At long last, it looks like I've discovered a hybrid car that breaks the mould. Indeed, it may actually be the first hybrid to expand its appeal beyond the diehard environmentalists. At the very least, getting behind the wheel of Hyundai's Sonata Hybrid doesn't feel like the automotive equivalent of hugging a tree.
I have long been sceptical of the entire concept of having an electric motor and petrol engine power a car at the same time. As admirable as the concept is, the following facts are the reasons I've never been entirely convinced of their merit:
1: Most hybrid cars are unnecessarily complicated. Elegant engineering is simple and uncomplicated but hybrids are usually a mess of electric motors, mechanical gears and enough computational electronics for a Microsoft convention.
2: To deliver the fuel economy savings promised, hybrids need to be driven in a very specific manner: If the road to "clean" automobiles is predicated on a wholesale change in the way the average motorist drives, then the current crop really won't pass muster and the planet will continue to suffer.
3: Hybrids are generally thirsty, unless they are driven at speeds that would annoy all but the most pious of converts (see point 2). If not, they drink almost as much petrol as a conventional automobile of the same size.
The new Hyundai addresses point 1, in part, with an elegant solution that marries the best of Honda's hybrid engineering with a few clever additions of its own. Anyone - even a dedicated eco-warrior - who has driven a Prius or Insight has damned for all eternity their ludicrous continuously variable transmissions (CVT). Any time you need a proper burst of acceleration, those CVTs hold the four-cylinder engines at constantly high revs to wring every last bit of performance out of their weedy pistons. The problem is that a little four-cylinder motor revving at a constant 6,000rpm is the only sound known that can make you wish for a complaining "nagivator".
So, Hyundai has simply equipped the Sonata Hybrid with a conventional six-speed automatic transmission. Even more novel is that Hyundai took a page out of Honda's playbook and conveniently mounted the electric drive motor to the powertrain. However, unlike the Honda solution, which sees the Insight's electric motor mounted directly to the engine's crankshaft, Hyundai built it into the transmission, where it replaces the torque converter. The advantage is that, unlike the Honda, the Sonata's electric motor can operate independently of the petrol engine (like a Prius). Remember point 1: that the most elegant solution is the simplest. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Hyundai's rather clever engineers simply moved it.
And the electric motor certainly does allow the Sonata to be driven independent of the petrol engine. The Sonata will easily cruise — for brief periods — at 100kph in pure electric mode. In a couple of instances (downhill, etc.), the little EV light even flickered on at 120kph. The driving was remarkably trouble-free, as well, although the transmission tended to upshift early to conserve fuel. And the throttle pedal has obviously been calibrated for a slow build-up, so you really have to floor the pedal to get serious acceleration. But, and this is perhaps the car's greatest advantage, it doesn't feel like an overgrown golf cart.
As for points 1 and 2, in circumstances that have had other hybrids I've tested drinking copious amounts of fuel — cruising on a motorway at 130kph — the Sonata still maintained decent fuel economy. I averaged about 6L/100km at 110kph, seven at 120 and a little less than eight at 130.
The latter two figures are less than half a litre worse than the BMW 335d, admittedly a notably more sprightly car. In fact, when I was driving in my normal, rather spirited manner, I averaged about half a litre more in the electrified Sonata than in the turbodiesel BMW. The harder you drive, the greater the fuel economy advantage for diesel technology. And, if saving money is really your goal, buy a Chevrolet Cruze Eco, which gets about the same overall fuel economy and costs about Dh40,000 less. Nonetheless, the Sonata still delivered better performance — in terms of drivability and motorway fuel consumption — than other hybrids I've tested.
In a perfect world, of course, Hyundai would marry the best of both worlds and equip the Sonata with a turbodiesel as sophisticated as its hybrid technology. Such a machine might just achieve the magic combination of economy, performance and sportiness that would popularise hybrids beyond their current niche status.