South Korean automakers have worked hard to become key players in the global automotive industry. You don't have to hold a Ph.D. in the intricacies of global auto trade to get an idea that we are witnessing something akin to what happened at the end of the last century when the Japanese auto industry eclipsed Detroit's dominance in quality and sales.
Hyundai, Korea's largest carmaker and the manufacturer of this week's test vehicle [the Sonata Hybrid] is leading the pack in breaking sales records and industry awards. While just a decade ago Hyundai ranked near the bottom in quality surveys, it is now always in the highest group in quality rankings in the North American and European markets.
Early this year at the North American International Auto Show, the most popular and highest rated car was neither an American nor a Japanese model, but the Hyundai Elanta. No Japanese cars even made it to the final round. And just last month, the Sonata Hybrid topped the Hybrid Car/EV category in the 2012 AutoPacific Vehicle Satisfaction Awards (VSA). Hyundai finished fifth overall in the popular brand rankings.
Hyundai has closed the gap with the Japanese and U.S. makers by improving quality, while increasing production efficiency and price competitiveness. In its first year on the market, the Sonata Hybrid has established itself as the second best-selling gas-electric in the United States, trailing only the Toyota Prius.
Hyundai has aimed the Sonata Hybrid at a growing segment – people who are in the market for a mid-size but may be wary of the space limitations of a compact. While compact sedans such as the Mazda5, Chevy Cruze, and Ford Focus offer improved drivability and continued high fuel economy compared to compacts of just a few years ago, the Sonata Hybrid offers a tantalizing blend of dynamic performance, passenger volume, and, most important, fantastic fuel economy [35 city/40 highway and 37 combined].
The Sonata hybrid has a striking exterior design that sets it apart from the competition. It is flashy enough to exude confidence but does not scream hybrid at every turn. The front is dominated by a gaping-mouth that holds a radically enlarged grille, unique LED headlights, deep side skirts and a reshaped rear bumper that improves aerodynamics and offers a more aggressive appearance. There are even flaps behind that grille that open and close, depending on your speed, to maximize aerodynamics.
Has the Sonata really caught up with the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion, the leading hybrids in the category? After driving the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid for six days within a 200 mile radius of Washington, D.C., I have to say it still needs some fine tuning but in this iteration, it comes pretty close.
The Toyota Camry Hybrid gets better overall fuel economy ratings than the Korean competitor. The Camry Hybrid has a spacious, comfortable and upscale interior and its transition from the gas engine to the electric motor is flawless and barely undetectable. The Ford Fusion Hybrid, the other major in this segment, has a high-tech, roomy interior and the best handling among hybrid midsize cars. The Fusion gets better city fuel economy but worse highway fuel economy compared with the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.
My main nit-picks with this car are with the Blue mode which Hyundai says increases efficiency 5 percent. In this mode, transitions between gas, electric and combined drive are not always seamless. In hard acceleration on higher elevations up in Virginia and Maryland mountains, I often got the feeling the car was trying to sort out how to respond to the driver's commands, but never quite did. The engine whined unsettlingly, but didn't seem sure what to do, even when I eased up on the gas.
I suspect that the Hybrid's buyers will find Hyundai's long warranty quite enticing – the basic coverage is 5-years/60,000-miles bumper-to-bumper and 10-years/100,000-miles powertrain. Owners also receive 24-hour roadside assistance at no extra charge for 5-years/unlimited mileage. Then there's the Lifetime Hybrid Battery Guarantee. If the lithium polymer battery fails, Hyundai will replace the battery and cover recycling costs of the old battery pack free of charge to the original owner.
Add on top of that six airbags – including dual front, front seat-mounted side-impact, and front and rear side curtain airbags – along with active front-seat head restraints. Other passive safety features include shingle-style rear-seat head restraints for improved visibility, three-point seatbelts for all seating positions, front-seat seatbelt pretensioners and force limiters, and a rear-seat Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) system for child seats.