First Drive Review
Although hybrids have been gathering dust in new-car showrooms of late, carmakers can’t afford to ignore them, for several reasons. For one, fuel prices respond to the law of what you could call gasoline-market gravity: What comes down must go up. Two, environmental and fuel-economy regulations are pushing automakers in that direction. And finally, most carmakers wish to be perceived as “green” to some degree, and that’s certainly true at Hyundai. Enter the second-generation Sonata hybrid.
Hyundai Doubles Down
The hybrid market may be somnolent, but Hyundai is pressing forward with a program of expanded electrification in its lineup, and an element of that foray is the addition of a plug-in variant of the Sonata hybrid. Like the prior generation, the 2016 hybrid is a parallel system, with an internal-combustion engine augmented by an electric motor, feeding power to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. But all elements of the system are new.
A 2.0-liter DOHC direct-injected four-cylinder replaces the previous Atkinson-cycle 2.4-liter, reducing engine output from 159 horsepower and 154 lb-ft of torque to 154 and 140. At 51 horsepower and 151 lb-ft, the electric motor gains 4 horsepower versus the previous version, but the total system output rating is down slightly from 199 to 193 horsepower.
The plug-in setup is essentially the same as the regular hybrid’s, although it has a bigger lithium-polymer battery pack and more kilowatt-hours on tap—9.8 kWh versus 1.6. (The 1.6-kWh pack itself represents a 13-percent increase compared to the 2015 model.) The battery pack resides under the trunk floor and takes a small bite out of cargo capacity in the Sonata hybrid (13.3 cubic feet, versus 16.3 for the standard Sonata); more space is sacrificed in the PHEV, where trunk volume shrinks to 9.9 cubic feet.
The new Sonata hybrid boasts improved fuel-economy ratings from the EPA. Whereas the previous-generation car came in at 36 mpg city and 40 highway, the new one is rated at 40/44 mpg (or 39/43 in the heavier Limited trim level). The PHEV, for its part, carries a combined EPA fuel-economy rating of 40 mpg and is capable of operating for 24 miles as a pure electric (at speeds up to 75 mph). Also worth noting is that the new models continue with Hyundai’s 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain and lifetime battery warranties.
Like the previous Sonata hybrid, the new one is quiet—if anything, it’s even quieter than the original. The aero measures contributing to its improved fuel efficiency include a unique front fascia and rear diffuser as well as “eco-spoke” aluminum wheels, and they combine with acoustic glass and additional sound deadening to make this interior as hushed as just about anything that rolls, including those from Rolls. (A number of other exterior elements, such as fenders, lights, and badging, were altered to differentiate the hybrids from the conventional Sonatas, to keep neighbors and fellow travelers aware of the owners’ commitment to greenness.) Quiet also obviously applies to the PHEV version, which is equipped with a noise generator—a “virtual engine sound system”—to alert pedestrians when operating in pure-electric mode.
The powertrains of both versions are commendably smooth, as well. Pure-electric power gets the Sonata off the line briskly, and the transition to internal-combustion propulsion is all but imperceptible. The 2015 Sonata hybrid could hit 60 mph in about eight seconds, and we estimate the 2016 edition will be just as quick. Although our drive route on this early preview covered mostly freeways, we noted improvement to the hybrid’s electric rack-and-pinion steering system, particularly in terms of on-center tactility.
Like other hybrids, the Sonatas command a price premium compared with the other members of the family. Just how much of a premium won’t be revealed until the new model appears in showrooms sometime this summer (the outgoing Sonata hybrid pricing starts at just under $27,000). The PHEV version has no predecessor, but it’s sure to come with a bigger number on the window sticker than the regular hybrid. The PHEV’s prime competition—the Ford Fusion Energi and the Honda Accord plug-in—are in the $40,000 ballpark. The Hyundai’s claim to fame is that its 24-mile pure-electric range beats both of them. Recharging time is similar to other plug-ins—about nine hours with the standard 110/120-volt Level 1 recharging unit, about three hours with the available 220/240-volt Level 2 setup.
Those big MSRP numbers are mitigated by a $5000 federal tax-break subsidy, as well as various additional incentives from the states where the cars are sold. When the Sonata PHEV goes on sale, beginning this fall, that ultimately will be the 10 states with ZEV regs: California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
Still, unless the prospective owner has a very short commuting routine, it’s hard to see the advantage of the plug-in. Even with its small edge in electric range, once the battery is depleted its hybrid fuel economy—40 mpg combined—isn’t quite as good as that of the cordless hybrid. The standard hybrid, on the other hand, looks like a very good bet.