NEW YORK CITY--The extensively redesigned and slightly larger 2015 Hyundai Sonata, with three four-cylinder engines and a big range of options—not to mention a bristling array of tech features—arrives at dealers this month and next (after a debut at the New York Auto Show). It’s so new the hybrid model hasn’t even caught up yet (the 2014 model soldiers on for 2015). And therein hangs a tale.
On a drive from Manhattan to Connecticut in both the bare-bones SE base car (available for $21,150 MSRP, a drop of $300 from the older model) and a top-of-the-line Sport 2.0T ($33,525 in Ultimate form), the Sonata was quiet and refined, with excellent handling. The base car, with the 2.4-liter engine had some lag while the transmission hunted for a gear, but it was mostly smooth sailing.
The big Sonata news is a new $23,275 Eco model, powered by a 177-horsepower 1.6-liter turbo connected to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. This is the kind of smart conventional technology that could make hybrids obsolete. Why? Because it achieves 38 mpg on the highway, 28 in town and 32 overall—a 10 percent improvement over the 2.4-liter engine. That’s better than the current VW Passat and Ford Fusion. It’s not quite as good as the 2014 Sonata Hybrid—36 city, 40 highway—but it’s certainly in the ballpark.
Hyundai’s John Shon said that a Sonata Hybrid is definitely coming, but he declined to reveal the internal fuel economy target. Obviously, the company can’t stand still, so it needs an “oh wow” number. The Toyota Prius’ 50 highway mpg is one of those, but that’s going to be hard to achieve in a loaded, mid-sized sedan like the Sonata, even if it does have a slippery coefficient of drag (a measure of aerodynamics) of 0.27, not far off the Prius' segment-leading 0.25.
Two things have to happen for the forthcoming Sonata Hybrid to work. The price differential between it and the Eco model has to be fairly modest, and the fuel economy benefits have to be fairly substantial. Otherwise Hyundai is open to the kind of shellacking Ford got from Consumer Reports. The magazine pointed out that the fuel savings from buying the Fiesta’s 1.3-liter three-cylinder eco engine (which costs an additional $995, but delivers 35 mpg overall, three better than the 1.6-liter four) would take a mere 12 years of ownership (driving 12,000 miles a year) to pencil out.
The big question for Hyundai is how much demand there is for the Eco, which can be had for $2,000 more than comparable cars with the 2.4-liter engine. An Eco tech package (you're going to want it) adds $4,100 to the bottom line. As with that Ford Fiesta, it might come down to potential buyers doing the math. With only a three-mpg difference, how long will it take to pay back that two grand? But people do like to buy cars with "Eco" badges. A caveat here is that the 1.6-liter engine and transmission are made in Korea, not the U.S., and the supply could be limited, Shon said.
So does Hyundai need a hybrid Sonata, if it already has an Eco model? I think it does. No major carmaker is credible today without a hybrid in the lineup and some new models—Ford’s C-MAX for instance—aren’t even offered any other way. Hyundai was late to the party with its hybrid, but it became a contender. The marque doesn’t have an electric car, though the Kia Soul EV is a sister vehicle.
I would urge Hyundai to take its time and deliver a hybrid Sonata that resets the bar and enhances the company’s reputation for delivering green cars. Here's a closer look at the Hyundai Sonata on video: