First Drive: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid

It’s been over a year since the seventh-generation 2015 Sonata was unveiled but the wait for the second-generation 2016 Sonata Hybrid version and Hyundai’s first-ever Sonata Plug-in Hybrid may have been worth it.

Hyundai seems to think so and last week made their first media drive a special affair by inviting successive waves of journalists to its new eco-friendly corporate headquarters in Huntington Beach, Calif.

For those of you who may still remember Hyundai as a dues-paying aspiring automaker, that is history and the Sonata has earned a firm position among peers as it celebrates its 30th anniversary since its 1985 Korean introduction. Globally Hyundai has sold 7.3 million Sonatas, 2.3 million in the U.S. alone, and 80,000 hybrids following a 2011 launch.

The midsized, front-wheel-drive family sedan conspired to undercut competitors such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, and whatever else shoppers may set their gaze on is improved from top to bottom while remaining recognizable.

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The hybrid and plug-in variant are expected to lead toward Hyundai’s goal of improving fleet mpg in the U.S, South Korea and Europe by 25 percent above regulation requirements. The company sells no trucks and the EPA said in 2013 it already led all manufacturers in the U.S. with the lowest carbon footprint of 236 grams CO2 averaged per mile.

Hyundai is also leading Toyota to the fuel cell market with the Tucson FCV, it has been at work on a dedicated hybrid to compete with the Prius, and is looking to its first battery electric vehicle and more while also refining its conventional fleet.

Amidst this hubbub, the Sonata remains an important car for Hyundai. Even in its last model year, the outgoing Sonata Hybrid has fared well sales-wise against the Camry, Accord, and Fusion hybrids, so let’s dive in deeper on the now-better hybrid and new plug-in version.

A Different Approach

If every other major competitor zigs with its hybrid, Hyundai likes to zag.

Defining the hybrid and plug-in hybrid is a 2.0-liter Nu GDI engine mated to a single electric motor contrasting with two-motor hybrid systems found in competitive models.

Hyundai’s TMED (Parallel) Hybrid System Benefits: ▶ Fast and seamless mode change - EV Mode ↔ Hybrid Mode - Precise control of engine clutch ▶ Refined shift quality - Shift assist control of motor

Hyundai’s TMED (Parallel) Hybrid System.

The gas burner is notably not Atkinson cycle like everyone else’s, and the single electric propulsion motor does what it’s supposed to and the hybrid system looks to be more cost-effective to produce.

Hyundai differs in another key point by using a six-speed automatic transmission instead of an e-CVT.

The regular hybrid’s propulsion motor is 51 horsepower (38 kw) electric motor and this combines with the 154 horsepower, 140 pound-feet torque engine. Total system output is not the sum of these two as power peaks from the separate sources are different, and stated maximum is 193 horsepower at 6,000 rpm.

2016 Sonata Hybrid.

2016 Sonata Hybrid.

Hyundai’s new naturally aspirated engine is downsized from the 2015 Hybrid’s 2.4 liters, but horsepower drops by only 10, and torque by the same, while a more potent electric motor helps make up for that lost power.

To support all-electric drive up to 75 mph combined, the plug-in hybrid Sonata gets a larger motor than the hybrid – 67 horsepower (50 kw) –with the same gas engine for a total system output of 202 horsepower at 6,000 rpm.

These specs, and those of all supporting hardware in the hybrid system have been upgraded over the first generation hybrid.

For example, the regular hybrid’s permanent magnet motor is physically smaller by 0.4 liters, lighter by 3.7 pounds and more powerful by 3 kilowatts. The Hybrid Power Control Unit is 21 percent lighter with 24 percent greater energy density.

The regenerative braking system captures 11.3 percent more energy, and let’s not forget the lithium-ion polymer battery – it has 13-percent more energy, 19-percent more power, and is rated now at 1.62 kwh for the regular hybrid.

This battery is now under the trunk floor instead of in the trunk enabling 60/40 split fold-down sets and trunk capacity increase from last year’s 12.1 cubic feet to 13.4 cubic feet.

Battery capacity for the plug-in hybrid is 9.8 kwh, and it too is squeezed in the spare tire well area and a class-leading 9.9 cubic foot trunk capacity.

Hyundai specifically named only the Ford Fusion Energi and Honda Accord Plug-in Hybrid as its targeted competitors. These are mid-sized PHEV sedans so the match is obvious, but others people will cross-shop will include the Ford C-Max Energi hatch, Toyota Prius PHEV, and even the compact Chevy Volt.

The Sonata PHEV comes a couple years after these cars have been on the market and appears on paper to raise the bar over the named competition with 24 miles EV range compared to 19 for the Ford and 13 for the Honda.

The vehicles come with a flat repair kit but no spare tire. Something had to give.

Body/Styling/Design

Hyundai calls its exterior design theme “Fluidic Sculpture 2.0” but it’s less swoopy and more conforming than 1.0 which may suit today’s consumers who like contemporary but otherwise blending-in styling.

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Body rigidity was stiffened with an increase in high-strength steel from 21 percent of the 2015’s chassis to now 51 percent.

Standing out is the lowest coefficient of drag of all except the Tesla Model S, which Hyundai says the Sonata Hybrid and PHEV match at 0.24. This benefit is part of stylistic changes that also distinguish the hybrids from the conventional Sonatas and their 0.27 cd.

Tweaks to the front fascia, a different grille, headlamps, plus active air flaps 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 vehicles’ 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.

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Interior volume is actually the highest at 119.4 cubic feet compared to the Camry Hybrid (115.8), Accord Hybrid (115.9), Fusion Hybrid 114.8. The Sonata Plug-in Hybrid has 116.0 cubic feet volume compared to the Fusion Eneri’s 111.0 and Accord PHEV’s 111.8.

Correspondingly, leg, head and shoulder room gave all been marginally increased improving on a car already within range of competitors.

A watch paired to the smartphone app is also available, but seems a bit redundant.

A watch paired to the smartphone app for the PHEV is also available, but seems a bit redundant.


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.

Unique in class for the Hybrid model is a front and rear panoramic glass sunroof.

Are you ‘Normal’ or ‘Aggressive?’

Along with hybrid-specific energy gauges, new this year is a grading system on how efficiently one drives. Although it did not mention it, Hyundai last year paid $350 million in fines for misstated EPA mpg ratings. It apologized, lost some public trust, and we suspect has resolved not to let it happen again.

Image courtesy: Hyundai.

Image courtesy: Hyundai.

Part of that plan it seems is its new driver analysis algorithms that measure how aggressive you are or not and serve as an eco-driving coach a bit more frontally than benign green leaves that grow or fade on a Fusion, for example.

Hyundai has fully faced its responsibility but the implicit message is you, the driver, also need to accept your responsibility in how good of mileage you get.

Hyundai’s general manager eco-friendly vehicle R&D center, Dr. Glenn Yong-Seok Kim spent a few minutes explaining that every driver thinks he or she is “normal.”

“No one believes I and an aggressive driver,” he said citing Hyundai’s research into its constituency.

And, it is absolutely true that all cars and hybrids especially may return widely varying mpg depending on how one drives, and now the car will let you know how you stack up.

Image courtesy: Hyundai.

Image courtesy: Hyundai.

And this is not all. Hyundai now actively promotes “coasting” and the vehicle is set up to cue you at opportune times to do so.

Driving The Plug-in Hybrid

Our two-stage trip paired with a driver from another publication was a tame one on a proscribed road course of mixed suburban and highway traffic for both the Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid.

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Selecting one of nine PHEVs to start, we set out trying to drive “normally.” The PHEV has a drive mode selector for eco, normal and sport changing the mapping and in the case of “sport,” the steering is optimized as well. The driver from another publication – his name is withheld to protect the innocent – was informed his attempt to drive normally was 50 percent aggressive – but really, it did seem pretty normal, so go figure.

Zero to sixty for the PHEV should be in the mid seven-seconds or within range of other 190-200 horsepower sedans in this class, and not noticeably different from the regular hybrid.

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.

We can’t tell you the PHEV’s engine note during suburban driving because it went all 28.2 miles of the first stretch in EV mode without the engine kicking on once.

Hyundai is officially saying 24 miles range – surpassing the Fusion and C-Max Energi’s 19 and Accord PHEV’s 13 – but the range meter on these pre-production cars showed 25 to start.

Another novelty that may prove quite handy is a charge on the fly feature using the engine to fill an empty battery in 30-40 minutes. Highway speeds for this are recommended but not required.

If this fact does not jump out at you, let us help you: This is quick!

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It’s 4-6 times faster than a 240-volt level two’s under three hours, and blazing next to 120-volt house current’s under nine hours of waiting to get your 24 miles range back in the battery.

Yeah but how much gas do you have to burn for this nifty feature? That’s not clear and Hyundai said it would send us the info from Korea next week. An engineer we independently consulted estimated 12 percent loss in fuel economy which still would mean high 20s, low 30s so not overly much, and emissions regs will of course be met too.

SEE ALSO: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid Sets New Electric-Range Benchmark

EPA numbers for the PHEV are not in yet, but Hyundai estimates 40 mpg combined, and 93 MPGe.

Our fuel economy can thus only be recorded for highway which was in the high 30s given this was a first get-acquainted drive and we were going with the flow and testing acceleration occasionally. Low 40s would be possible with cruise control and we expect Hyundai will not overbill the EPA mileage given recent history.

Driving The Hybrid

The drive and feel of the hybrid is very similar to the PHEV though the 3,497-pound hybrid is lighter than the 3,787 pound PHEV (Limited versions: 3,560 and 3,810 respectively).

Sonata Hybrid_007

Both have front MacPherson struts with High Performance Damper (HPD) shock absorbers and 23 mm stabilizer bar (24.2 mm Plug-in Hybrid). In back is an independent multi-link with coil springs, High Performance Damper (HPD) shock absorbers and 17 mm stabilizer bar.

Both roll on P205/65R16 tires or P215/55R17 for the Limited.

What’s different is you will definitely hear the engine with the full hybrid system as it teeters between the electric motor delivering the power. Engine note is a touch more grindy at higher rpms than, say, an Accord or Camry, but it’s not altogether unpleasing.

The Hybrid is otherwise smooth also, and we saw 39 mpg combined in a Limited rated for 41, again not trying to set any records, but sampling our best estimate of “normal.”

Hyundai says EPA fuel economy for the hybrid has improved 10 percent to 40 city, 44 highway, 42 combined for the most efficient Hybrid trim, and subtract 1 mpg each for the Limited. Last year’s number was 36 city, 40 highway, 38 combined.

Summation

The Sonata Hybrid and its Plug-in sibling are more refined and benefit from nice touches, pleasant style, good comfort plus safety tech including Forward Collision Warning, Smart Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Detection, Parking Sensors.

Suggested retail price will be announced closer to launch. For the Hybrid this is this Summer and for the PHEV it’s later this year first in Oregon and California, then by fall it will be in California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

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The PHEV will be available in all other U.S. states on a special order basis, says Hyundai.

It is the biggest news from Hyundai at the moment being for now the highest electric range PHEV in its sub-$40,000 midsized family car class aside from the compact extended-range Chevy Volt.

As Hyundai has long done, it will position them as value leaders.