Last week at Hyundai headquarters in Fountain Valley, California, I had a chance to be among the first groups of people in America to try out the new 2016 Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid. Around 4 hours of driving later, these are my thoughts. I’d like to preface them by saying I am not an automotive journalist by trade – I review gadgets and phones, not cars, so my impressions will probably be less technical, more general. Also, I freely admit my knowledge of cars is limited, so take criticisms with a grain of salt.
Because the Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid are so similar in so many ways, I’ll separate out sections for them where it makes sense. Otherwise, if a statement isn’t part of a vehicle-specific section and does not explicitly state which vehicle it’s referring to, assume it applies to both versions of the car.
I tested both vehicles in the Limited trim – the highest level Hyundai will sell. The Hybrid will have three trims (SE, Limited, Limited+Tech), and the PHEV will have two (SE, Limited), having a higher standard level of equipment. Pricing is not yet known, but the Hybrid will go on sale early this summer, while the PHEV is due in the fall.
The PHEV Sonata we tested was also a pre-production vehicle, meaning performance and certain aspects of the vehicle may not be completely representative of the production car.
The hybrid and plug-in both get some special stylistic treatment in the form of enhanced aero on the front and rear fascias, as well as aerodynamic not-BMW-i3 alloy wheels. Hyundai says the changes have lowered the car’s drag coefficient to an industry-leading 0.24, on par only with Tesla’s Model S among currently on-sale hybrids and EVs. That’s certainly nothing to scoff at.
Overall, though, it still looks like the current-generation Sonata – slightly muscular and decidedly chrome-y. I’m not sure if this is really a problem given these are marketed as environmentally-conscious high-tech luxury commuters (and in the hybrid’s case, possibly a fleet car), but I don’t think the looks sell the “green” image too hard. The Sonata still feels somehow… a little stuffy, like it takes itself just ever-so-slightly too seriously.
The good news, though, is that it doesn’t look cheap, not in the least. Unlike the standard Sonata, the hybrid and PHEV will only come in in the SE and Limited trims, with the same rim style (the Limited trim gets bigger 17″ wheels) and exterior trim across all versions of the vehicle. Along with the restyled front and rear bits, the Sonata Hybrid and PHEV look a bit special compared to their standard counterparts, even if the average person probably wouldn’t notice the difference – it still looks like a Sonata. Just a nicely-configured one.
Hybrid: The Hybrid’s drivetrain is easily the more likable of the two vehicles. While it boasts fewer peak horsepower at 195 versus 205 in the PHEV for the net hybrid system (Hyundai has not yet published net system torque), the absence of the PHEV’s larger battery pack (9.9KWh vs. 1.6KWh in the hybrid) means the standard hybrid is substantially lighter. Add in the hybrid-only sport mode to increase the aggressiveness of the 2.0-liter four’s cut-in, heft up the steering feel, and remap the throttle to be more responsive, and the hybrid definitely feels quicker than the PHEV in everyday use. Will driving it sportily annihilate your gas mileage? Kinda, but that’s also sort of a given.
When the electric mode simply can’t give the driver the power they need, the gas engine cuts in pretty effortlessly to push you forward, and in sport mode, it’s almost always on if your foot’s anything more than slightly depressing the accelerator once you’re doing over 40MPH. The standard hybrid, for the weight savings and sport mode alone, is easily the better driver’s car of the two. It’s not exactly sporty or anything, but we’ll explore that more shortly.
I’d also say I prefer this hybrid drivetrain to the 2.4L GDI in the standard Sonata from a performance and driveability standpoint. An NA engine with that kind of power in a car of this weight class just feels a bit anemic. The hybrid setup gives you the torque you need to get the car off the line with some enthusiasm. Granted, I haven’t driven the Sonata Eco, and another journalist at the media drive told me that car’s 1.6L turbocharged engine was much more lively and fun in character than the hybrid, and perhaps even than the 2.0T. I would agree that the hybrid isn’t exactly sporty even in sport mode, but it’s still definitely more fun than the 2.4, and it spanks the 1.6T for city MPG, so take that for what you will.
PHEV: From a usability perspective, it is very possible to comfortably drive the Sonata PHEV in a normal fashion in electric-only mode without the gas engine ever needing to cut in, you just need to keep your foot out of the gas. While the electric engine in the PHEV isn’t particularly powerful, it is substantially more powerful than the regular hybrid’s, and that instant torque gives it solid performance right off the line. After the line, not so much. Acceleration is smooth, certainly, but even hammering on the throttle and pushing it past the kick-down switch and engaging full gas and electric power, the PHEV feels lazy compared to the hybrid. It’s simply not quick – not that such a thing is fatal to its justification, most mid-size PHEVs are… conservatively powered.
The lack of a sport mode also means you can’t encourage the gas engine to cut in earlier, and the throttle response is in a perpetual state of “are you sure?” It’s not as slow to respond as a Prius in Eco mode in my experience, but you’ll know you’re driving something designed to save gas.
Both vehicles are limited to 75MPH in electric-only mode, though I found I could push them to 76-80MPH if I was on a decline without engaging the gas engine.
Both cars share a 6-speed automatic – no CVTs here. Hyundai say they chose a traditional automatic over a CVT because it makes these electric-assisted vehicles drive more like “normal” cars.
For the hybrid, I buy the argument – in manual shift mode while also in sport mode, the hybrid actually feels responsive and much more like a normal gas engined car than when you’ve got it set in Eco with the transmission in auto. Shifting obviously isn’t DCT quick (nor is it especially slow), but I did appreciate the manual shift mode experience in the hybrid when I wanted to have a little fun driving the car. It’s a lot easier to understand how to modulate the throttle and braking if I can control what gear I’m in. And even when it’s in auto, you can still generally feel the shifts, so you’re getting more feedback than you would in a CVT (slightly more useful here since the car lacks a rev counter). And yes, I am sitting here evangelizing an automatic transmission as the driver’s choice, but that’s because the alternative (CVT) would probably be significantly worse.
In the PHEV, the gearbox’s existence essentially never comes to your attention unless you actively choose to throw it into manual mode. There’s no tachometer in either car, to start with (just a “power usage” gauge), and the lazy, eco-friendly throttle and shift points in the PHEV (no sport mode) mean the transmission is almost irrelevant from a driver experience standpoint in that car. You can force it into the fray by placing the car in manual, but I see absolutely no reason to do this as part of regular driving. It would probably just make those MPG-maximizing algorithms in the PHEV less efficient, anyway.
The actual reason Hyundai might have chosen this transmission is that Hyundai doesn’t actually sell any car with a CVT. Developing a hybrid-specific transmission may not have been seen as worthwhile (either on cost or performance) to Hyundai when the auto works well in the standard hybrid and respectably in the PHEV, and I doubt most buyers will care about the transmission to begin with. Shifts were smooth, and while responsiveness depends on which driving mode you’re in, the sport mode with manual shifting in the standard hybrid provided a good overall experience.
Hybrid: The hybrid doesn’t feel ungainly, in fact, it felt quite agile in some situations. But it’s also a not-light mid-size sedan carrying around some extra weight in the form of batteries. Still, even at 3510lbs in Limited trim, the hybrid is 250 pounds lighter than the Limited PHEV, and that’s a big deal, especially when the bulk of those 250 pounds are coming directly out of the trunk.
The hybrid felt extremely composed and smooth on the highway, but also very soft – bumps were eaten up with ease. Hyundai knows its target audience, and these cars are undoubtedly tuned for older folks or buyers looking for a plush ride. Sport mode has no effect on the suspension that I’m aware of, and the Sonata doesn’t exactly scream “sporting heritage” from the rooftops in terms of driving dynamics to start with. But by using stronger steel in the construction of the frame, Hyundai claims to have improved the structural rigidity of the cars considerably (41% versus the old Sonata Hybrid), and I think that came through well on bumps and road elevation changes. The car recomposed itself quickly when dips or bumps were met, and never felt as though it was “bounding” over obstacles. It was planted.
Combine that with exceptional smoothness, and the Sonata Hybrid gives you a luxurious, confident ride at almost any speed – it doesn’t feel sporty, but it’s not meant to, either. As for steering feel, well, I wasn’t blown away, but it wasn’t bad for a mass-market sedan. Like the suspension, the steering felt designed to deliver comfort and confidence – the car responded well to input, but it didn’t give you much in the way of feedback.
PHEV: I’m not sure I can describe perfectly what the difference is with the ride in the PHEV, but one of them seems to be sensation of speed: you feel that you’re going noticeably slower in the PHEV versus the hybrid, and that’s probably something to do with the 250 extra pounds of batteries in the trunk. When I was going 85MPH, it felt more like 70.
At speed, the PHEV felt slightly less composed over bumps and dips in the road, perhaps a result of the substantial extra mass at the rear end. The PHEV gets a slightly fatter sway bar up front, but I have no real knowledge about how the rear is set up compared to the hybrid. It’s far from being a concern, but I did feel the PHEV was the vehicle that required more of my focus to actually drive at higher speeds.
Around town, it was the same as the regular hybrid – composed, soft, and comfortable.
Here’s a disclaimer: I don’t drive a lot of hybrids or EVs. I was told the brakes on these cars were pretty normal for a hybrid. I was also told they’re a major improvement versus Hyundai and Kia’s regenerative braking of just a few years ago – so take that for what you will.
From my point of view, both the cars we tested had a subpar braking experience – compared to a normal car. In both the PHEV and hybrid, there was a learning curve particularly for high-speed braking, the amount of force the driver needs to exert on the pedal, which provides little feedback, is very substantial. Both my co-driver and I had a difficult time getting the rhythm right, forcing us to really get on the brakes at the last minute when approaching stopped traffic or a red light in some situations.
And despite the relatively high input demand, they’re still grabby hybrid brakes: touch the pedal and you’re going to get a minimum amount of brake force applied to start the energy recovery system. Press harder, and for a while, not much seems to happen. Press hard, and you’ll get the car to stop, but the amount of force required was simply too great in my opinion. The cars we tested both had just a hair over a thousand miles on the odometer and exhibited the exact same braking behavior.
Eventually, I am sure drivers will adapt to how these brakes behave – they’re still totally functional, of course. I just hope Hyundai tweaks them to provide a little more progressive pedal feel, if they can.
Hybrid: This is no Prius in terms of size and gas engine displacement. The Sonata Hybrid competes with the similarly mid-size Accord and Camry hybrids, but doesn’t attempt to unseat them via MPG alone. It has class-leading cargo and interior volume, and is easily the widest car in the mid-size hybrid class. If you’ve driven a new Sonata, you’re aware of this: it’s a wide car. It is wider than a 2001 BMW 7-series. This is how far we’ve come.
The 2016 Sonata Hybrid in Limited trim manages to just best the Camry Hybrid XLE on the combined cycle (41MPG vs 40MPG, respectively) and comes slightly short of the Fusion Hybrid’s 42MPG, but is easily beaten by the Accord Hybrid’s 47. On the city driving figure (39MPG), the Sonata’s less powerful electric motor (the gas engine is the bulk of the available power) is immediately apparent – its competitors have a clear edge around town, because the gas engine is cutting in more often on the Sonata under more aggressive acceleration.
My observed mileage during the whole leg of our 80-mile or so trip in the hybrid was around 36-37MPG, but that actually seems pretty good – that was a combination of a small amount of aggressive city driving in sport mode and occasional manual shifting, a large amount of careful but still quick freeway driving (I wasn’t hypermiling it, that’s for sure), and some highway-speed (40-50MPH) driving with light traffic. If I had really tried, I think 40MPG would have been easily achievable. On the highway, 41MPG or more was pretty easy to get as long as you weren’t doing much stop and go.
PHEV: This, of course, is the big one. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t paying super close attention to the PHEV’s range when it was going electric-only. Hyundai says you can get 24 miles on electric-only, I’m inclined to believe them that it’s somewhere in that ballpark. That puts the Sonata PHEV a step above the Accord and Fusion Energi if your priority is electric range.
After draining most of the battery on the first leg of our journey, I placed the car in “battery regenerating” mode for the freeway, where the gas engine is charging the battery by running constantly, to charge it up a bit for the next pair of journalists driving it.
This regeneration mode, by the way, is something the driver can “force” on to charge the battery, but the implication I got here is that it’s basically just there to make certain buyers feel better. When not in this mode, the car’s algorithms will decide when to use the gas engine to charge the battery on their own, and they’ll be a lot smarter about it than you in terms of maximizing efficiency. The generator mode is mostly there so you can have a full battery when you get off the highway and into town, versus a half-full one in the standard “sustain charge” mode. Why? That’s a question I’m still not sure I can answer.
With my limited experience driving PHEVs, I just don’t know how to judge PHEV gas mileage – most of the savings come from charging it in your garage overnight instead of filling the tank, so long-distance mileage is a whole other ball game for this car. A short test just isn’t going to give you the data points you need. Our 80-mile haul wasn’t enough time to get a feel for how the car’s computer management of the battery and gas engine regeneration on long stretches will maximize that precious dino-juice.
Hyundai’s estimate is, when the battery is in “sustain” mode (vs EV only mode) and starts to occasionally recharge the battery with the gas engine, you’ll get 40MPG combined. So, if you’re looking for a PHEV that prioritizes overall efficiency over electric-only range, this may not be car for you. If you’re looking for a vehicle that can basically be an electric-only commuter for sub-25 mile round trips (or sub-50 if your have access to charging at work), this is obviously a better choice than the Fusion or Accord plug-ins, and even gets better combined mileage than the Ford.
Both cars absolutely demolish the base 2.4-liter Sonata for mileage, of course, though in my experience that’s a very low bar to meet.
Both cars we drove were Limited models, meaning leather seats and the full-size Hyundai infotainment/navigation system. Both also had lots of fancy driver assists – blind spot detection, collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and automatic high-beams are available.
The regular hybrid won’t get the jumbo navigation system unless you go for the full Limited with Ultimate Tech upgrade, which will of course come at a cost. Hyundai’s tech packages are generally pretty large, though this one seems a little more conservative on big-ticket items, so perhaps it will be less expensive than usual. Regardless, it will almost definitely be worth it just for CarPlay and Android Auto once they’re available.
The PHEV, in contrast, gets the full navigation system as standard on the base car. The Limited upgrade really just gets you the driver assists mentioned above, leather, Xenon headlights, and a better sound system.
The quality of interior on both cars is identical, and is like any Sonata Limited you could go try out at a dealer today. The seats are very nice and very comfortable – in my opinion, as a big guy – and while some interior pieces aren’t always of an outstanding quality, the inside does look very modern and generally seems well put together. You will notice some wrinkles in the premium experience, but they’re the same as any Sonata at this trim level. Occasionally, less than great plastic does show up, and a few buttons do feel like they were pulled out of the bargain bin. But given what these cars will probably sell for, and the quality and amenities of interiors from the competition, I doubt Hyundai is remotely concerned about how the Sonata’s interior will compare n terms of fit, finish, and features. This car is very well-equipped for any mid-sized sedan, not just a hybrid.
Overall, Hyundai is doing a great job creating a luxurious, spacious, and tech-savvy interior without resorting to too many gimmicks or corner-cuts. The Sonata Hybrid and PHEV are very nice places to sit with tons of great features.
Android Auto wasn’t installed on the cars we drove, so I can’t really speak to it. Hyundai’s typical high-end nav system was present, and I still find it kind of a chore to navigate, even if it does seem very stable and reliable. If you own one of these cars, you’ll no doubt become accustomed to it – I just didn’t have enough time during our drive to get super familiar with the system.
Blind spot monitoring works, but in my opinion was too aggressive in detection. Same with collision warning – I had it go off three times on the drive, and it was always felt premature. Adaptive cruise control I didn’t have a chance to try out, and lane departure I only used briefly, because I personally find it kind of annoying. (But it did work.)
Hyundai hasn’t said if the Hybrid and PHEV will ship with Android Auto enabled, if an upgrade will be needed, or if they’ll have CarPlay any time soon, either.
I will say I find Hyundai’s approach to the infotainment UI to be a bit… weird in terms of navigation and layout. A simplified, cleaner home interface with an app-centric design would be much more intuitive to owners who already have a smartphone or tablet. As is, it’s a bit wonky to get around things, but everything did work as you’d expect once you located it.
The PHEV has some interesting stuff going on here that the hybrid doesn’t, too. You can check out dedicated readouts for efficiency information, ranging from eMPG/MPG to electric vs. gas engine usage, real-time drivetrain power distribution information (that one is actually on the hybrid, too), and more. I’m unsure if this information is being backed up in the cloud anywhere for access via BlueLink or another Hyundai online service, but I’d hope so. If you can’t take the data out of the car, the data loses a lot of its value.
Not knowing what either car will cost, it’s obviously hard to come to a conclusion on them yet. I haven’t driven any of the cars’ competitors, either – Fusion, Accord, or Camry, so I can’t prove any real-world comparative info.
But if you like the current Sonata, and just want that package with a more efficient powerplant (especially around town, where the 1.6T Eco just can’t compete), the hybrid and PHEV both bring that same level of quality and technology to the table, and get their own “look,” so you can know you’re driving a slightly special Sonata.
The PHEV wouldn’t be my pick, frankly – it’s slow, and even with the overnight charging to keep your gas costs down, I kind of doubt it’d be worth it economically for me personally. The hybrid feels like the better bet to me, offering a more engaging driving experience (if you choose) and slightly better efficiency when not in electric-only mode. It’ll be cheaper, too, of course, and I think Hyundai won’t have a problem moving quite a few of them.
That we have sedans of this size getting around 40MPG on the combined cycle is extremely impressive in any case. 15 years ago, that would have sounded totally ridiculous, especially on something as loaded as one of these vehicles – you’re getting so much cool technology, and you’re also getting a big sedan with combined mileage that’s on par with older 4-cylinder gasoline sub-compacts.
I will not be surprised if the Sonata Hybrid sells well, it’s a compelling total package. As to the PHEV, it will likely be attractive to existing Sonata loyalists with short commutes – there’s no denying the plug-in can be a huge cost-saver for the right person. Both cars are immediately going to be very competitive in their respective segments, too, so let’s not overlook that – Hyundai obviously knew what the competition was and built a car that their competitors will have a tough time talking down.