Hyundai follows up its redesign of the Sonata midsize sedan with a one-two-punch combo of efficiency. First is the jab that is the hybrid variant, followed up with right cross of a plug-in hybrid model that boasts fantastic EV range. Like the opener, these electrified models boast excellent dashboard tech, a very modern suite of available driver aid and safety systems, and a more mature design that -- while maybe a bit less exciting than the previous generation -- is sure to appeal to a broader audience.
A solidly performing hybrid
Just behind the more mature fascia of the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, the engine room is home to a 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle gasoline powerplant making 154 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. It's not alone; the combustion engine is mated to a 38 kW e-motor that adds 51 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque to the mix, bringing total system output to 193 horsepower. The hybrid power flows through a six-speed automatic transmission before meeting the road at the front wheels.
The 2.0-liter hybrid powertrain boasts really good midrange torque, which makes the sedan feel responsive around town and allows for smooth passing without much drama. The six-speed automatic transmission can be a bit of a fun-damper. The gearbox can take a second or so to downshift when more immediate passing power is required and seems to get a bit confused when asked for spirited performance on twisty B-roads. To be fair, most owners don't buy hybrids for their performance chops, so I won't knock the Sonata too much here.
In its defense, toggling the Drive Mode selector to the Sport mode tunes a bit of the hesitancy out of the electronics, and slapping the transmission into its manual shifting mode and forcing it to stay in, for example, third or fourth gear for a twisty bit eliminates the gear hunting altogether. If you choose the ratios yourself, the Sonata Hybrid can feel surprisingly alive, thanks to its torquey electric assist, but even then the gearbox can be sluggish to change speeds, and without paddle shifters, it's a little more trouble than it's worth.
Tested at 38.5 mpg, I got close to the EPA's fuel economy estimates even with a significant number of my miles tested miles being spent sussing out the sedan's performance envelope on back roads. The stated numbers are 39 mpg city, 43 mpg highway and 41 mpg combined. It's no Prius, but those are respectable numbers that I believe I could have easily met with less-aggressive driving.
At the Limited trim level that I was able to test, the Sonata Hybrid rides on 17-inch wheels shod with 215 mm wide all-season tires. Between the body and the wheels is a MacPherson strut suspension at the front end and an independent multi-link rear.
Handling is pretty good, with a nice and planted feel. The steering is direct enough but lacks engagement and feeling. The Sonata's fraternal twin, the Kia Optima, has slightly better fingertip feeling, while Ford's newly refreshed Fusion Hybrid feels significantly better than either. That said, the Sonata's steering isn't bad, merely uninspired.
Plug in, turn on, green out
Hyundai doesn't just offer a traditional gas-electric hybrid -- there's also a plug-in model available. With an MSRP starting at $34,600, it's only a couple of hundred dollars more expensive than the top-trim gas model, the Limited 2.0T. If you want that same Limited trim level, the price jumps to $38,600.
Packing an enlarged, 9.8kWh battery, the Sonata plug-in promises 27 miles of all-electric range. And it's easy to achieve that figure, so long as you're not cranking the HVAC system on the highway. In fact, the highway was not kind to the Sonata Plug-In's range. I regularly saw two miles of range disappear for every mile driven.
If you're limited to short trips in the city or suburbs, though, the Sonata Plug-In is a peach. If you don't have the infotainment system set to display the real-time distribution of power between battery, electric motor and gas engine, you'll have a hard time telling when the gas engine kicks in. It's a seamless, quiet transition.
There are multiple modes available, depending on what you're after. You can max out your range in EV-only mode, keep more of a balance between gas and electric in hybrid mode, or put the gas engine to work charging the battery. The latter mode is nice when you know you'll be transitioning from highways to city roads, where electricity will get you a fair bit farther.
The engine revs up to charge the battery, which does lead to some strangeness as you might only be going 25 mph, but the engine sounds like it's racing along at a higher RPM. Not that you can tell what the engine's speed is, because the car lacks a tachometer, replacing it with a gauge that displays current charge status and power output.
In a mix of charge-building mode and pure EV mode, I achieved approximately 53 mpg, with most of my miles being on the highway. I spent the first few days in EV mode alone, so the computer constantly displayed average fuel economy as 99.9 mpg (the readout doesn't go any higher -- although I wish it did, like in the Chevrolet Volt). Had I been driving a more balanced route, there's no doubt I would have seen my economy rise to 60 mpg, if not more.
One downside about the larger battery, compared to the Sonata Hybrid, is the space it requires. It eats up a fair bit of trunk space, but I still managed a trip to the garden center just fine, bringing home several bags of mulch and a whole load of perennials of various shapes and sizes without issue.
The bigger battery also adds a bit of weight low down on the car, lending to increased stability on the highway, although I didn't find it necessarily ponderous in the city. If anything, it made the car feel just a bit more planted, like its softer-driving competitor, the Toyota Camry.
If you plug in the car and wake up every morning to a fresh battery (a full charge takes 8 to 9 hours on a wall outlet or 3-ish hours on a 240-Volt, Level 2 system), the Sonata PHEV is an excellent option for around-town commuters who occasionally stretch their legs and go for longer jaunts.
Even if you need to leave the gas engine running for a spell, a light foot can keep fuel economy north of 30 mpg, which is impressive, considering how much work the gas engine is doing at that point.
Adaptive cruise without the jerks
The Sonata can be had with the usual suspects of advanced driver aid systems (ADAS). Our Limited trim level came equipped with a $4,500 Ultimate package that adds a Lane Departure Warning system, Forward Collision Warning with automatic braking, automatic high beam headlamps and adaptive cruise control.
The adaptive cruise control system (ACC) is surprisingly good. It works all the way down to zero mph and can and creep through stop-and-go traffic. But what wowed me was the exceptionally smooth way that it maintains a safe following distance behind the car ahead.
When a car merges in front of most ACC systems, they get caught off guard and react by slamming on the brakes and sometimes flashing a collision warning alert. Hyundai's system doesn't freak out. It seems to detect a car merging into the space and smoothly extends the gap to make room. Without jerky braking (which is as good for the passengers as it is for the vehicles behind me) or alerts sounded under most conditions, the ACC system is easier to live with and less nerve wracking.
Blue Link with an odd omission
That same Ultimate package adds Hyundai's dashboard navigation and tech package with Blue Link telematics.
However, while the standard, nonhybrid 2016 Sonata boasts Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, the Hybrid runs what appears to be a slightly older dashboard firmware version that neither recognized our Android nor iPhone handsets when connected via USB. That's disappointing.
Aside from this odd omission, the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid's dashboard tech is essentially identical to 2015 Sonata that we tested last year. Check out the full review for more details of what to expect.
No Prius killer, but a Fusion fighter
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is a solidly performing hybrid sedan and one of the best hybrid options this side of the Toyota Prius.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid starts at $26,000 for the SE model. Our Limited trim level steps up to $30,100. We've also got the $4,500 Ultimate package, a few smaller options like floor mats and a $825 destination charge, bringing us to our as tested price of $35,765.
Perhaps its closest, most fierce competition comes from the freshly updated 2017 Ford Fusion Hybrid, which I was able to drive on the same week that I tested the Hyundai. Choosing between them would be a tough call. The Fusion Hybrid just regains the tech advantage over the Sonata with the new Sync 3 system. Fully loaded, the Fusion Titanium lands within a few hundred bucks of our Sonata Limited Hybrid example. Choosing between the two is tough; I like both rides, but I like the style, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay and the Ford's semi-autonomous parking tech better and give the American the edge.
For the plug-in models, the balance tips slightly. The Sonata is both smartly equipped and in possession of best-in-class electric range. That is, unless you count the Chevrolet Volt which, with 53 miles of EV range, sort of blows everything else out of the water for not that much more money. For you, the buyer, it all comes down to whether you need the range and a wealth of connectivity features and creature comforts, or you want to save a few bucks.