A mere 10 years ago in 2003, Hyundai was scrambling to gain traction in the U.S. as a viable automaker. Quality control and reliability issues had plagued the brand in the ‘90s and the product lineup looked like appliances with four wheels – econoboxes that served as mundane transportation.

Fast-forward to 2013 and the new Sonata Hybrid.

Graceful exterior lines and purposefully placed accents wrap an almost luxurious interior with leather seating, amazing fit and finish, quality materials, and every modern convenience buyers are looking for. It’s quite a remarkable transformation.

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We had the chance to become acquainted with the Sonata Hybrid amid the beautiful scenery of Charlottesville, Virginia that sprawls along the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains. The curvy mountain roads with grand vistas, juxtaposed to urban landscapes with thick city traffic allowed us to get an overall sense of how the car behaves.

Outside the car has plenty going for it. The swooping beltline that carries the door handles, rides atop the rear tail lights, and comes together above the license plate is beautifully done, despite it having little originality or uniqueness in today’s sedan market. The chrome accent resting low on the doors adds a touch of pazzaz and contrasts the upper swoosh nicely.

It’s a good looking car as a whole, but the front fascia did receive a few negative comments from those we talked to. One journalist went so far as to say, “It looks like something from a JC Whitney catalog was tacked onto the grille.” Ouch.

Opinions can differ and looks have a way of growing on you. We didn’t find it quite as terrible, perhaps even beautifully interesting – although it does look like it’s wearing a football player’s mouth guard.

 

Inside

Hyundai’s quest for quality is more than apparent inside the Sonata. Fit and finish was quite good with every touch point covered in soft-touch materials. Seams were stitched with actual stitching and the leather didn’t feel like vinyl. Complementing colors gave the cabin a warm feel without being overstated or gimmicky. The switchgear felt solidly built and the shifter felt snickety and precise with a short path from Park to Drive.

Rear seat passengers enjoy generous legroom, heated seats, and their own air vents. Ergonomics throughout the cabin were good except the door grabs up front were a little too rearward to act as a good handle while driving.

The instrument cluster was informative and elegantly illuminated in a blue hue. The infotainment system worked well and was generally easy to operate with a good amount of actual buttons to navigate menus within the system. Thankfully, the A/C and radio volume had their own analog controls.

With over a quarter tank gone, the computer still shows a 338-mile range despite a heavy right foot and mountainous terrain.

 

On The Road

Driving the Sonata Hybrid was a pleasurable experience. The cabin is quiet, especially in battery mode, with tire noise being the limiting factor. We were quite impressed with how seamlessly the 2.4-liter four cylinder turned on an off. Even with the radio and air conditioner off, we couldn’t discern when the engine came and went. It was only in the higher revs that the engine made itself known.

Aiding the serenity was a powerful eclectic motor that kept the car in EV mode much of the time. When extra power was needed, however, the gasoline engine was quick to respond. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder features direct injection and runs an Atkinson cycle combustion sequence that’s said to decrease pumping and friction losses. It is slightly detuned over last year’s model, but a larger electric motor makes up the difference. It currently makes 159 horsepower and 154 lb-ft of torque while the electric motor makes 47 hp.

EPA numbers differ between the Sonata Hybrid and Sonata Hybrid Limited. The base Hybrid achieves 36 city/40 highway/38 combined while the Hybrid Limited achieves 36 city/40 highway/37 combined; dropping one mpg with a slightly higher curb weight.

During our spirited driving loop that included twisty roads and severe elevation changes, we were getting reasonably close to EPA numbers with our Limited model. With a little concentration and a soft touch, the EPA numbers are well within reach.

The suspension setup doesn’t change between the gasoline-powered Sonata and Sonata Hybrid models, so handling was familiar. The ride was compliant without being overly soft or mushy. The chassis felt planted even at higher speeds on the interstate with minimal body roll during lane changes.

Pricing starts at $25,650 for the base Hybrid and $30,550 for the Hybrid Limited with the only real option being the $1,000 panorama sunroof available only on Limited models.

We came away with a solid impression of the Sonata Hybrid and its value. It’s products like this that can shatter old opinions and stereotypes of Hyundai circa 2003. We look forward to spending more time behind the wheel getting to know the Sonata Hybrid and getting more solid fuel economy numbers.

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