When the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid arrive in the United States this summer, they will face a car-buying appetite whet by lower gas prices and an improving economic climate—not exactly the conditions that drive consumers to fuel-efficient battery-electric midsize sedans. But if we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that things can quickly change when it comes to fuel prices. If and when they do, South Korea’s top automaker looks to be prepared.
To see what’s new with the Sonata lineup for 2016, we spent a day snaking along the Southern California coast in Hyundai’s latest hybrid twosome.
What is it?
An attractive, practical, and even more efficient follow-up to Hyundai's first crack at a Sonata hybrid. According to the manufacturer, the number-one purchase-consideration in the segment is fuel economy, so the 2016 Sonata Hybrid ditches the old 2.4-liter engine, in favor of a 154-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder. As a result, combined fuel economy ratings jump from 36 mpg to an estimated 42 mpg. The 2016 Sonata Hybrid will be available in three trim levels, starting with the entry-level SE model, followed by the Limited, and top-of-the-line Limited with the Ultimate package. When the plug-in model arrives a few months later (toward the end of the year), it will simplify things further, by offering two well-equipped trims.
How does it drive?
Smoothly, with plenty of power available for all driving situations. The Sonata Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid are intended to offer a more fuel-efficient alternative to the Sonata, and their combined output is 193 hp—including the 38-kW power from the electric motor. Throttle input has been similarly tweaked for a familiar culprit, fuel economy, and the result is that the hybrid models don’t feel especially quick, regardless of drive mode (Eco, Normal, Sport).
While most semblances of sportiness have departed from the driving experience, the Sonata hybrids' ride is pleasant, quiet, and relatively smooth. Hyundai opted to use a traditional 6-speed automatic transmission, in lieu of the CVT found on hybrid versions of the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Ford Fusion. The 6-speed transmission feels very natural, and transitions between the gears are barely perceptible. And while many hybrids use regenerative brakes and can often feel overly sharp, or unnatural, the Sonata hybrids' come free of the learning curve.
In addition to the benefits afforded by the hybrid system, the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid offers a 24-mile all-electric range, meaning you can select to drive with only the electric motor and battery setup. (Some competitors only offer the combination setup, meaning the gasoline engine is always engaged.) The Sonata Plug-in Hybrid will give owners with a short commute the option to essentially drive an electric vehicle, not using any gas, as in the Chevrolet Volt.
What’s it like inside?
Feeling blue. The 2016 Sonata Hybrid borrows its good looks from its non-hybrid sibling, and similarly, the interior shares much of the same styling and content. Perhaps just as important to the hybrid buyer, the cabin feels modern, and is arguably most attractive in the segment. A few things are unique: in addition to gray and beige colors, there is a Blue Pearl leather option, which also comes with contrast stitching, and blue accents throughout the cabin. The tachometer is swapped for a digital screen that offers charge and energy-flow information. The model we drove was outfitted with Hyundai’s attractive 8.0-inch navigation touchscreen, which offers the ability to split the screen showing both navigation and music screens.
The seats are comfortable, and taller passengers will find ample room in the rear. As it was particularly warm on our drive day, we employed the ventilated, cooling seat option, which worked excellently. Cargo-room is a segment-best 13.3 cu.-ft., in an area usually compromised by the storage of the hybrid battery.
What’s its specialty?
While automakers look to various tricks to boost efficiency at every turn, the Sonata Hybrid surprises with an old-school one: the best coefficient of drag. With a 0.24 cD rating, Hyudai’s car beats every other car in the midsize sedan segment, bests the singularly-focused Toyota Prius', and equals the über-attractive Tesla Model S'. Hyundai counts on automatic front active air flaps that activate based on vehicle speed and engine temperature. The wheels also boast smaller openings in the spokes to reduce drag. It’s simple science, and it works.
Most innovative feature?
The Hyundai BlueLink Smartphone App allows owners to schedule their charging schedule remotely. By simply hopping on the app, you can also start the engine, or view real-time data, even lock or unlock the doors remotely. Another innovative feature is sending an address to your car, directly from your smartphone. When you start the car, the address will be already plugged into the navigation, enabling the process of finding restaurants, coffeehouses, or wherever you might be going.
How’s the competition?
Saturated. Like the midsize sedan segment itself, there are plenty of strong offerings from the hybrid competition. The Toyota Camry and Honda Accord hybrids both offer cavernous backseats, while the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Energi (plug-in) models contend with the Sonata Hybrid’s good looks. The Camry Hybrid will give you a little more power (200 hp), while the Accord Hybrid is the most fuel-efficient of the bunch, at 47 MPG combined. Ultimately, anyone considering the segment should drive each car if possible, and decide what works best for their particular needs.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid builds on the attractive looks and generous content of the first-generation model, with increased fuel economy.
Best-in-class cargo room, an innovative and useful Blue Link app, improved fuel economy, likely to be competitively priced once again.
Less sporty to drive, competitors still offer more fuel-efficient models.
The ideal setup:
There is only one powertrain combination on both models. While pricing and exact trim specifications won’t be clear until closer to the summer and end-of-year delivery dates, we’d opt for the cordless Hybrid, which offers the best combination of fuel economy and ease of driving. The exception to this would apply to drivers who could complete their entire commute within the all-electric range of 24 miles.
By the numbers: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
MSRP: Not yet announced
Power / drive wheels: 2.0-liter, 154-hp four-cylinder engine and a 38-kW electric motor, front-wheel drive
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy (mpg): 39 city / 43 highway (Hybrid)
In showrooms: summer (Hybrid), end of year (Plug-in Hybrid)