Hyundai To Launch U.S. Hybrid In 2010

It’s a hybrid party, and everyone is coming. The latest manufacturer to RSVP is Hyundai, the one time Korean upstart that’s become a serious player on the world automotive stage.

Joining Toyota and its benchmark Prius, Camry and Highlander hybrids at the party, along with Honda, maker of the Civic hybrid, Hyundai will be bringing a hybrid version of its popular Sonata sedan to the U.S. in 2010 — also the year that GM will bring its much anticipated Chevy Volt to market. The Hybrid Sonata and the Volt will also share something besides the year of their debutant ball; both will be packing lithium-ion battery technology.

Running vehicles on lithium-ion batteries is a big step, one that really throws down the gauntlet to Toyota’s industry-leading Prius and hybrid Camry and Highlander, all of which use nickel-metal hydride batteries (though the next-gen Prius is likely to have lithium-ion versions). Not that there’s anything wrong with nickel-metal hydride batteries, but lithium-ion technology has advantages, primarily that it’s lighter and charges more quickly.

Going with the Sonata is smart step for Hyundai. Sedans are the white bread of the automotive world. One of the negatives aspects of the Prius, for some, is its unconventional, space-age design. Going with a sedan will play to the brand’s strong suit by putting a cutting-edge hybrid powertrain in a nice, non-threatening package.

The prototype for the Sonata hybrid will debut in November, and John Krafcik, vice president for product development at Hyundai, told Reuters the car is expected launch “in the 2010 calendar year.” Car people will recognize the caveat here: Saying that a car will “launch in the 2010 calendar year” leaves some wiggle room for Hyundai, since they could roll out a 2011 model year car in 2010, even though it won’t make it to your local showrooms until 2011. There’s nothing shady going on — all manufacturers do it, especially where new models are concerned, and particularly if the new model will introduce any new technology (like, say, a lithium-ion battery and a hybrid drivetrain).

One of the downsides to the Sonata hybrid? “It’s not a plug-in,” Krafcik is reported as saying. That means the batteries will be charged, in part, by a gas engine, just like the Toyota Prius — but unlike GM’s highly anticipated Volt. Which makes for an interesting situation: The Sonata’s lithium-ion batteries will be supplied by Korean battery maker LG Chem, one of two battery maker that’s hoping to supply batteries for GM’s Volt.