adds power to wheels, engine pull-up threshold and accessory power consumption

During our drive (and as displayed above) we used “Empower”.   Aside from being visually pleasing SmartGauge is extraordinarily useful.  The LCD screens show exactly the information you need to drive Fusion Hybrid to its fullest. We especially appreciated the “PWR” gauge, which adapts as the vehicle changes between electric-only and hybrid-gas modes. As throttle is applied the power line moves up accordingly. While in electric-only mode, part of the gauge is shaded green, giving visual representation to how close or far away you are from kicking on the gas engine or returning to electric-only power.

Hybrids have notoriously taken a lot of skill to get the best fuel economy out of them. Being light on the throttle at low speeds usually means you can get by without kicking the gas engine on saving precious fuel. The caveat however is that, until now, you never knew exactly how much throttle was too much. Ford’s SmartGauge smartly fixes that issue.  Give the Fusion Hybrid some “gas”  in electric mode and the “PWR” meter adaptively floats up and down inside its green shaded “EV” range.  The faster you’re traveling, the wider the range the Fusion Hybrid will stay under electric only propulsion. By watching the meter you can give the Fusion just enough throttle to accelerate without kicking on the engine, effectively eliminating the guess work out of hyper-milling your hybrid.

While originally we were concerned the SmartGauage system would be garish or hokey, after using it in real life we walked away extremely impressed.  The LCD displays allow for a lot of information to fit in a compact space and still be readable.   Better yet- there’s no lag.  All the data, gauges, and readouts update smoothly and in real time. Not just a cool toy- Ford’s SmartGauge is a tool for the driver that delivers massive benefit.

Not exactly informative but none the less rewarding is the green leafy vine that grows on the right hand side of the gauges. The concept is simple- the better fuel economy you can achieve the more leaves grow and the bigger your virtual vine becomes. Slack off and your vine wilts away. Check out this example below.

First Drive: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid - SmartGauge

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid Photo Gallery

Photos credit: Zane Merva