When hybrids first hit the U.S. market fifteen years ago, choices were limited to a Honda Insight coupe or Toyota Prius. Those first-gen hybrids were great on mileage, but were lacking in terms of looks, usability, and driving pleasure. Fast forward to the 2016 model year and with new technology, better batteries and outstanding designs, hybrid options are much more appealing. And with Hyundai’s 2016 Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid, you get the good looks, versatility, drivability and performance as well as impressive fuel economy numbers. The third-gen Sonata Hybrid is the best hybrid Hyundai has offered to date, and makes this economical family sedan a truly competitive choice for anyone considering a new sedan — hybrid or not.
The Sonata Hybrid has some design elements that differentiate it from the standard Sonata. The front fascia and grille, headlight shape, rocker panels, rear bumper, taillights and wheels are all unique to the hybrid. These changes are more than just for the sake of appearance — all improve aerodynamics, which results in a .24 Cd, which is the lowest in its class and identical to the Tesla Model S, according to the Korean automaker. Hyundai reps tell us that many of these changes will eventually be seen on the standard Sonata — better aerodynamics improve fuel economy, hybrid or not.
As buyers have come to expect from Hyundai, even the most basic trim levels of the 2016 Sonata Hybrid offer a high level of standard features. The entry-level SE trim includes dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, a 5-inch color touchscreen display, LED taillights and 16-inch alloy wheels.
The Sonata Hybrid Limited upgrades with leather trim, power heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, HID xenon headlights, 17-inch alloy wheels and one of our favorite features, the hands-free smart trunk. Walk to the rear of the car with the key fob in your pocket and the trunk opens automatically.
The Limited can be further upgraded with the Ultimate package, adding forward collision warning, lane departure warning, a panoramic sunroof, rear parking sensors, an 8-inch display screen with GPS navigation, a premium Infinity audio system and LED interior lighting.
If you opt for the Plug-in Hybrid, there are two trim levels: Base and Limited, but these don’t match up to the same features found on the non plug-in. The base Plug-in Hybrid is well equipped with a power driver’s seat, heated front seats, an 8-inch display screen with GPS navigation, a rearview backup camera, a blind spot detection system with cross-traffic alert and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The Plug-in Hybrid Limited loads on more goodies such as HID headlights, leather seats, woodgrain trim, a power front passenger seat, ventilated front seats, forward collision warning and an Infinity premium audio system with HD radio.
Apple CarPlay / Android Auto
Hyundai has also announced that Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto will be available in the Sonata Hybrid later this year, taking smartphone integration to the next level.
Under the Hood
The Sonata Hybrid powertrain uses a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine teamed with permanent magnet synchronous electric motor. The 2.0-liter engine is smaller than the engine found in the 2015 Sonata Hybrid, but produces almost the same motive power at 154 horses. However, the electric motor is more powerful, making 51 horsepower for a combined 193 horsepower.
The Plug-in Hybrid uses the same 2.0-liter engine but carries a larger, more powerful electric motor that puts out 67 horsepower and combines for a total of 202 horsepower. Both models use a Lithium polymer batter pack, putting out 56 kW in the hybrid, 68 kW in the plug-in.
Surprisingly both of these Sonata Hybrid models are equipped with a 6-speed automatic transmission. Most every other hybrid or plug-in on the market uses a continuously variable transmission; a 6-speed transmission makes the Sonata hybrid even more like a standard gas-powered sedan, which is a good thing.
Fuel economy is impressive for both models. The Sonata Hybrid is rated at 40 mpg city/44 mpg highway for a 42 mpg combined rating. The heavier Limited returns about 1 mpg less. The plug-in is estimated to get 40 mpg combined, but in EV mode it is rated at 93 MPGe, and can travel up to 24 miles on electric only. The plug-in can be charged completely in about 9 hours with a standard 110-volt outlet. A level 2 charger (220/240) will accomplish the feat in around 3 hours.
When Hyundai redesigned the Sonata last year, engineers increased the cabin size for more headroom and legroom front and back. The result is a comfortable interior that easily seats five, although the rear center seat might be tight for an adult. Materials upgrades make even the most basic Sonata Hybrid feel upscale. There’s plenty of storage between the front seats, including a smartphone cubby. We spent most of our time in the Hybrid Limited with leather seat trim, which is soft and stylish with contrasting stitching.
The Hybrid’s unique instrument cluster provides active information about hybrid functionality, and the plug-in features a screen that indicates the remaining electric range as well as estimated charging time.
Flat Trunk Floor
The hybrid batteries are located below the trunk floor to provide flat cargo space. The rear seat splits 60/40 to accommodate larger, longer items.
On the Road
Our press drive of the Sonata Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid took us through a variety of driving situations and topographies around Southern California. We started out in the plug-in with a fully charged battery set to EV mode, which is designed to just use the electric motor until the batteries fully discharge. However, if you mash the throttle (even in EV mode), the gasoline engine will start — there is no way to completely shut off the gas engine. With some finesse, drivers will easily get the car up to 70 mph using just the electric motor.
This was our first time driving a car on electric power with 6-speed automatic transmission, and it felt a bit strange. Normally the transmission shifts when the gasoline engine revs to a certain point, so it felt odd to experience shifts with a high-torque electric motor.
Plenty of Power
Both the hybrid and plug-in have plenty of power on tap — going to full throttle from a stoplight will spin the tires, and acceleration is more than adequate using the full power of the hybrid system. However, like any car — hybrid or not — full throttle quickly reduces overall fuel economy.
A Hybrid, but Doesn’t Drive Like One
The best compliment a driver can give a hybrid is that the vehicle doesn’t “feel” like a hybrid — which is the experience drivers will feel behind the wheel of the 2016 Sonata Hybrid. The switch from electric to gas is seamless; in most cases, without the gauges you wouldn’t know when the gas engine has kicked on. Braking sends energy to the batteries, but unlike many hybrids, the brake feel is progressive and smooth — not grabby.
Impressive Rear-World Fuel Economy
In our drive that mixed freeway and city traffic we averaged about 40 mpg in the hybrid and about 70 mpg in the plug-in (which included 24 miles of electric-only driving). Once the batteries were depleted in the plug-in, fuel economy was about the same as the non plug-in.
Right for You?
If you are in the market for a fuel-efficient family sedan, the Sonata Hybrid or Sonata Plug-in Hybrid are great options. They’re stylish, comfortable, roomy and offer great performance both in power and fuel efficiency. However, at the time of our test drive pricing had not been announced, so it is difficult to determine if the savings at the pump will make up for the extra toll on your wallet. If we speculate using the 2015 model year pricing, it would take more than 10 years to make up the price difference. That said, if being green is more important than saving green, the Sonata Hybrid or Plug-in Hybrid make excellent choices for the midsize sedan shopper.
Pros: Stylish, fuel efficient, comfortable interior
Cons: More expensive than non-hybrid, Lengthy plug-in charging time
Bottom Line: With attractive styling, good performance and impressive fuel economy, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is a great choice in the competitive midsize sedan market.