By Dave Van Sickle, Motor Matters

When Hyundai's first Sonata Hybrid appeared in 2011 to boldly compete with the well-established Camry and Fusion hybrids it was roundly criticized for its lack of powertrain refinement, poor braking feel and mediocre fuel economy, much to Hyundai's dismay. But much to their credit, Hyundai focused on those problems for the 2013 Sonata Hybrid. The result is a top-notch, fully competitive hybrid sedan to take on the competition.

Starting at $25,650, the Sonata Hybrid's same 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine carries over for 2013, but its output drops from 166 to 159 horsepower. The Sonata Hybrid has a conventional six-speed automatic in lieu of the CVT-type arrangement used by most other hybrids. It's been tweaked to make up- and down-shifts smooth and barely perceptible. Better yet, the six-speed eliminates the buzzy drone and disconnected feeling that's typical of CVTs, especially under hard acceleration.

Hyundai has made changes to the computer-controlled clutch to smooth out the transition between gas and electric power. They've also refined the software that controls the transition from regenerative braking to the conventional friction braking mode. Now, it's hard to tell you're driving a hybrid.

The 2013 Sonata Hybrid's lithium polymer battery has a higher capacity, and is lighter and better packaged, creating a cargo space that increases from 10.7 to 12.1 cubic feet. Hyundai says this next-generation battery is capable of delivering the same power with 25 percent less weight, 40 percent less volume and 10 percent more efficiency. It also discharges more slowly to maintain available power up to 1.7 times longer than traditional batteries. When in pure electric drive, the Sonata Hybrid can drive electrically up to 75 mph.

A week-long test drive covered over 600 miles of winding mountain roads in Vermont, a bit of open road driving and a lot of running errands around town. Our average fuel economy in combined driving was 38 mpg -- what the EPA estimates it should be. That important fuel economy number is even more impressive considering that the 2013 Sonata Hybrid is a big midsize sedan with plenty of room inside. And it can drive over 600 miles on one tank of gas.

Our test car was equipped with 17-inch wheels and low-rolling resistance tires -- a combination that usually results in a hard ride. Ride quality was certainly better than expected, especially on the winter-damaged roads of New England.

Standard equipment on the base model includes 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, LED running lights, fog lights, heated mirrors, keyless ignition/entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, cruise control, an eight-way power driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, heated front seats, Bluetooth, Hyundai's BlueLink emergency communications system and a six-speaker sound system with CD player, satellite radio, an iPod/USB audio interface and an auxiliary audio jack. There are no major options on the base Sonata Hybrid, so if you want more amenities, you need to check out to the new Limited model ($30,550).

Our sky-blue Limited model never failed to attract attention wherever we went. Its attractive styling with 17-inch wheels, comfortable heated front and rear leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, power driver seat with lumbar support, navigation with a 7-inch touchscreen, nine-speaker Infinity sound system, large panoramic sunroof and high-quality materials throughout create a feeling of near luxury.

Hyundai's updated Sonata Hybrid removes all the short-comings of the previous model, and demonstrates the company's ability to do something that previously only the Japanese had been known for: continuous improvement.



VEHICLE TYPE__________________ 5-passenger midsize FWD sedan

BASE PRICE____________________ $30,550 (as tested: $32,345)

MOTOR TYPE___________________ Atkinson 4-cyl. and electric motor

DISPLACEMENT_________________ 2.4-liter

HORSEPOWER (net)_____________ 199 at 5500 rpm

TORQUE (lb.-ft.)________________ 154 at 4500 rpm

TRANSMISSION_________________ 6-speed automatic

OVERALL LENGTH_______________ 189.8 in.

TURNING CIRCLE (curb-to-curb)___ 35.8 ft.

CURB WEIGHT__________________ 3,578 lbs.

FUEL CAPACITY_________________ 17.2 gal.

EPA MILEAGE RATING___________ 36 mpg city, 40 mpg highway