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Hyundai Sonata: New Hybrid Design, More MPGs

By Frank A. Aukofer, November 7th, 2015

Continued development and refinement of gasoline/electric vehicles, like Hyundai's new 2016 Sonata Hybrid, smacks of a massive hedging of bets by auto manufacturers.

They realize that the good times of low fuel prices cannot last forever. When prices climb again, nobody wants to get caught with a garage full of gas-guzzlers. On top of that, manufacturers also must meet stringent government fuel economy rules.

Moreover, as hybrids continue to improve, some already perform handily against their gasoline-powered brethren, though they're still more expensive.

They also can function as a bridge to the next automotive revolution, which could involve either electric- or hydrogen-fueled cars. As autonomous technology continues to evolve, many will likely even drive themselves.

Onto this bridge rolls the new 2016 Sonata Hybrid and its garage-mate, the plug-in Hybrid. They are the latest refinement in the South Korean manufacturer's steady development of alternative-fueled vehicles.

Most of the attention will focus on the new plug-in (PHEV), which can run up to 24 miles exclusively on electric power. Even more intriguing, it can recharge its own batteries simply by driving down the highway for 45 minutes or so. Then it's good for another stretch in electric mode.

The PHEV also will recharge in about three hours on a 240-volt charger; it takes about nine hours with a standard 110-volt electric outlet.

Both the standard hybrid and the PHEV use the same powertrain, with minor variations. Both use a 154-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine linked to an electric motor. On the plug-in, the motor delivers 50 kW; on the standard hybrid, the power is 38 kW. Combined, the systems deliver 202 net horsepower in the plug-in and 193 in the hybrid.

The latter delivers slightly better fuel economy, while the PHEV is a somewhat better performer. But in everyday driving, they feel almost identical. City/highway/combined fuel consumption works out to 39/43/41 mpg on the hybrid; on the plug-in it is 40 mpg combined.

The focus here is on the standard hybrid, which is no slouch. It is the second generation of Hyundai's Sonata Hybrid, and features a six-speed automatic transmission that makes it feel as familiar as a gasoline-only sedan. Its hybrid powertrain also enables it to reach a highway speed of 75 mph exclusively on electric power, but only for very short distances.

Contributing to the Sonata Hybrid's 41 mpg combined fuel economy is a sleek 0.24 coefficient of drag, or cD. This measure of how slippery the body is through the air is not only the best in its class, it would be more than acceptable on some expensive high-performance cars.

On the road, the Hybrid delivers silent running in either pure electric or gasoline/electric mode; toggles between them are barely felt or heard. Some engine noise filters through under hard acceleration, but for the most part you can listen to your favorite music at a moderate volume.

The hybrid powertrain feeds off a lithium polymer battery pack, which Hyundai cleverly designed to fit beneath the trunk floor, leaving a decent-sized 13.3 cubic feet of cargo space, about average for midsize sedans. Other hybrids with less flexible battery packs, like the Toyota Camry, give up at least several cubic feet of trunk space.

Interior comfort and ergonomics are first rate. An 8-inch center screen displays navigation, satellite radio, and other functions. In addition to a full slate of standard safety equipment, the Sonata Hybrid also offers such optional advanced features as forward collision warning, blind spot detection, rear traffic alert, and lane departure warning.

Front seats are supportive and comfortable for long distances. Outboard back seats offer adequate head and knee room but, as usual, the center rear passenger gets disrespected with an uncomfortable cushion and a floor hump.

The Sonata Hybrid starts at $26,825, including the destination charge. Tested for this review was the top-of-the-line Limited model with the $4,500 Ultimate options package, which includes the advanced safety equipment as well as additional luxury features, to top out at $35,425.

Specifications

Base price $30,925 (as tested: $35,425)
Curb weight 3,560 lbs.
Displacement 2.0-liter
Engine type 4-cyl. w/GDI + electric motor
Epa mileage rating 39 mpg city, 43 mpg highway
Fuel capacity 15.6 gal.
Horsepower (net) 154 at 6000 rpm + 51 hp at 1700 rpm
Overall length 191.1 in.
Torque (lb.-ft.) 140 at 5000 rpm + 151 at 0-1770 rpm
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Vehicle type 5-passenger FWD midsize sedan
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