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2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid first drive review: Fuel-sippin' in style

Hyundai's fantastic new Sonata now comes with a 54-mpg hybrid option.

Fashionable and frugal.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Hyundai knocked it out of the park with the new Sonata. From its standout design to its super-comfy interior -- not to mention its impressive roster of onboard tech -- there's a lot to like about this midsize sedan. All of that goodness carries over to this new Sonata Hybrid, too. And hey, how does 54 miles per gallon sound?

Class-leading fuel economy is the latest feather in the Sonata's cap. The EPA says the 2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid should achieve 50 mpg city, 54 mpg highway and 52 mpg combined in its most-efficient Blue trim level, which bests the hybrid versions of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Opt for an SEL or Limited and those ratings drop to 45 city, 51 highway and 47 combined, which might actually be a bit conservative.

On a 100-mile highway loop around the greater Los Angeles area, with relatively light traffic (thanks, COVID-19) and the adaptive cruise control set at 72 mph, I saw an average of 54.6 mpg in the fully loaded Sonata Hybrid Limited pictured here. That's stupendous. Even when just tooling around running errands, I saw 51.3 mpg over the course of 25 miles of city driving.

As always, your mileage may vary, but my drive suggests it's easy to eke out that kind of fuel economy, too; the Sonata Hybrid is the sort of car that prefers -- and rewards -- a light touch. Once you're up to speed, the Sonata will largely cruise under electric power around town. This isn't a plug-in hybrid, so there's no dedicated electric-only drive mode, but when you're only barely dipping into the power reserve, the electric motor has enough oomph to keep the Sonata moving.

The Sonata Hybrid is powered by Hyundai's 2.0-liter Smartstream I4 engine, which on its own delivers 150 horsepower and 139 pound-feet of torque. That's supplemented by a 56-kilowatt lithium-ion battery and electric motor, which adds 51 hp and 151 lb-ft to the party. Through the wizardry of illogical hybrid math (you can't just add the numbers together, remember), Hyundai says the Sonata Hybrid is good for a total system output of 192 hp. For comparison, a gas-only Sonata Limited makes 180 hp and 195 lb-ft from its 1.6-liter turbo I4 engine.

Sonata vs. Sonata, the Hybrid feels every bit as powerful as the gas-only version on the road. Neither sedan is what I'd call quick, and compared to the Accord Hybrid (208 hp) and Camry Hybrid (212 hp), the Sonata Hybrid is the least-powerful of the bunch. Still, whether scooting around town or merging onto the highway, the Sonata Hybrid doesn't feel underpowered, and I think most buyers will get on just fine.

Should you throw it into a corner, the Sonata Hybrid won't come unglued, either. The chassis is taut enough to mitigate ungainly motions, and the steering is well-weighted and responsive, with an appropriate amount of feedback. The Honda Accord Hybrid has a slight edge over the Sonata as far as handling is concerned, but the Hyundai can more than hold its own.

This grille treatment looks much better than the one used on turbocharged Sonatas, and you still get the super-cool LED running lights that fade into chrome strips.

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There's a Sport driving mode, which improves throttle response and makes the six-speed automatic transmission more eager to move through its gears, but I wouldn't recommend driving the Sonata Hybrid in this setting. Throttle tip-in is a little too sensitive here, meaning the Sonata can jump off the line, and the quicker gear changes are harsh, especially at slow speeds. Instead, you're better off leaving the Sonata in its default Eco mode, or even toggling to the adaptive Smart setting, both of which offer a nice, easygoing balance. There's a Custom drive mode, too, if that's your jam, but the Sonata Hybrid is set up pretty perfectly from the get-go.

The Hybrid gets Hyundai's new Active Shift Control technology, something the automaker claims makes the transmission's gear changes roughly 30% quicker. This tech is also supposed to smooth out those shifts, but in action, I can't really say I notice a difference. Even in the car's default Eco setting, at low speeds, the transition between first and second gear is really noticeable. This tech seems to work better when you're up and moving -- its benefits are more noticeable when the transmission kicks down on the highway, say, when climbing a steep grade. Hyundai fits the Sonata Hybrid with paddle shifters, too, but honestly, they're best left alone.

If there's a bone to pick with the way the Sonata Hybrid drives, it's the brakes. I like the fact that there's some regen when you lift off the throttle, especially when coasting downhill. But in stop-and-go traffic, or in parking lots, the brakes are hard to modulate at low speed. The pedal has a strong initial bite, and this makes the brakes really grabby.

The Limited comes with a solar roof that Hyundai says can increase your driving range as much as 800 miles each year.

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The Hybrid comes with all the same advanced driver-assist systems found in the regular Sonata, and a good amount of these features come standard. Forward-collision warning, blind-spot assistance, rear cross-traffic assist, lane-keeping assist and full-speed adaptive cruise control are fitted to every Sonata Hybrid. You can also opt for Hyundai's Highway Driving Assistant on the Sonata Hybrid Limited, which pairs the adaptive cruise control with a lane-centering function, making long drives a lot easier. All of this tech works seamlessly -- the adaptive cruise control isn't jerky when speeding up or slowing down as lead cars come in and out of your lane. The dual-camera blind-spot monitors that appear in the gauge cluster are a nifty feature, too.

Naturally, there's a lot more tech bundled into the Sonata Hybrid, including a hands-free trunk, wireless charging and Hyundai's Digital Key, which uses near-field communication tech to let you unlock, start and drive the car without actually holding a physical key. (This only works with Android phones for now, though Hyundai will also supply buyers with an NFC card that can be used as a key, as well.) Unfortunately, Hyundai's Tesla-like Smart Park -- sorry, smaht pahk -- remote parking tech isn't available on the Sonata Hybrid; a company spokesperson tells me the reason is because "the control modules of the Hybrid are different from the gas car."

Blue and SEL models come with an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with a basic feature set, as well as standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Limited trim unlocks the really good stuff: a 10.2-inch central touchscreen complemented by a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster. Embedded navigation and Bose audio are included in this top-of-the-line treatment, and it's the same Blue Link software Hyundai uses in its other new cars, meaning it's quick to respond to inputs with a generally easy-to-learn menu structure.

The Hybrid's interior is comfortable and stylish, with a number of nice little details that make it feel extra premium.

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This solid cabin tech is just the beginning, though. The Sonata's interior is outstanding, with a handsome and refined overall aesthetic. Everything you touch feels great, from the soft leather on the steering wheel to the nice graining of the plastic on the door cards. There are even small, beautiful details you wouldn't expect to see in a mainstream midsize sedan, like the knurling on the turn signal stalk and temperature controls. The last time I saw something like this, it was in a Bentley Continental GT.

Overall, the cabin is open and airy, with more than enough room for four adults, or three-across in back (in a pinch). Hyundai has repositioned the 2020 Sonata Hybrid's battery, too, resulting in a much more generous 16 cubic feet of space, compared to the 2019 model's 13.4. The standard Sonata, for reference, has 16.3 cubic feet of cargo capacity.

The inside carries over largely unchanged, but the Hybrid's exterior has a few key differences to set it apart from other Sonatas. For starters, the Hybrid wears the Sonata's base-model fascia -- on the standard car, you can only get this look on the lowest SE trim. That might sound like a downgrade, but it's not. This is the face the Korean-spec Sonata launched with, and I wholeheartedly prefer it to the large-mouth-bass front end of the turbocharged models. You still get the super-cool LED running lights that fade into the chrome strip that runs up either side of the hood, and around back, the Hybrid has the same attractive LED taillight setup.

Another big differentiator is the Hybrid's solar roof, which only comes on the top-shelf Limited (where it's standard). The solar panels directly charge the battery, and Hyundai says that if you park your Sonata in the sun for six hours, you'll soak up enough energy for two miles-worth of electric driving, and that you can increase your range as much as 800 miles over the course of a year. The roof makes the Sonata Limited about 100 pounds heavier than an equivalent Sonata SEL, but it doesn't seem to affect the car's handling in any noticeable way.

I'm not a fan of the wheels, but otherwise, the new Sonata is quite a looker.

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Pretty as the Sonata Hybrid is, there's one detail I'm not fond of: the wheels. The 17-inch alloys on this Limited tester look an inch too tiny (the non-hybrid Sonata Limited rides on larger 18s) and they're counter-directional from side to side, which is annoying. I know, smaller-diameter wheels are better for fuel economy -- and higher-sidewall tires improve ride quality -- but I wish 18s were an option. I shudder to think what the base Hybrid Blue will look like on its even-punier 16s.

I'm not going to let ugly wheels ruin this car for me, though. In every measurable way, the Sonata Hybrid is a winner. It's as attractive and nicely appointed as the standard Sonata, and the hybrid powertrain is a smooth operator -- and seriously efficient, too.

The only missing piece of the puzzle is pricing, which Hyundai says will be announced in the coming weeks. The 2019 Hybrid models cost roughly $3,000 more than their gas-only counterparts, and if that upcharge carries over, expect to pay about $28,500 for a 2020 Hybrid SEL or as much as $36,000 for a Limited. Comparably equipped Accord and Camry hybrids start around $28,000, so that estimated pricing seems pretty fair. And considering the Hyundai bests both in fuel economy, warranty, cabin tech and style, even if there is a small premium, it seems well worth it to me.