Lots of things about cars get me excited to wake up and spend another day on this slowly rotating rock. Outbraking somebody into a corner, for example. Loud, raucous motors revving to 7,000 RPM and beyond. Screeching, wailing tires pulling 1.3 Gs as they bend the laws of physics around a punishingly fast sweeper. Neck-snapping acceleration that simultaneously punishes and rewards the driver for his bravery.
Hmmm. Let me check. Did I write the word “Hybrid” anywhere up there? What about “Mid-Sized Sedan?” or “Regenerative Braking System?” Nope. Didn’t think so.
Then why the am I lusting after the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid?
(Full Disclosure: Hyundai provided me with airfare to Orange County, two nights at the Shorebreak Hotel in Huntington Beach, California, and more Pinot Noir than I would have previously considered possible to consume within 48 hours. I also took a bottle opener from the mini bar, which I assume somebody else ended up paying for.)
My time with the Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid began at Hyundai’s corporate offices in Fountain Valley, California, which is a gorgeous facility that only vaguely reminded me of a beehive. Hyundai made a pretty serious commitment to the environment with the construction of their facility—-they reused concrete and other materials from their previous building. They reduced over 90 percent of the waste that would normally be associated with such a project. They even went so far as to box up 73 pine trees that had been displaced by the construction, stored them for two years until the building was completed, and then replanted them. Why is any of this relevant? Because Hyundai wants you to know that they have serious environmental cred—-each one of these little facts is the equivalent of tattooing a tear on their corporate face. Only, in this case, it would probably be a leaf. But, I digress. Let’s get to the car. First up—-the standard Hybrid.
Hyundai made a serious attempt to visually differentiate the hybrid from the regular Sonata. The result is a front fascia and grille that makes this the best looking Hyundai to date. It’s a functional look, too. By adding active front active air flaps, as well as a spoiler and rear diffuser, Hyundai was able to come up with a Coefficient of drag number of only .24, tying it with the Tesla Model S for the best in the industry. They also came up with two Hybrid-only exterior colors, as well as a beautiful Blue Pearl leather interior that your humble author totally forgot to photograph.
Even these wheels help with reducing the drag, with smaller spaces between the spokes. Not to mention, they are another way that one can visually determine that this is a Sonata Hybrid as opposed to the…less attractive standard Sonata.
The interior cabin is the most spacious in the category, with 106.1 cubic feet of passenger volume, about three feet more than the Camry, Accord, or Fusion Hybrid models. Front seat headroom and legroom are all best in class, while shoulder room is comparable.
My only complaint about the Sonata Hybrid’s interior space is the backseat, where legroom can be slightly compromised in comparison—-it’s about three inches less than the competitors. I sat back there momentarily with the front seat all the way back, and I was comfortable, but I’m only 5’9”. For more full-sized adults, it could be problematic.
Cargo space is the biggest win for the Sonata Hybrid. Hyundai increased the cargo volume by over a cubic foot from the outgoing model, up to a class-leading 13.3 cubic feet. How did they accomplish this?
By sticking all of the battery bits underneath the floor mat to create a totally flat load floor, the only one in the segment. Of course, that little innovation also means that you don’t get a spare tire. Like, not at all. But you do get a tire-mending kit (translation: can of Fix-a-flat). However, you can feel better while waiting for the tow truck by knowing that you’ve got the only lifetime hybrid battery warranty available, in addition to Hyundai’s standard-bearing 5 year/60,000 mile bumper-to-bumper and 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranties.
Under the hood is Hyundai’s 2.0 GDI four-cylinder engine, which is downsized from the previous generation’s Theta II 2.4. As a result, the engine is lighter weight but the addition of direct injection means that it produces similar power numbers. Combined with the electric motor, the Hybrid produces a net 193 horsepower, which is on the lower end of the category. However, Hyundai made the decision to use a six-speed automatic transmission instead of a CVT, which they hoped would eliminate some of the “slippy” feel of driving a Hybrid CVT.
Well, let’s find out.
I was assigned to the standard Hybrid for the morning’s drive down the Pacific Coast Highway to Torrey Pines, one of the few places where Tiger Woods scores in low numbers (heyooo). Hyundai engineers said that they had been aiming for a perfect blend of high fuel economy and driving performance. After about an hour behind the wheel, I wasn’t particularly sure that they got either one right.
As you can see, the Sonata Hybrid provides a wealth of information to the driver. They’ve replaced the tachometer with an energy indicator that lets you know when you’re charging the battery, what the current charging state of the battery is, and what percentage of electric motor power you’re using at any given time. The 2.4 inch display in the center of the instrument panel can be toggled to provide a wealth of information. This particular screen analyzes your driving style and lets you know what percentage of the time you’re being economical, what percentage of the time you’re just being an average dude, and what percentage of the time you’re driving like Juan Pablo Montoya. As you can see, I was rated at 71 percent normal, which is, by far, the most normal that I’ve ever been in my life. With this ratio of driving style, the Hybrid only returned 29.8 MPG. Ruh roh. That’s wildly short of the EPA estimates of 39/43/41.
Perhaps that’s because I spent the vast majority of the time in the car in Normal mode. The Hybrid offers three different Drive Modes—-Eco, Normal, and Sport. I noticed virtually no difference between Normal and Sport. Our drive route wasn’t designed to demonstrate the handling characteristics of the Sonata, so the tighter steering feel of the Sport mode was rendered useless. I did, however, notice a big difference between Eco and Normal. The Eco mode is designed to smooth out human input on the accelerator. It waits to ensure that your foot is going to stay in whatever position you’ve selected before rolling in the gas and air. If you want to maximize fuel economy, that’s probably the way to go.
I absolutely hated it.
It felt like using the sloppiest gear shift paddles I’ve ever encountered, only with my feet—-under mild throttle, the car accelerated nearly two seconds after I asked it to. It felt as though the inputs I gave the car were only mild suggestions that the Sonata either chose to obey or ignore at its own discretion. I quickly decided that I’d had enough of that mode and returned to Normal.
The braking response of the Hybrid was quite spongy, too. It reminded me of what your typical car feels like after about 20 minutes of track time—-you have to press much harder and much sooner than you would expect to in order to get normal braking results. While I’m somewhat accustomed to regenerative braking systems, this one was much more like sticking your foot in a bowl of jelly than most.
But, if you aren’t looking for your mid-sized sedan to be track ready…man, what a highway cruiser this thing is. The seats are measurably better than the competition. The steering wheel feels as though you’re using a memory foam pillow that immediately responds to your desired pressure. The Sirius radio paired with the premium Infinity sound system to effortlessly play Real Jazz across the entire sonic range of frequencies. Combined with the nearly silent cabin, there are few, if any, cars that you’d rather choose for a leisurely drive down the Pacific Coast Highway.
Plus, it’s just gorgeous. Everywhere you look at the Sonata Hybrid, it’s a stunner. It’s easy to see how some of the upscale design language of the Genesis has trickled down into the Sonata.
The Hybrid manages to do something that no other hybrid has—-it looks sportier and more masculine than its gasoline-only counterpart. That’s because Hyundai has identified that the Hybrid customer tends to be younger, more affluent, and is more likely to be male than a regular Sonata customer. So why not dial up the exterior a bit? It’s what they’ve been looking for all this time—-a hybrid that looks beautiful.
I hopped into the Plug-In variant for the trip back. I was relieved to find that the braking was much, much better on the Plug-In, so let’s be generous and call the spongy brakes on the standard Hybrid a pre-production flaw. The Plug-In doesn’t have a Sport mode—-it’s only Eco and Normal on this one. But, it does have three different modes for Hybrid operation: Electric, Hybrid, and Battery Charge mode. The Electric mode is exactly what it sounds like—-the Plug-In will run on electric only for a class-leading 24 miles, which is three miles more than the Fusion Energi and eleven more than the Accord Plug-in. Hybrid mode is standard operation, and Battery Charge mode will actually recharge the battery during highway driving.
I was able to drive the Plug-In in Electric mode for about fifteen miles at speeds up to 75 MPH, and it was glorious. Totally silent, totally efficient. I’m downright envious of anybody who has the luxury of doing their full daily commute in EV mode. The battery of the Plug-In has a higher capacity than any of its competitors, and, as such, it also has the longest charge time—-around nine hours on standard 110 volt and around three hours on 240 volt. When combined with the range of the gasoline engine, the Plug-In has a projected range of 605 miles, which is, again, the best in class.
Alas, I didn’t experience that. My drive back in the Plug-In averaged 30.3 MPG, another disappointing figure. At dinner, I checked with the other journalists in attendance to see if they had experienced similar numbers. Unfortunately, they had. So when Hyundai told us in the morning that they were looking to for the perfect blend of driving dynamics and economy, were they really just apologizing in advance for the average fuel economy they knew we’d all experience that day?
Hyundai did not have performance stats available, nor did they have projected MSRP available. They did say, however, to expect pricing and performance to be in line with the previous model. A 2015 Sonata Hybrid, equipped similarly to the Limited model I drove, runs about $32,575. Would I pay a little more than that for this car? Rationally, it’s hard to say yes, based on my drive experience.
Irrationally? Hell to the yes. It’s gorgeous. It cruises magnificently. It’s likely to be the only hybrid that will make your neighbors jealous. Whatever the Plug-In cost is going to be, I’d likely pay that, too, especially for the 24 mile EV range in the city.
I get the feeling that this Sonata Hybrid is going to be just like a girlfriend I once had—-supermodel-quality looks and magnificently talented at emptying my wallet. I just desperately want the fuel mileage to be better so I can justify paying the premium for the Hybrid. Is that too much to ask? Please, baby?