What is it?

Recent low fuel prices have made electrified vehicles of all types a hard sell. Cheap gas means SUVs and crossovers are flying off dealer lots while more efficient hybrids and plug-ins sit there with a layer of dust and a few bucks on their hoods. That’s not exactly a welcome environment in which to launch a pair of new hybrids.

“Prices are going to go back up,” says Michael O'Brien, Hyundai’s vice president of corporate and product planning. “There’s no economist that would suggest otherwise. It’s just a matter of which month.”

Of course, Hyundai would like that timeframe to coincide with the summer and fall launches of their two newest Sonata models -- the Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid.

Hybrids in the Sonata’s class have all upped their game in the past few years. Now every one of them returns more than 40 mpg combined, meaning Hyundai had to comfortably clear that hurdle to stay on shopping lists. The previous Hybrid’s 2.4-liter “Theta II” four-cylinder was ditched for a new “Nu” 2.0-liter unit with direct injection paired with a smaller, lighter and more powerful 38 kW electric motor. But like the last Hybrid, it all runs through a six-speed automatic transmission instead of a CVT. And that’s good news. Aside from the Subaru WRX, we haven’t met a CVT that performs as well as a real automatic.

The new 1.62 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery pack is about the same physical size as before but the cells are more energy-dense. Hyundai was able to fit the pack beneath trunk floor, creating the largest trunk (13.4 cu-ft.) of all its competitors.

Plug-In Hybrid Sonatas use the same engine and six-speed automatic but pair it all to a larger 50 kW electric motor and massive 9.8 kWh battery pack. This bigger pack won’t fit completely beneath the floorboards, so there’s less trunk space here (9.9 cu-ft). The benefit to all those extra cells is range and efficiency. The Plug-in will return 93 mpg-e and has a maximum electric range of 24 miles. That’s more electric-only miles than either the Fusion Energi or Accord Plug-In can manage. The Plug-In can travel 605 miles between fill-ups and will be available in the 10 ZEV program states with a tax credit. Hyundai says the pack can be fully charged in less than three hours on a Level-Two charging station or around nine hours on a 120V outlet.

The Hybrid and Plug-In both use deeper grilles with active air shutters, a central belly pan, redesigned headlights and a more aerodynamic rear fascia with a trunk spoiler and center diffuser. The 16-inch (and optional 17-inch) “Eco-spoke” wheels are more aero-efficient than those of other Sonatas and the tires are tuned for low rolling resistance versus canyon carving.

On the inside, the Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid are nearly identical to their less-efficient brethren with the exception of a power/charge meter replacing the tach and a unique hybrid information screen in the dash’s display. There are only two trims for the hybrid: Hybrid SE and Hybrid Limited. The latter allows optioning many of the advanced safety features like lane departure warning and forward collision warning. The Plug-In is also available with a Limited trim equipped with the above safety tech and more. 

Visual changes to the Hybrid’s exterior include a unique larger grille, front and rear bumpers, front fenders, front and rear lights, chrome side sill moldings, Hybrid badging and new eco-spoke alloy wheel designs.PHOTO BY HYUNDAI

What’s it like to drive?

The Sonata Hybrid doesn’t really encourage aggressive driving because that would, of course, hobble efficiency. In fact, if you're curious about just how lead-footed your driving style might be, there’s a built-in analyzer ready to clue you in. For the record, we were “aggressive” only 17 percent of the time on our test drive in the Hybrid. And that seems to be about 83 percent less aggressive than everyone else on our Southern California drive route.

Smoothness is best for efficiency and it's also one of the defining characteristics of the Sonata Hybrid. It’s a polished, isolated ride. It’s also very quiet and, when locked in “Eco” mode, fairly numb to your inputs. But that doesn’t mean these Hybrids are slow. Under wide-open throttle in “sport” mode, which provides more responsive steering, throttle and transmission calibrations, these Sonatas are reasonably quick. Realize however, that even with “sport” selected, this is not the car you’d choose to follow a Miata up a snaky mountain road.

Prod the right pedal gently in either Hybrid model and an “EV” light will illuminate, indicating you are running solely on electric power. It's kind of fun to cruise around on battery juice and feel the transmission shift up through the gears. Hyundai says it has an all-electric top speed of 75 mph. Around town at lower speeds, the Hyundai Plug-In uses a sound generator to alert pedestrians that the Sonata is sidling up to them.

Plug-In models let the driver cycle between an “EV” mode and an “HEV” mode. EV mode basically uses electric power as much as conditions allow. HEV mode, on the other hand, configures the Plug-In like a conventional hybrid, saving the battery’s power for later use. Is one mode more efficient than the other? Not according to Hyundai. 

Do I want it?

The last Sonata Hybrid returned 26 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. The 2016 model blows those numbers away by delivering 40 mpg city and 44 mpg on the highway. And of course the Plug-In improves that further. These sedans are sensible, competent and -- unfortunately -- a little boring.

There’s a Sonata we like better.

The Sonata Eco returns 28 mpg city and 38 mpg on the highway, not too far off the old hybrid’s numbers. More importantly, it’s lighter. The Eco weighs 310 pounds less than the Hybrid and 560 pounds less than the Plug-In Hybrid. And the Eco’s tiny turbocharged four-cylinder and dual-clutch transmission creates a more responsive and engaging experience.

Who doesn’t want a little fun with their fuel economy?

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