Special Coverage

New York Int’l Auto Show

NEW YORK – The move to noticeably separate the upcoming Hyundai Sonata Hybrid from the regular Sonata should help draw consumers to the car in a different way than competing models.

“No one has tried that in the midsize-sedan segment,” John Krafcik, president and CEO-Hyundai Motor America, tells media following the auto maker’s auto show press conference here today.

The Sonata Hybrid boasts a blacked-out upper and lower grille, giving the appearance of one large grille, and a departure from the regular Sonata’s chromed upper grille.

Piano-black trim separates the two grilles, with an air dam behind the trim that opens and closes. The Sonata Hybrid’s alloy wheels also are filled in sections to aid aerodynamics.

Hyundai is claiming a 0.25 coefficient of drag with the Sonata Hybrid, less than the Lexus HS 250h’s 0.27.

“Let’s face it, (hybrids) haven’t really worked, with one exception so far,” Krafick says, referencing Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius, the best-selling HEV in the U.S.

Krafcik says it is up to auto makers to find “the right recipe” of hybrid. Hyundai thinks it got it right with the Sonata Hybrid’s styling changes, as well as the prioritization of highway and city fuel economy.

One facet of the new Sonata Hybrid that raises eyebrows among press-conference attendees – many of them from competing auto makers – is the news the vehicle can travel up to 62 mph (100 km) in steady-state driving on electricity.

Hyundai is unsure how long this can be sustained before the car’s lithium-polymer battery is drained, says Michael Dietz, product planner for the Sonata.

The ability to drive 62 mph in electric is “intelligent design and engineering, so that we can maximize the electrical efficiency and minimize the use of fuel,” Dietz says. But he is unsure if a certain level of charge is necessary to go into electric-only driving at 62 mph.

“In theory, it shouldn’t depend on how much power is left in the battery, but more what type of taxing loads you’re putting on the powertrain at that point,” he says. Traveling up a steep incline should have more effect on the ability to go into all-electric mode.

Dietz says the Sonata Hybrid’s lithium-polymer battery, from supplier LG Chem Ltd., is unique to Hyundai for now, but LG Chem has the ability to sell it to other auto makers as well.

The battery is advantageous in terms of size but also because it can hold a charge 1.7 times longer than competing lithium-ion and nickel-metal-hydride batteries, he says.

Krafick says Hyundai sold 17,000 new ’11 Sonatas at retail this month, a number he finds impressive given supplies are low and a major marketing campaign has yet to kick off. He expects the Sonata for the first time to outsell the Nissan Altima, making it the No.3 best-selling passenger car in the U.S. in retail sales.

Krafcik also says the Toyota Camry to date is the No.1 trade-in for Sonata and relates an anecdote that a Michigan dealer took in three Lexus models for Sonatas. But he bristles at the notion Hyundai is benefiting from Toyota’s woes.

“We’re not benefiting as much as people think,” Krafcik says, noting Hyundai’s retail market share will rise to about 5% in March, at the same time Toyota is expected to reclaim its five points of share.

Krafcik says Hyundai’s March sales likely will be a record, or a near-record, for the brand in the U.S.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com