Roughly a year after introducing its all-new, seventh-generation Sonata in 2.4L, 2.0T and 1.6 Eco guise, Hyundai offered us a first drive of its anticipated hybrid and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) variants that are set to hit showrooms this summer and winter, respectively. To plug the gap before this new batch of hybrids arrives, Hyundai continues to sell the previous-generation Sonata Hybrid alongside the new gas-only versions, which gives us the impression that there’s adequate demand for the fuel-miser Sonata. Hyundai says that although it doesn’t officially break out hybrid sales from the rest of the Sonata lineup, at its peak the last-generation Sonata Hybrid represented about 12 percent of total Sonata sales. That’s approximately 25,000 vehicles annually, based on our calculations of average full-year sales for the last-gen Sonata.
Boring sales stats aside, the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid hosts a number of improvements over its predecessor. Many are inherent to all seventh-gen Sonatas, including Hyundai’s use of twice the amount of high-strength steel in the chassis and body for improved rigidity and more rear legroom and headroom than before. In fact, Hyundai claims best-in-class cabin space over its midsize hybrid and plug-in hybrid competitors. Said cabin has also been spruced up considerably with higher quality materials and a sleek, clean center stack that apes BMW design. Hybrid and PHEV versions feature a redesigned instrument panel that replaces the tachometer with an eco-gauge, monitoring real-time power usage and battery life. There’s also extra functionality to the sharp-looking center display all relevant to the hybrid power system. Make no mistake, the cabin of a 2016 Sonata Hybrid is a nice place to be.
We’re also fans of the Sonata’s exterior refresh, the restrained design making for a more mature car than the outgoing model. Hybrid and PHEV models get specific aerodynamic treatment including active air flaps in the front grille, an “air curtain” that directs airflow around the front wheels, a covered undercarriage, a rear spoiler, and wheels with smaller openings. All these touches help to lower the coefficient of drag on both vehicles to a Tesla Model S-matching 0.24 (the standard gas-powered Sonatas measure 0.27). Special badges also distinguish the most eco-friendly of the Sonata line.
The combustion engine in both 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and PHEV are the same: a 2.0-liter GDI I-4 producing 154 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque. That’s 14 lb-ft fewer than the outgoing Hybrid’s 2.4-liter engine, but the new 2.0-liter mill is more efficient and cleaner with the addition of direct injection. The Hybrid’s polymer-cased lithium-ion battery pack resides under the cargo floor (allowing for 60/40-split folding rear seats) and is more capacious and powerful than before. In conjunction with a lighter, more powerful electric motor and a more efficient six-speed automatic transmission with a new electric oil pump, the Hybrid is good for a combined 193 hp, which is also slightly less than the outgoing car’s 199 combined hp. In the grand scheme of things, the Sonata Hybrid has slightly less overall horsepower than hybrid versions of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, but slightly more horsepower than the Ford Fusion Hybrid. This is mostly down to an electric motor that produces less power than its competitors. To its credit, the new Sonata Hybrid is roughly 12 pounds lighter than the 2015 version, even with increased equipment on most trim levels.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata PHEV’s larger electric powertrain bumps combined output to 202 hp, but its increased size also means it sits behind the rear seats (no folding capability) and in the spare-tire well. The same six-speed automatic transmission is used, and total electric-only range is estimated by Hyundai to be 24 miles. Total range should come in at a fairly plentiful 605 miles including use of the gasoline engine, and the battery charge time from empty to full is just three hours on a 240V power source or nine hours on a standard 120V supply. Three drive programs (Normal, EV and Charge) along with two modes (Normal and Eco) allow for varying degrees of electric/gas drive along with several rates of priority for battery charging and regenerative braking.
We drove the 2016 Hyundai Sonata PHEV first down the Southern California coast from Hyundai’s Fountain Valley headquarters to the Torrey Pines golf course and lodge using a mix of coastal city driving along Pacific Coast Highway and California’s I-5 freeway. We used the EV drive exclusively through the small towns along the coast and found the car’s projected EV range estimates to be relatively accurate in normal driving. The Sonata PHEV was easy to keep in EV mode without the gas engine kicking in and provided adequate, if not exciting, acceleration from the electric motor. The cabin remains quiet in around-town driving, but on the freeway road noise begins to encroach a little. The ride is composed and comfortable, though the electric power steering -- never a Hyundai strong suit -- lacks much road feel.
For most of our freeway driving, we put the Sonata in the Charge program and switched Eco mode on. This mode kept the gasoline engine on most of the time to charge the battery (even while idling off-throttle) and gave us the most regenerative braking possible. We were able to restore a full charge to the half-depleted battery within about 12 miles under these conditions and fairly steady 70 mph speeds. Also impressive: We were able to switch into the EV program on the freeway and maintain up to 75 mph on electric power, though this likely isn’t the most efficient use of the battery. Transitions between electric and gas power are so smooth as to be almost unnoticeable.
For the trip back, we jumped in a 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and found the car similar in road manners and cabin noise. Three drive modes are offered on the Hybrid (Eco, Normal and Sport). The car felt peppy enough in Sport (this mode sharpens the throttle and adds weight to the steering) but somewhat underwhelming in Eco and Normal, which matches our experience in competing cars in this segment. That said, hybrid vehicles aren’t purchased for their sporty driving characteristics, so it’s a nonissue in the larger scheme of things. You won’t do appreciably better in the acceleration game until you step up to a pure EV.
While standard hybrid vehicles are certainly an option for those looking to get from one point to the next while saving cash at the pump, none of the players in this class that we’ve driven offer much entertainment behind the wheel. Plug-in hybrid and pure electric vehicles can be a little more enjoyable just for the challenge of driving as efficiently as possible on electric power alone. Unfortunately, when the Sonata PHEV launches toward the end of this year, it will be offered only in California and Oregon to start while Hyundai figures out how much farther they’d like to expand the program. That won’t prohibit dealer orders being filled from out-of-state, but it will make getting the vehicles serviced a little more complicated if you’re a few states away from a dealer authorized to work on the PHEV. Hopefully Hyundai expands its PHEV distribution plans in 2016.
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