When released this fall, Hyundai’s 2016 Sonata Plug-in Hybrid will raise the bar where it counts the most among in-class competitors with 25-percent more all-electric range.
The PHEV will also uniquely come with what is tantamount to having its own built-in quick charger – a function enabling the gas engine to replenish the battery on the road as much as five-times faster than with a 240-volt level 2 charger.
U.S. EPA fuel numbers are not in yet, but Hyundai estimates 24 miles range and this we exceeded by over four miles without difficulty on the road this week. Other information about our drive in Southern California is “embargoed” by Hyundai, but this data point we were granted permission to publish ahead of a media blackout on drive impressions in effect until next Tuesday.
Our all-electric suburban trip of 28.4 miles with HVAC on and up to 55 mph at brief points split the gap between the highest-rated blended PHEV, the 19-mile-rated Ford Fusion Energi, and the first-generation 38-mile extended-range Chevy Volt. In speaking with another publication’s driver, he got over 27 miles on the same course, so we don’t believe this was a fluke.
The Sonata PHEV is targeted primarily against the Fusion Energi and 13-mile Honda Accord Plug-in Hybrid and these are the only two cars specifically named in cross-comparison by Hyundai. Other potential competitors would be the 19-mile Ford C-Max Energi using the same powertrain as the Fusion Energi and the 6-11-mile or so Toyota Prius PHEV.
All these cars are mid-sized and not included as much in the direct competitor department is the compact 2016 Chevy Volt which outdoes them all with 50 miles rated electric range, but its back seat is less roomy, and it’s really in its own category in qualified terms.
Unique Advantages for Hyundai’s Plug-in Hybrid
The Korean automaker’s first PHEV arrives tagging behind this year’s launch of the seventh-generation revision of its Sonata line along with a second-generation regular Sonata Hybrid upon which it is based.
Pricing is not announced yet for two trim levels ranging from better- and better-yet, but Public Relations Manager Derek Joyce said in keeping with Hyundai practice, it would be competitively priced against the target market.
The Fusion Energi starts just shy of $35,000 and the Accord PHEV is just below $40,000. As far as brand perception goes, Honda has the most laurels to rest upon for its legendary engines and reliability, Ford has moved upwards with powertrain architecture sharing patents with Toyota. Hyundai however is vying to move up too, and is doing so though more will remain to be seen when the Sonata PHEV is out and actually tested.
How Hyundai does hybrids is a little different in a few respects. For one, both the regular hybrid and PHEV use a 2.0-liter gasoline direct injected engine mated to a six-speed automatic whereas the blended hybrid competitors use Atkinson cycle engines and an e-CVT.
Dimensions, creature comforts, styling and function are all competitive with sedans in this class, and we’ll have more on this in a subsequent article.
The 24-mile range Sonata PHEV’s 9.8-kwh battery has nearly 47-percent more capacity than the 13-mile-range Accord PHEV’s 6.7-kwh unit. It’s also nearly 30-percent bigger than the 7.6-kwh unit in the Fusion/C-Max Energis which are rated 19 miles range.
Hyundai not surprisingly sources battery cells from Korea’s LG Chem which vary in some undetermined ways from the Volt’s LG Chem cells. Hyundai terms these “lithium-ion polymer” but really they are lithium-ion and the only “polymer” is the polymer housing. “Polymer” does not speak to the chemistry though the assembled pack is considered more energy dense due to the lightweight housing.
While that detail may be a bit hidden, on the positive side, so is the battery itself. Hyundai now stashes the pack in the space normally occupied by a spare tire to free up trunk room.
The Sonata PHEV squeaks out 9.9 cubic feet compared to the Fusion Energi’s 8.2 and Accord PHEV’s 8.6.
In an interview with the general manager of Hyundai’s eco-friendly vehicle R&D center, Dr. Glenn Yong-Seok Kim, it was learned Hyundai uses just shy of 95 percent of the battery pack’s usable capacity. This would equate to a little less than 9.3 kwh though the exact number is a company secret, he said.
By contrast, General Motors in 2013 said its 16.5-kwh Volt battery had a much broader buffer, and its state of charge window used just 10.8-kwh from the Volt’s big T-pack which could never be squeezed into the spare tire well.
If this raises any concern however, Hyundai’s warranty exceeds all others and is “lifetime” on the high-voltage battery.
Battery Charge Mode
Among all plug-in hybrids in its class, as well as the Chevy Volt, the Sonata PHEV is unique in that it can use its 50-kilowatt motor generator to direct 360 volts of converted DC current straight to the battery bypassing the onboard 3.3-kw charger.
The feature of charging on the fly is found for now only in European upscale PHEVs such as from Porsche and Volvo. For them it is for clientele who wish to comply with zero-emission zones, or for other similar motivations.
Other makers, such as Chevrolet, have resisted this functionality saying it is a bad equation to burn gas to generate electricity and grid or renewable is far better. Others in the industry have said that Chevrolet’s decision also was made for the gen-one Volt because it got unacceptable emissions using the engine to recharge the battery, but the Hyundai is emissions complaint.
For Hyundai’s part, Dr. Kim said the motivation was to simply offer consumers the choice. A button press activates it, so it is up to them.
Whether using charge on the fly will prove economical or otherwise sit well with environmentally mindful drivers remains an open question, but it may.
The question still comes down to whether it is worth it to burn gasoline to generate electricity.
Because Hyundai bypasses the bottleneck to any PEV – the onboard charger – its solution is like having a high-power charger onboard, with much more current than a standard 30-amp, 240-volt level 2, and drivers will be inclined to use it. According to Product Planning Manager John Shon, 24 miles of range can be replenished in 30-40 minutes. At peak efficiency, ideally at highway speeds, the Hyundai may replenish at a rate equating to over 40 miles range and close to 50 miles range per hour using its gas engine. By contrast, a Nissan Leaf via 480-volt level 3 may recharge up to 80 percent of its 84 miles range in half an hour – 64 miles in half an hour, or a rate of 128 miles range per hour.
In turn, ordinary U.S. 120-volt household current charge times are under nine hours for the Sonata PHEV and under three hours for 240-volt level 2.
Hyundai says the onboard charger’s efficiency can reach 91.7 percent but details on this are unclear after speaking with Hyundai. Dr. Kim said he would get us fuel efficiency numbers for during battery recharge mode later to help gauge real-world energy usage to help estimate how wasteful or not is burning gas to charge the battery.
In the meantime we consulted Arizona-based retired aerospace engineer and HybridCars.com tech writer George S. Bower to make an educated guess.
“Instead of driving the wheels mechanically with around 3 percent loss you are going to have to go through a generator and inverter into the battery, out of the battery and through a motor,” said Bower. “It’s the classic series set up. Typical efficiencies in this mode would be generator, inverter and motor at 95 percent each; so roughly you are looking at 15 percent loss versus 3-percent loss so it would be around 12 percent worse than just driving the wheels mechanically. So your mpg would go down by around 12 percent.”
Hyundai’s EPA rating is not announced yet for the PHEV, but internal estimates are around 40 mpg combined. Highway mpg would be in the high 30s. Cutting this by 15 percent theoretically could mean 30-32 mpg while a driver is recharging the EV battery, maybe worse, maybe better.
This is not exactly gas-hog territory and could open up some very unique use scenarios. For example, one might contemplate an 80 mile drive by using 24 miles e-range to start, then switching to charge mode burning gas to replenish the battery in 30-40 minutes.
This would reduce fuel economy to be still above the average 25 mpg car sold in America, then the driver could switch back to EV mode for another 20-some emission-free miles at up to 75 mph.
Obviously this is less economical than using grid power and worse still than using carbon-free electricity, and we do not have enough data to tell you this is a good idea. But, it might be, and at very least, as Hyundai says citing driver choice, it could open up some opportunities no other PHEV in its class now enjoys.
Compliance Car Lite
The Sonata PHEV will initially be launched in Oregon and California – of course – the state Hyundai observed to be responsible for 50 percent of plug-in electrified vehicle sales.
By the fall, the automaker says 10 states will stock the car eligible for up to a $4,919 federal tax credit. These are California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
But, instead of locking out the rest of the country as other automakers have done with limited-market offerings, the Sonata PHEV will be available for special order in all other states.
In contrast, Ford’s Fusion Energi is available in 50 states, and at the other extreme Honda has the Accord Plug-in Hybrid sold only in New York and California.
We inquired how Hyundai would evaluate opening up more markets for the on-paper very competitive plug-in and did not get a definitive answer.
The company in its presentation explicitly said it was introducing the car to “comply” with California ZEV rules in states where these are upheld coming close to calling its car what makes others bristle – a compliance car.
As it is, because it will technically be available in all states the pejorative term does not fully fit to the extent that it would for other vehicles. Or probably this is the case, says Plug in America’s Chief Science Officer, Tom Saxton.
“The question of whether it’s a compliance car will come down to what they do if there’s strong demand: produce to meet demand or call it sold out,” he said.
Meanwhile, as Hyundai otherwise points out, it stands to fare well against the direct competitors and it does set a new benchmark – at least until vehicles like the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and whatever else next comes along.
We’ll have more on the Sonata PHEV and regular hybrid next week.