- Charming functionality of interior
- Better highway mileage than other hybrids?
- Plug-in offers gee-whiz charge-restoring mode
- Plug-In Hybrid can’t lock in EV mode
- Headroom in tight supply in back
- Bland exterior
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid, with its surprisingly good performance and charge mode, is a way to go electric without worry. And with much-improved drivability and no-sacrifices packaging, added to an already more pragmatic-yet-plush look, the Hybrid is no longer looking like a complement to the lineup but the heart of it.
If you’re considering the 2016 Hyundai Sonata or Sonata Plug-In Hybrid, it’s fair to say that you’re hip to a quiet transformation that’s happening to mid-size sedans.
As people move from sedans to crossovers en masse, the sedan shoppers that remain are more focused on efficiency or sportiness. With the former, you have interest that’s blossoming beyond a niche: Just look at models like the Toyota Camry Hybrid, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid, Kia Optima Hybrid, and upcoming Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid to see how hybrids are the place of growth in a flagging segment of the market.
The Hybrid is no longer looking like a complement to the lineup but the heart of it. Especially now that Hyundai’s put additional engineering into its powertrain and added a Plug-In version, these models now boast much-improved drivability and no-sacrifices packaging, added to the already more pragmatic-yet-plush look and feel that made its debut in the rest of the Sonata lineup this past year.
With the fully redesigned Sonata sedans that made their debut last year, Hyundai took a step back from the daring, dramatically different look that it had taken with the previous (sixth-generation) version. We aren’t so much mourning the loss of the flamboyant, swoopy interior design—it aged quickly and was rather gimmicky, while this one’s a model of functionality—yet the exuberance of the previous exterior’s been replaced by a look that we can best describe as conservative, mature, and understated.
In this current market of flamboyant mid-size sedan designs—yep, everything from the Mazda 6, Ford Fusion, and Honda Accord to the Chrysler 200 and revamped Chevy Malibu—the Sonata ends up looking a bit conservative. And Hyundai clearly hasn’t aimed to change course in any way. There are a number of appearance changes in the Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid versus the standard Sonata sedans, but they’re all rather subtle and mostly there with the goal of improving aerodynamics.
What’s perhaps most immediately noticed in this new look, called ‘Iconic Flux,’ if you have them side by side, is that the front end loses its ‘grimaced’ look by adding different fascia contours, while the headlamp shape (and graphics) is a bit different. Differently lipped rocker panels also match up better with the ‘Eco-spoke’ alloy wheels, and there’s a new “aero rear bumper,” small rear trunk-edge spoiler, and downward-extending rear diffuser to help with turbulence in back. Visually, those headlights, new taillight graphics, the aero wheels, and horizontal (instead of diagonally crosshatched) grille bars are the most noticeable differences.
The Sonata Hybrid is offered in seven exterior colors, while you have a choice of just four for the Plug-In. All of the exterior colors are quite drab and conservative (except for the pale-blue Seaport Mist of one of our test cars, which we quite liked), and a choice of three interior color-themes on Hybrids and two on Plug-In models both includes gray and our favorite, Blue Pearl.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, it’s fair to say, accelerates and responds in a way that feels just a little more like an ordinary gasoline-powered sedan. That’s mostly a good thing, because it completely avoids the detached ‘motorboating’ feel of some hybrids as they’re driven harder—to keep up with fast-moving traffic, for instance, or to take on longer, steeper highway grades.
Its powertrain layout is a closer to that of a typical gasoline-powered sedan—employing an electric-motor system attached to a conventional six-speed automatic transmission—but the nuanced approach that Hyundai took with this hybrid doesn’t make it any less of a hybrid. It’s still fully capable of taking off from a standing start at a gentle-to-moderate clip and accelerating leisurely all the way up to highway speeds. You’ll even find the internal-combustion engine cycling off for all-electric stints at up to 75 mph.
With this second generation of the Hybrid, Hyundai has downsized the gasoline engine while making all the electrics a little stouter and upsizing the capacity of the battery. The super-compact, 1.62-kWh lithium-ion polymer battery sits where the spare tire used to be, in Hybrids, and a 38-kW (51-hp) electric motor provides boost, helps recharge the battery when braking, or can power the sedan under light loads without the gasoline engine. Hyundai has expanded its all-electric range of operation. All said, the 2.0-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine makes 154 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque, but new power for the hybrid system is at 193 hp.
With the last-generation version of the Sonata Hybrid, Hyundai followed the same fundamental layout; yet it’s far smoother this time around, thanks to new software and controls. With the climate control on, you’d be hard-pressed to detect when the engine cycles on and off sometimes—that is, if you don’t know to watch the dash gauges. The transmission shifts up and down its range in electric mode, too, so that, at any point when it’s needed, the system can neatly start the gasoline engine back up and splice it back into the power flow.
The Hybrid weighs approximately the same as a loaded 2.0T (turbocharged) Sonata Limited. The Sonata’s lithium-ion battery pack helps keep weight down, but it’s also a matter of hybrid components that have been meticulously rethought and reengineered for weight savings and efficiency gains.
The Plug-In Hybrid weighs about 270 pounds more than a comparably equipped Hybrid (loaded Limited to Limited), at about 3,800 pounds total. That’s still a premium of more than 500 pounds over the base 2.4-liter Sonata, but a testament to what engineers have done, given all this model packs in.
You can keep posted on the state of charge and other vehicle updates via a smartphone app, but in Plug-In Hybrid models, there’s also a dash-top light that lets you know at a glance when you’re charging. Charge times for the Plug-In Hybrid are under three hours on 240V, with a Level 2 charger, or nine hours on 110V.
As for the all-important mileage numbers? The Sonata Hybrid will be rated at 40 mpg city, 44 highway (42 mpg Combined) for SE models, or 39 mpg city, 43 highway (41 Combined) for the Sonata Hybrid Limited. For the Plug-in Hybrid, Hyundai is anticipating a 99 MPGe rating and, when running on gasoline, a Combined rating of 40 mpg. That brings total cruising range for the Plug-In Hybrid, including that 27 miles all-electric, to 608 miles.
In an early first-drive opportunity, aiming to accelerate moderately and move with traffic (fast-moving at times), we averaged 41 mpg in both a Hybrid and in a Plug-In Hybrid once we’d used all the charge.
Other Hybrids may skimp a bit on overall comfort or usability, but you won’t find that here. Front-seat comfort and space are generous, even for taller drivers, and in back Hyundai claims best-in-class front-seat headroom and legroom for the Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In. While that’s true by the numbers, there are some caveats. This back seat still feels vast and spacious by most accounts, yet we’re still not convinced that there’s an abundance of headroom in back for adults. If those much over six feet tall lean back to a comfortable position in the backseat while keeping upright, contact with the most rearward portion of the roof is likely. And the panoramic roof you get in upper trims, while it brightens the interior, likely doesn’t help things.
Trunk space, on the other hand, is where the Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid have some clear-cut practical advantages. Lift-over height is rather low, and the cargo floor is low and flat, allowing you lots of potential ways to arrange suitcase, groceries, or whatever you might have. The 60/40-split folding rear seatbacks flip forward easily, with a light fingertip pull on releases clearly marked and just inside the trunk, and there’s enough continuous space to fit something as cumbersome as a surfboard. It’s worth pointing out that isn’t even a possibility in the Accord Hybrid.
In the Sonata Plug-In Hybrid, there’s a ‘step’ at the front end of the trunk, and instead of that fully flat folding you do get a small pass-through.
The Hybrid and Plug-In don’t use any active-noise cancellation technology or other noise-attenuating wizardry inside, yet its super-quiet—well blanketed with traditional noise-abating measures galore, and complementing a stiff body structure built with more than 50 percent high-strength steels. Ride quality is on the soft side—not a boon for handling—but well-damped and free of bounciness and road shocks.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is offered in three main trim levels. New SE models (previously called Base), come with proximity-key entry, the full multi-info displays, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 5-inch color infotainment/audio display with rearview camera system, LED running lamps, and 16-inch alloys. Limited models step up to HID xenon headlamps, 17-inch wheels, a leather interior, power front seats, heated-and-ventilated front seats, a hands-free trunk feature, and a heated steering wheel. And at the top of the lineup, the ‘Limited with Ultimate’ package gets you some of the most desirable tech features, like smart cruise control, Lane Departure Warning, Forward Collision Warning, rear parking sensors, navigation, and Infinity audio, as well as a panoramic sunroof. Meanwhile the Plug-In Hybrid comes in two trim levels, with a base model that includes navigation, 17-inch wheels, Blind Spot Detection, a power driver’s seat, heated front seats, and Dimension audio, while a Plug-In Hybrid Limited model gets pretty much all that’s featured in that Hybrid Ultimate package minus the panoramic sunroof.
Hyundai also notes that the 2016 Sonata Hybrid comes standard with a long list of connectivity features, including Bluetooth audio streaming, SiriusXM satellite radio, a USB port with iPod compatibility, and an auxiliary input jack.
The step-up navigation system—included in all Plug-In Hybrids and all but the Hybrid SE—also gets you a new split-screen mode, a 22-second audio buffer, HD Radio with Infinity premium sound, downloadable apps, and next-generation Blue Link telematics services. There’s also support for Pandora and SoundHound apps, plus Eyes Free Siri compatibility and built-in Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto integration.
For now, the Sonata Hybrid will be available nationwide, while Hyundai dealerships will stock the Sonata Plug-In Hybrid only in the ten ‘ZEV Mandate’ states (CA, CT, ME, MD, MA, NJ, NY, OR, RI, VT)—although it’s worth noting that Hyundai says the model will be available by request/order nationwide.
Sales begin in July for the Hybrid and this fall for the Plug-In.