Hyundai Takes the Green Car Plunge with 2011 Sonata Hybrid

Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Company is taking hybrid technology to the next level with the launch of its 2011 mid-sized Sonata sedan.

The company says that the Sonata’s hybrid powertrain will consist of a 30-kilowatt permanent-magnet electric motor and a 2.4-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine that closes the intake valve later than normal. Hyundai says the delay in closing the intake improves fuel efficiency and reduces emissions.

Hyundai is also equipping its new hybrid variant Sonata with a six-speed automatic transmission instead of the continuously variable transmission being offered in many of its rivals. Hyundai’s Blue Drive system makes this possible by hard-coupling the electric traction motor to the transmission’s input instead of using a torque converter. The Blue Drive system can be set to either “performance” or “fuel-economy” mode depending on the particular driving conditions.

Hyundai is also the first major automaker to use lithium-ion batteries in a mass-production hybrid model. The Sonata will receive electric power from its lithium polymer battery pack which is smaller, more efficient and, at 94.6 pounds, lighter than nickel-metal hydride batteries found in many of its competitors. Korean battery maker, LG Chem, will supply the battery packs, and Hyundai says the lithium-polymer packs are more stable and durable than similar lithium-ion cell technology. According to the automaker, the battery packs should last for up to 300,000 miles.

Hyundai’s senior battery technology researcher, Park Jin-ho, said the 72-cell, manganese-spinel lithium polymer pack chosen for the Sonata is 15% to 20% more expensive to build than nickel-metal hydride battery packs used by rival automakers. However, Hyundai feels their improved performance justifies the higher cost.

The Sonata hybrid has faster acceleration (0-62 mph in 9.2 seconds) and better fuel economy than either the Ford Fusion hybrid or Toyota Camry hybrid. Hyundai estimates the Sonata will get 40 mpg on the highway, in part due to the vehicle’s electric air-conditioning compressor and oil pump which reduce reliance on its gasoline engine.

When driving in stop and go urban conditions, the Sonata’s 270-volt start-stop starter generator will increase fuel efficiency and the vehicle’s regenerative braking system also extends battery life.

While other automakers have chosen to maintain the design elements between their hybrid and non-hybrid models, Hyundai has chosen to accentuate the difference by giving the Sonata hybrid a completely different front fascia with a hexagonal grille. The hybrid variant also sports different tail lamps and comes with five-spoke wheels and a .25 coefficient of drag. The conventional gasoline model has a .28 coefficient of drag.

Hyundai’s senior vice president of hybrid engineering Lee Kinsang said, “The most important thing was how smooth and fast we could control the engine clutch [between engine-powered and hybrid-drive modes] without sacrificing driveability.”

Hyundai has forecast sales of the new Sonata hybrid to reach about 15,000 units annually and says it expects between 5% and 7% of all Sonata sales to be hybrids variants.

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