GateHouse News Service

Wise men from Shakespeare to Cervantes have noted that comparisons are odious. (Shakespeare actually wrote odorous, but the point is made.) Hyundai may agree, at least when it comes to stacking up this weeks Sonata Hybrid against the TCH, Toyota Camry Hybrid, that we drove last week. Seat-of-the-pants contrasts dont get any fresher than this.

First, the good news. The Sonata, Hyundais mid-price, mid-size sedan, has been a smash hit for Hyundai since it was re-done a couple of years ago, sleeker and larger and more competent. And why not? Its got terrific looks, a surprisingly roomy and high-quality interior, performance that varies from good to better (depending on whether the base 4-cylinder or the turbo four is under the hood), solid front-wheel-drive handling, buckets of desirable features and options (including a rearview camera, two sunroofs, voice control and Bluelink connectivity), 5-star crash-test ratings and, finally, a price that undercuts the competition from Japan, Germany and sometimes the USA.

To capitalize on the Sonatas success, Hyundai wasted no time in rolling out this car, a hybrid model that is distinctive for several reasons (beyond its blacked-out grille):

First, the gas-electric Sonata weighs less than other comparable hybrids, due to lighter lithium-polymer batteries and how its electric motor is mated to the drivetrain. Second, it has a proper 6-speed automatic rather than a continuously variable transmission lifted from a lawn tractor. Third, at about $26,000 its notably cheaper than other similar hybrids. And its EPA fuel-economy ratings are backwardsthat is, 40 MPG on the highway and 35 in the city. (Since most hybrids batteries are used up in an eyeblink at 70 miles per hour, the electric motor usually provides more assistance in town, at slower speeds.)

But, but: The last Sonata Hybrid we drove traveled just 31.8 miles on each gallon of regular gas, on a 250-mile highway stint averaging 69 MPH. And this time our overall in-town efficiency was just 29 MPG at 26 MPG.

This is especially disappointing in light of how disagreeable the car is to drive in traffic. Step on the throttle and the h-Sonata pauses for a moment and seems to wonderOK now . . . gas or electric?while the transmission waits for a decision; then, consensus reached, it downshifts hurriedly to catch up with what the driver wanted. Meanwhile, youve put the pedal halfway to the floor in irritation, while thinking, So wheres that 206 horsepower and 195 pounds of torque? Then, when all the electronic sorting-out is done, the car suddenly slingshots away, engine revving awkwardly.

Stopping isnt any betterthe energy-recapture brakes offer little feedback and grab unpredictably.

Shifting the Sonata out of Bluedrive modeblue is Hyundais green, if you get my driftgreatly reduces this rubber-band effect, but presumably drops the fuel efficiency even further. Bluedrive is the default setting, too, automatically engaged every time the car starts up.

After a while, we can get used to about anything. But now we have that fresh comparison mentioned earlier. The Sonata Hybrids behavior is in stark contrast to that of the Camry Hybridthe smooth and delightfully responsive gas-electric Toyota sedan that this Hyundai competes against. The only thing the Hyundai has in its favor is that it is nearly $4,000 cheaper and its prettier.

There are plenty of excellent reasons to buy a Sonata, but, at least for now, skip the hybrid and go straight to the traditional gas-only models. With efficiency ratings of 24 MPG city and 35 highway (22 and 34 for the turbo), theyre hardly less economical than the hybrid, but theyre a whole lot more enjoyable to drive.

Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of IMPA, the International Motor Press Association, whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at, or 207-592-2619.