Hyundai finally brings the improvements it made to the standard 2015 Sonata to the 2016 Sonata Hybrid. In addition, a new plug-in hybrid has joined the lineup. Combined fuel economy breaks the 40-mpg barrier for the first time, along with the excellent ride quality of the rest of the Sonata family. As hybrid family sedans go, the new Sonata is now one of the best options out there.
What Is It?
The redesigned 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and its all-new plug-in hybrid stablemate are five-passenger midsize family sedans. Like the conventionally powered 2015 Sonata on which they are based, and which received an Edmunds "A" rating, the 2016 Sonata Hybrid and Sonata Plug-In lead the competition in passenger space and front-seat head- and legroom.
The 2016 Sonata Hybrid comes in SE and Limited trim levels, and there's an Ultimate package upgrade for the Limited trim that adds a suite of safety and convenience features. The 2016 Sonata Plug-In Hybrid, or PHEV, comes in Base and Limited trims. We drove the Limited versions of both models.
Exterior styling cues on the hybrid models include exclusive front and rear fascia treatments aimed not only at setting the models apart but also at improving their aerodynamics. The 2016 Sonata hybrids not only add a little swagger to the sleek and quasi-luxurious styling introduced with the standard 2015 model, they offer a segment-leading aerodynamic profile matched only by the all-electric Tesla Model S.
Inside, the 2016 Sonata Hybrid and 2016 Sonata PHEV offer a near-luxury environment with excellent materials. Option choices are fairly limited, as even the SE hybrid and base PHEV models are stuffed with standard features that are optional on the non-hybrid Sonata models.
How Do the Hybrid Systems Work?
Only one engine is offered, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 154 peak horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. The standard hybrid adds a 51-hp electric motor, while the PHEV gets an electric motor rated at 67 hp. Combined system output for the hybrid is 193 hp, down slightly from the 199 hp peak output of the 2015 model. The 2016 Sonata PHEV has peak system output of 202 hp, thanks to its more powerful electric motor. Both models use regular gasoline and can provide total range in excess of 600 miles.
Power is directed to the front wheels via Hyundai's silky-smooth and quiet six-speed automated manual transmission, a wonderful alternative to the continuously variable automatics (CVTs) most other hybrids offer.
The standard hybrid model uses a 1.6-kWh lithium-ion battery charged by the engine and through regenerative braking, but it can only provide a few miles of all-electric driving. It's most efficient operating in hybrid mode, with the electric motor and gas engine working together to maximize performance and fuel economy.
In EV mode, the 2016 Sonata PHEV offers a class-leading 24 miles of all-electric range from its 9.8-kWh lithium-ion battery. Top speed in EV mode is limited to 75 mph.
What Is Charge Mode?
One unique feature is a special Charge mode that turns the gas engine into a powerful generator that not only keeps the car rolling along, but also can fully recharge the PHEV's battery. Using the charge mode at freeway speeds in our on-road drive in the 2016 Sonata PHEV Limited provided an additional 22 miles of all-electric range after just 30 minutes on the highway.
The feature is valuable for storing up battery power to maximize all-electric travel in city traffic and in city centers where quiet cars are appreciated. At highway speeds, the Charge mode devours slightly more energy than it makes, so riding along in conventional hybrid mode after topping up the battery in Charge mode is most efficient. And it takes less than three hours on a 240-volt "Level 2" charger to restore all 24 miles of range to the Sonata PHEV's battery.
While the 2016 Sonata Hybrid will be available in all 50 states when it is launched this summer, the Sonata Plug-In Hybrid initially will be available only at dealerships in California and Oregon this fall. Availability at dealerships will then spread to the eight other states that follow California's zero-emissions-vehicle (ZEV) rules. Customers in the remaining 40 states can special-order the Sonata PHEV, but Hyundai has no immediate plans to stock dealerships outside of the ZEV states (California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont).
How Does It Drive?
The Sonata Hybrid Limited and Sonata PHEV Limited offer a creamy-smooth ride quality on both rural streets and nicely kept freeways. Their six-speed automatic transmissions and the instant torque of their electric motors combine to deliver a level of responsiveness that almost belies the "family sedan" moniker.
But there's also a bit of mushiness when you stomp on the gas pedal, a trait that keeps the Sonata hybrid siblings well shy of sporty. Even when using the driver-selectable "Sport" mode that's available only on the conventional hybrid model, the sportiness is more a state of mind than an actual driving experience.
Still, the sight lines are clear, the seating is firm and supportive and the cabin is almost eerily quiet. In addition, the suspension and steering are well balanced, so both the plug-in and plugless hybrids go where you point them without fuss. One big plus is that Hyundai's regenerative braking system has been redesigned and no longer exhibits the brief lag between application and actual braking force that was so bothersome with earlier models.
How Safe Is It?
The 2016 Sonata Hybrids haven't been crash tested by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the insurance industry-supported Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). But the standard 2015 Sonata, which is built on the same platform, received an overall five-star crash safety rating from NHTSA and was an IIHS "Top Safety Pick" among the 2015 model year's midsize moderately priced cars. We expect the hybrids to fare the same if they eventually are tested.
Standard safety equipment includes the full suite of airbags, including a driver's knee protection bag, and stability and traction control. Optional forward collision and lane departure and blind-spot warning systems help keep drivers aware of what's going on — although there are no visibility problems to overcome. They are bundled with active cruise control with stop-start technology and rear parking assist with rear cross-traffic warning in both the Hybrid Limited with Ultimate package and the PHEV Limited. The cross-traffic assist sounds an audible alert when it detects vehicles approaching the car from either side as it is backing out of parking paces, garages or driveways.
In recognition of concerns that some pedestrians cannot hear hybrids and other electric-drive vehicles when they are operating in their virtually silent all-electric mode, all 2016 Sonata Hybrid and PHEV models have a "virtual engine sound system." It broadcasts the sound of a gasoline engine through front-mounted speakers when the car is operating in EV mode at speeds lower than 20 mph.
What Kind of Mileage Does It Deliver?
Previous Sonata Hybrids have been criticized for having the poorest fuel economy in their class. But the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid SE breaks through the 40-mpg combined barrier with an EPA rating of 42 mpg combined (44 highway/40 city). Hyundai achieved this by downsizing to the 2.0-liter GDI engine from the 2015 model's 2.4-liter engine and making up for most of the 10-hp loss with a more powerful electric motor. The Hybrid Limited's rating, penalized by the extra weight of additional features and the higher rolling resistance of its 17-inch alloy wheels and tires, drops to 41 mpg combined (39 city/43 highway).
We averaged 39.7 mpg on a 79-mile test-drive in the 2016 Sonata Hybrid Limited, maintaining a moderate pace divided almost equally between city and highway driving.
The PHEV has not yet been officially rated by the EPA, but Hyundai's internal estimates are the same for both the Base and Limited models: 24 miles of all-electric range, 40 mpg combined in hybrid mode and an overall 93 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) in combined all-electric and gasoline travel in EV mode, which forces the system to deplete all of its battery charge before utilizing the gas engine. In addition to the EV mode, the plug-in hybrid Sonata can operate in hybrid-electric or HEV mode, and in Charge mode to quickly recharge the battery but at a loss of fuel efficiency.
We bested the claimed all-electric range in the city portion of our drive in the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid Limited, running on battery power for almost 27 miles. We averaged 37.6 mpg running in Charge and HEV modes for an additional 50 miles of highway driving.
How Does It Rate in Terms of Interior Comfort?
As befits redesigned cars, the Sonata hybrids feature new interior design that makes the cabins a pleasant place to spend your drive time. Overall, the interior space is generous, with class-leading headroom and legroom in front. Even large adults will be comfortable in the backseats, although the Sonata hybrids do have less rear-seat legroom than their competitors.
The 2016 Sonata Hybrid Limited and PHEV Limited, the models we tested, come with a heated steering wheel, leather seating and heated and ventilated eight-way power driver and six-way power front passenger seats — both with power lumbar support. The Sonata Hybrid Limited also has heated rear seats. The regular and plug-in hybrids have dual-zone climate systems and both plug-in models and the Hybrid Limited trim provide air vents for the rear passengers.
Hyundai's done a great job of sound-damping, so wind noise (sometimes an issue in hybrid cars that can run with their gas engines off) is barely audible, even at freeway speeds.
The horizontal dash and instrument panel layout provide easy access to controls and good visibility for the instrumentation. Controls are easy to use, with touchscreen navigation and audio and proper buttons for basic functions such as audio entertainment, phone and navigation. All Sonata hybrid models have system-appropriate energy information screens to help drivers maximize fuel efficiency and, in the plug-in models, find charging stations and set charging times to take advantage of power companies' off-peak pricing.
Hyundai took pains to improve cargo space in both the hybrid and plug-in hybrid Sonatas, designing the hybrid's battery to fit in what had been the spare tire well, which gives the trunk a completely flat floor and a class-leading 13.3 cubic feet of cargo space. (You can special-order a spare if you really want one, but it will devour a lot of the available trunk space.) Because the hybrid's battery isn't mounted behind the rear seats, those seats can fold flat in a 60/40-split to further increase the available cargo space.
The Sonata plug-in's larger battery does fill in the space behind the rear seats, cutting the trunk size to 9.9 cubic feet and eliminating the fold-down rear seats. Even so, the 2016 Sonata PHEV still boasts the biggest trunk in the admittedly tiny midsize, midprice plug-in hybrid category.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
Hybrids and plug-in hybrids still appeal to a pretty small cohort of car shoppers, so there's not a lot of competition, especially in the midsize segment.
For the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited, the best alternatives would be the 2015 Honda Accord Hybrid EX-L, which offers loads of features and 47 mpg combined fuel economy; the 2016 Ford Fusion Hybrid SE, for its sporty looks and classy cabin; and the redesigned 2015 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE for its family-friendly manners.
If a plug-in hybrid with its extended all-electric range is more your thing, there are really only two other choices in this size and price segment: the 2016 Ford Fusion Energi Titanium, with 20 miles of all-electric range but a mere 38 mpg combined rating for hybrid mode operation, and the Honda Accord Plug-In, which offers a paltry 15 miles of EV range but has a better combined city/highway rating, at 46 mpg. Honda is still selling the 2014 Accord PHEV, and the Ford Fusion plug-in is pretty much unchanged from the 2015 model year, so both are looking a little dated compared to the brand-new Sonata PHEV.
Coming later this year is the redesigned 2016 Chevrolet Volt, which now has 50 miles of EV range and seating for five but remains a much smaller car than the Sonata PHEV.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
The Hyundai Sonata hybrids deliver remarkable fuel efficiency and roominess, decent performance and handling and an impressive list of standard features. The Limited models pack on even more, bringing them up to near-luxury level in terms of amenities.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
If power trumps fuel efficiency on your wish list for a hybrid or plug-in hybrid car, then there are better choices out there for you than the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid or PHEV.
Test the rear seats with the people who will most often be sitting in them. While head-, shoulder and hiproom are competitive, the Sonata Hybrid and Sonata PHEV are short on rear-seat legroom compared to other midsize hybrids.
|Year Make Model||2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited 4dr Sedan (2.4L 4cyl gas-electric hybrid 6A)|
|Vehicle Type||FWD 4dr 5-passenger sedan|
|Configuration||Transverse, front-engine combined with electric motor(s), front-wheel drive|
|Valvetrain||DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder, variable intake + exhaust-valve timing|
|Compression ratio (x:1)||13.5|
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm)||154 @ 5,000|
|Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)||140 @ 5,000|
|Fuel type||Regular unleaded|
|Electric motor rating (kW)||38|
|Combined horsepower (hp @ rpm)||193 @ 6,000|
|Battery capacity, rated (kW-hr)||1.6|
|Transmission type||Six-speed automatic|
|Suspension, front||Independent MacPherson struts, stabilizer bar|
|Suspension, rear||Independent multilink, coil springs|
|Steering type||Electric power steering|
|Steering ratio (x:1)||14.3|
|Tire type||All-season front and rear|
|Wheel size||17-by-6.5 inches front and rear|
|Brakes, front||12-inch ventilated disc|
|Brakes, rear||11.2-inch ventilated disc|
|Fuel economy, mfr. est. (mpg)||41 combined (39 city/43 highway)|
|Fuel tank capacity (U.S. gal.)||22.5|
|Dimensions & Capacities|
|Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)||3,497|
|Track, front (in.)||63.5|
|Track, rear (in.)||63.8|
|Turning circle (ft.)||35.6|
|Legroom, front (in.)||45.5|
|Legroom, rear (in.)||35.6|
|Headroom, front (in.)||40.0|
|Headroom, rear (in.)||38.0|
|Shoulder room, front (in.)||57.9|
|Shoulder room, rear (in.)||56.5|
|Trunk volume (cu-ft)||13.3|
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.