2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid first drive review: Plugging into the future

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It’s amazing how quickly people forget. Sometimes that’s good, like when you forgive and forget. Sometimes that’s bad, like when you forget that although gas prices might be at a low now, they always rise again, and usually to a higher price than ever before. The minute we see the numbers go down at the pump, we’re out buying huge SUVs. Then, when we see the guy with the tall stick changing numbers on the sign, we instantly regret our purchase and wish we had bought something more economical. For those who do remember the past and learn from it, Hyundai is introducing the 2016 Sonata Hybrid and Sonata Plug-in Hybrid: two vehicles that will remind you that you can make a smart car-buying decision, no matter what the price of oil.

2016 Hyundai Sonata HybridThe Sonata Hybrid has been on the market for five years now as a sister product to the popular Sonata sedan. This second-generation hybrid is joined by a new plug-in version for 2016, and both are worthy of at least a test drive, and at most, serious consideration over the competition from Toyota, Ford, and Chevrolet.

IMG_6739 2The Sonata Plug-in Hybrid is the bigger news, as this is the first time Hyundai has introduced a plug-in to the U.S. According to Hyundai, its PHEV is best in class in many areas, including coefficient of drag, miles in pure EV mode, interior dimensions and cargo capacity. Throw in a lifetime hybrid battery warranty, and we really don’t know how you could put these up against the competition and not choose one as the winner.

Hyundai Sonata plug in Hybird What makes the Sonata EVs so special? On the exterior, the PHEV and HEV models are identical, save for some badging and wheel sizes. However, they do have noticeable differences over the gas-powered Sonata sedan. The goal was to retain the same Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 design, which entails a lot of curves and movement in the sheetmetal, but add features that help improve aerodynamics, such as a unique front fascia with front active air flaps, a unique headlamp shape with LED lighting, and aero rocker panels. In the back, there’s an aero rear bumper, rear diffuser, and eco-spoke alloy wheels. This slickness of design is what netted the class-leading 0.24 Cd, which beats all others in the segment and is tied with the Tesla Model S. Although we don’t yet know pricing for the Sonata EV models, we fully expect them to be less than half the price of the Tesla. The 2015 Sonata Hybrid starts at $26,000 with the Limited at $29,500. This year there will be an SE entry model in addition to a Limited and Limited Ultimate Package for the Hybrid, and an entry model and Limited version for the PHEV model. Assume a mild increase to those 2015 charges.

2016 Hyundai Sonata HybridInside, the PHEV/HEV vary slightly from each other, and feature unique instrumentation and displays over the gas Sonata. Only the PHEV has a charge indicator located in the top center of the dash and a button on the center console that allows you to choose between EV and HEV mode. The PHEV and HEV have some different screens both in the instrument cluster and on the center infotainment screen.

IMG_6735 2The hybrid vehicles are part of Hyundai’s Blue Drive initiative, which is its plan to “develop low-carbon, fuel-efficient vehicles that minimize fuel consumption and reduce CO2 emissions, thereby meeting the social need for both mobility and environmental preservation.” A lofty goal, but one that must be done. And Hyundai is doing it right so far, as it claims to be the lowest CO2 emitting automaker among mass-market manufacturers, as well as the one that’s also the most over compliant. To this end, Hyundai not only has these two vehicles on the ground, but also a fuel-cell Tucson fleet happening, plus a soon-to-be-announced pure EV as well.

On paper, the Sonata Hybrid and PHEV are impressive; on the road, the story is the same. A combination of a rigid body design, quality construction, great fuel economy and a solid chassis combine to make these two a great option in the midsize sedan segment. Power comes from a parallel hybrid system, where either the engine or the electric motor moves the vehicle down the road. The change between EV and hybrid mode is imperceptible, and the shifting of the true six-speed transmission is smooth and responsive.

IMG_6745The battery is a lithium-ion pack, and it resides in the tire well under the trunk so it doesn’t impede on the cargo area. Which is why the Sonata HEV has 13.3 cubic feet of cargo volume versus the Fusion HEV, with 12.0. The PHEV Sonata also beats the Fusion Energi with a cargo volume about 1.6 cubic feet bigger.

While the hybrid drive system is basically the same as the previous generation, there are plenty of enhancements, including a smaller engine (2.4 liters to 2.0 now), weight reduction in the motor and control unit, improved battery efficiency, and better regenerative braking capability. Although the max torque numbers are down by 10 lb-ft (140 versus 150 for 2015), the efficiency has been improved. When you include the power from the electric motor, the net power for the hybrid system is 193, and 202 for the PHEV version. The same goes for the traction motor, transmission, and other features. For example, the previous Sonata Hybrid was air cooled, while the new version is water cooled.