Hyundai’s plug-in Sonata was introduced last year alongside its second-generation Hybrid and is both unique and conforming while topping competitors in a few important ways.
Its commonality with other midsized hybrid and plug-in hybrid sedans – from Toyota, Ford, Honda, Kia, and Chevrolet – is they fit a formula of roughly 200 horsepower and 40-plus-or-minus mpg and come in similar dimensions wrapped in aerodynamic designs.
Included in the formula is 7-second-range 0-60 mph acceleration, competent driving manners, and shoppers need only decide which variation on the familiar theme in this tightly knit class would meet their needs. So what’s “unique” about the Hyundai?
First off, it’s a plug-in hybrid and that makes it rare off the bat compared to more-common hybrids including the top-selling Toyota Camry Hybrid, and pending 47-mpg 2016 Chevy Malibu Hybrid which borrows the Volt’s powertrain sans plug.
Where Hyundai further sets itself apart from hybrids and plug-in hybrids includes that instead of a continuously variable transmission, it gets a 6-speed manually shift-able automatic. And, Hyundai goes beyond some other hybrids’ engines in utilizing gasoline direct injection with its 2.0-liter Atkinson cycle four.
Since Honda withdrew its California/New York 2014 Accord PHEV – and its Accord Hybrid for this year too – and with Toyota’s Prius PHV also discontinued awaiting refresh, Hyundai actually has only one direct plug-in hybrid (PHEV) competitor, the Ford Fusion Energi.
Ford’s 19-mile EPA-rated electric range Fusion, despite seeing a mid-cycle refresh this year does trail Hyundai’s 27-miles electric range. The same is true of another potential competitor, Ford’s 19-mile C-Max Energi hatch.
And be clear: All-electric range is the major reason why you would spend almost $9,000 extra for the Sonata PHEV (before $4,919 federal tax credit and potential state incentive) over a base Hybrid sibling. The mission for PHEVs is to stay off gas while having “no range anxiety” with the hybrid powertrain ready to travel far, in this case 600 rated miles.
While already leapfrogging the e-range of the Ford, as well as the former 13-mile Honda PHEV, and 11-mile Toyota PHEV, Hyundai included another unique innovation that lets its gas engine charge its 9.8-kwh battery on the fly in half an hour via its 50-kw motor-generator.
What this means is Hyundai for now may be the most competitive in a very narrow sub-segment of hybrids – at least that is until the 27-mile Kia Optima sibling sharing its powertrain arrives later this year – or when Honda brings a 39-mile PHEV to market in 2018.
Not to be forgotten also is the 53-mile range 2016 Chevy Volt, which is the superstar in the powertrain department, but a compact class with less rear seating space. If EV range is your priority and you can deal with the dimensions, it wins against today’s blended PHEVs and probably Honda’s future car too. Just thought we’d mention that.
What most distinguishes the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid from siblings is of course the powertrain, and in this case Hyundai shares with the regular Sonata Hybrid a 2.0-liter Nu GDI engine mated to a single electric motor. This single motor architecture is another difference from competitors’ various two-motor hybrid systems.
To support all-electric drive up to 75 mph combined, the plug-in Sonata gets a more-powerful motor than the Sonata Hybrid – 67 horsepower (50 kw) – for a total system output of 202 horsepower at 6,000 rpm.
These specification, and those of all supporting hardware in the hybrid system have been upgraded over the first generation hybrid introduced in 2011 to confront the likes of Toyota’s Camry Hybrid, etc.
The regenerative braking system of the evolved car captures 11.3 percent more energy, and the 9.8-kwh lithium-ion polymer battery has 13-percent more energy, 19-percent more power, and is rated now at 1.62 kwh for the regular hybrid.
This battery is in the spare tire area – meaning the car does not come with one, but gets a fix-it kit. Trunk capacity is cut to 9.9 cubic feet – larger than competitors, but smaller than cubic feet capacities in the teens for cars in this class not stuffed with a battery.
Style & Design
The snappy updated look, while admittedly within realm of myriad other midsized sedans is otherwise rather attractive.
Also updated is what’s under the skin, and body rigidity compared to the former Hybrid is stiffer thanks to high-strength steel increased from 21 percent of the 2015’s chassis to now 51 percent.
Hyundai actually toned down the swoopiness from the 2011-2015 vintage Hybrid. Its new exterior design is named “Fluidic Sculpture 2.0” and may better suit people’s tastes – or desire not to stand out in a sea of cars all borrowing design features from each other.
The car also has something even in common with a Tesla Model S besides plugging in – its coefficient of drag is 0.24 and this is without door handles that retract and with an open grille like a conventional car – although active grille shutters do contribute to the aerodynamics.
Tweaks to the front fascia, a different grille, headlamps, the aforementioned active air shutters and a lower bumper air curtain up front help the vehicle make a clean punch through the air. To let that friction-laden air make a clean getaway, an aero rear bumper, rear diffuser, shaped rocker panels, aerodynamic “eco spoke” alloy wheels, and a center floor cover contribute to the goal.
The vehicle’s length, width, height and wheelbase are all within range of the Camry, Accord and Fusion give or take an inch or two here and there.
The Sonata Plug-in Hybrid has 116.0 cubic feet volume compared to the Fusion Energi’s 111.0 and former Accord PHEV’s 111.8.
Correspondingly, leg, head and shoulder room have all been marginally increased improving on a car already within range of competitors. In the back seat my 6-foot frame has plenty of knee room and only adequate headroom as is not uncommon for coupe-profiled sedans in this class.
Interior layout and design are all comfortable, convenient and functional. A healthy balance of soft-touch material plus some hard plastics is complemented by varying levels of trim. These include available features like power front seats, ventilated and heated front, rear seats and heated steering wheel, and rear window shades.
The Limited model as tested ($39,610 – see sticker image in gallery) comes with advanced safety tech that helped maintain space cushions in cruise, for example, and warnings for not backing up into something over and above the rear view camera.
On The Road
Our first drive since doing a circuit in comfortable Southern California May 2015 was quite the contrast – we chose on the east coast to test EV mode in 18 degree F weather. Actually reality in the snow belt dictated our choice, and it did eventually warm up to 22 that day letting us discover seat heaters and heated steering wheel can make it quite toasty.
But here’s the thing – the car has a small Positive Temperature Coefficient (PTC) heater for some cabin heat in mild conditions. The engine is not required to run to generate juice for the heated accessories but it is required as needed for the main heater. Like with any conventional car, a heater core needs the engine and it may run even in “EV mode.”
How this works is it all depends on how cold it is, and how much heat you want. Turn the dial of the digital indicator to higher settings and it instantly trips the engine on. First thing the engine does is warm itself, and it provides hot coolant through the heater core while sending charge to the battery.
On our seriously cold day, heat had to be dialed down well below the halfway point from Hi to OFF. During this “EV” mode of operation with engine on for heat, the engine is not being used for propulsion, so it is not actually in HEV (Hybrid) mode and the EV indicator does stay on even as the engine is cooking along too. At points it also may go off if the system senses heat requirements are met, but then it may come back on when required, or if you turn the heat dial up high enough, it will again trip the engine on.
As is true of the car in any mode, a firm press of the accelerator will draft the engine into propulsion duties, however, and that is regular hybrid mode.
What this EV-mode-with-engine-on scenario does to fuel economy is hard to precisely gauge as the whole process is such a sliding scale dependent on outside air temp, inside air temp setting, and driving conditions. It did make testing pure EV mode difficult unless we wanted to turn down the heat to lower than we’d have preferred or completely off. Certainly engine-for-heat EV mode does burn some gas, even if at a lower rate than normal. Meanwhile the indicated electric range is used up too.
In more temperate climates this is not an issue because you won’t be needing the heater so much if at all. Also the whole situation is less pronounced once the car is fully warmed.
To be fair, this issue is to one degree or another inherent with other plug-in hybrids. We’re mentioning it so you can know, but the rest of the car is as advertised and benefits of PHEVs remain, with this asterisk. EV mode range and mpg are otherwise within EPA estimates. Hyundai we suspect did learn an expensive lesson a couple years ago in misstated mpg numbers and there’s no reason to suspect that problem exists now.
Meanwhile drivability is good. Acceleration, while a little laggy from a stop, is fast enough. Strange also is a floored accelerator can delay letting off the gas too. This in entirely an electronic fuel injected phenomenon, and enough to make one think with fond memories of well-tuned carburetors – or simply wish for more crisp and in-step fuel injection. Normally though, this is not a real problem, and one learns to compensate to a new normal.
Ride quality feels a bit more softly sprung than, say, a Camry Hybrid, and the experience is reasonably plush though a jarring hit from the tarmac can intrude.
Otherwise the watchword is smooth – both while rolling and coming to a stop. The brakes definitely feel improved and this is not that easy to do for regenerative setups, as hybrids including the Sonata before have felt less progressive.
If it’s a blended PHEV you want, the Hyundai may be the most competitive. Traditional drivers may appreciate the stepped gearing of a true automatic. Also setting it apart is the novel charge-on-the-fly feature is handy. Yes it can waste gas, but gives you the choice for occasions where you might want or need it. This feature is something European PHEVs from Porsche and Volvo have included as well.
Price-wise, the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid starting at $34,600 and ranging to $38,600 for the Limited. This is within a few hundred dollars of the Ford Fusion Energi – and Chevy Volt – although the Volt is eligible for a larger $7,500 tax credit with its 18.4-kwh battery and possibly more state incentives too.
Next to a Sonata Hybrid, the plug-in surcharge over the hybrid surcharge is quite the premium. A strict cost-benefit analysis should factor available incentives, and how often you’ll take advantage of gas-free driving. Of course as this is written gas prices are at an all-time low, but this vehicle is 1) about the environment not just saving at the pump, and 2) electric operation is still probably cheaper gas depending on your specific costs for both, and 3) gas prices are not guaranteed to stay low forever.
Hyundai says the Sonata PHEV is its first of a wave of new electrified vehicles planned between now and 2020. This is the tip of the spear for the automaker with the stated goal of transforming itself into a “global top 2 automaker in the eco-friendly car market by 2020.”
Market-wide, products on offer are evolving, as mentioned a sibling Kia Optima plug-in hybrid is due soon too, but at the moment, Hyundai’s plug-in hybrid appears to be at the top of the rankings, and is surely worth a closer look.
Price quote for Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid
Base MSRP: $34,600