First drive: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid & Plug-in Hybrid

Sip gas in class with Hyundai's shockingly plush Sonata hybrid and plug-in

The Hyundai Sonata family has grown. The new Plug-in is a first for the brand, but the standard Hybrid has evolved to offer better efficiency, looks, and tech as well.

I like the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and I don’t care who knows it.

Despite the massive strides the Korean automaker has made in recent years, there still seems to be a slight sense of chagrin when examining Hyundai’s vehicles. It’s almost as if the company starts at a deficit during discussions, as incredulous phrases like ‘It’s actually pretty nice!’ seem to pop up early and often when the brand is brought up. And that’s a shame.

The fact is, the company has grown tremendously over the past decade, and it’s a far more mature outfit than the budget-oriented nameplate that was the butt of many jokes in the early 2000s.

Are the new Sonata Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid examples of that maturation? Without a doubt. Kia still has to work through some growing pains as it climbs upmarket, but the Sonata’s excellent styling, driver-assist and safety tech, and fuel-saving innovations turn what were once wide-eyed aspirations into tangible alternatives for costly luxury options.

I drove both cars around the beautiful coastal roads of Huntington Beach, California, and with the surging Pacific current on my left and the OC’s sun-drenched opulence on my right, I found myself (and the Sonata) to be in the perfect spot: right in the middle.

To plug or not to plug

As my fellow journalists and I entered Hyundai America’s new headquarters in Fountain Valley, California, we shuffled past daylight-harvesting window shades, recycled water irrigation, and insulated acoustical glass. Even with gas prices still low, the automaker’s green philosophies (Hyundai actually prefers the color blue) are poignant ones, especially considering our host state’s chronic case of dry mouth.

To that end, the Sonata adds a new plug-in hybrid variant for 2016, though the standard hybrid has been thoroughly updated as well.

The driver can relax and let the vehicle do its thing with efficiency.

The hybrid boasts a 10-percent improvement in fuel economy over the 2015 model, thanks to a sleeker, more aerodynamically efficient (and good-looking) body that benefits both cars. Active front air flaps, an underbody cover, a lower bumper air curtain, and slippery ‘eco-spoke’ wheels help the Sonata flaunt a class-leading .24 drag coefficient, the same you get with a Tesla Model S. I also noticed decreased road noise over California’s groovy highways, adding to the family car’s refined highway manners.

Under the hood of the Hybrid is a 2.0-liter GDI four-cylinder that produces 154 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. Augmented with a 51-hp electric motor and 56kW polymer-cased lithium-ion battery, the system returns 40 mpg in the city, 44 mpg on the highway, and 42 mpg combined.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug in Hybrid charging
2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug in Hybrid

The polymer-cased lithium-ion battery now sits more discreetly in the tire well, rather than behind the rear seats. This expands cargo volume to 13.4 cubic feet and allows for a 60/40 split back row.

The plug-in sports the same engine, but a stronger electric motor produces 67 hp instead of 51 hp, and the battery, which can be replenished in around 3 hours on a high-voltage charger, measures in at 68kWh as opposed to 56kWh.

The result is an all-electric top speed of 75 mph and an EV range of approximately 24 miles. We used the whisper-quiet all-electric mode as much as we could during our drive (you’re welcome, Californians), which is satisfying in a responsible, dare I say “grown up” sort of way. Internal estimates peg combined fuel economy at 40 mpg (the Plug-in is about 300 pounds heavier), but when the electrics are doing all the work, the sedan returns 93 MPGe.

Driving dynamics

As I opened the Sonata Hybrid’s panoramic sunroof and invited the golden California rays inside, I had a bit of an epiphany: I wasn’t really focusing on the car at all.

To be fair, as someone who has lived in the rainier parts of the Pacific Northwest all his life, things like “sun” and “warmth” can be fairly distracting. But it was more than that. The sedan’s driving experience is forgettable in the best way, meaning that the driver can relax and let the vehicle do its thing with efficiency.

The ride is supple and smooth, relatively quiet, and the optional ventilated leather seats are supportively comfortable.

The ride is supple and smooth, relatively quiet, and the optional ventilated leather seats are supportively comfortable. Hyundai’s Smart Cruise Control was a standout feature for me, and it committed to speeds well, followed lead vehicles with poise, and adapted quickly when the car ahead switched lanes. It even works in traffic, working down to a stop and then starting again automatically provided less than three seconds have passed.

Unlike the rough engine from the Sonata Sport, both Hybrids feature linear and refined acceleration, though it’s not exciting. Combine that with the relaxed ride and it’s pretty clear that performance was not the goal here.

It’s a bit of an odd choice, then, that Hyundai chose to stay with a six-speed automatic transmission in a quest to convey “responsive, engaging driving characteristics.” You won’t hear me praising CVTs often, but given the vehicle’s focus on fuel economy and lack of sportiness, a variable gearbox might actually make sense here.

A more tangible issue is the braking system, which uses hydraulic pressure to maximize energy regeneration. They work better than in the 2015 model, but when pushed (especially from high speeds) they feel spongy and not reassuring.

Tech from the class above

Hyundai Sonata’s has a different driver today than when it was introduced back in 1985. Customers are younger now, better educated, and looking for entry premium features without the price that comes with a Mercedes, Audi, or BMW badge. The 2016 Sonata responds in kind.

The Hybrid is offered in SE, Limited, and Limited Ultimate trims, while the plug-in offers base and Limited versions only. I snagged the range-topping variants of both for our jaunt down California’s State Route 1, giving me access to all of the techie goodness that Hyundai has to offer.

In top-end guise, the Sonata equips Forward Collision Warning and Lane Departure Warning, as well as lower trim carryovers like Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross-traffic Alert, and a rearview camera.

On the luxury side of things, the Sonata will surprise you. The interior may not be as expressive as the outside, but it’s attractive, well designed, and made from quality materials. There are soft-touch surfaces, plenty of leather, and even though the infotainment center is quite large, it fits in with the other accoutrements quite nicely.

Navigation comes standard on the plug-in and alongside the hybrid’s Limited Ultimate trim. It’s an above-average system for sure, with helpful reminders of nearby charging stations, traffic jams, and construction sites. Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio, and iPod/USB ports are a given.

The “Blue Link” smartphone app (plug-in only) is another nice touch, with features like remote start, door-lock operation, climate-control presets, and start-stop charging. It also monitors battery level and fuel range. For aspiring pranksters, Blue Link could be a great way to spook your loved ones from afar, as I know at least a few teens that would be pretty paranoid if they heard the car of their supposedly abroad parents start in the garage with no notice. Surprisingly, this feature was not discussed in Hyundai’s press releases.

Conclusion

On a more formal note, both of the Sonata hybrid siblings blend luxurious ambitions with a strong penchant for fuel efficiency and value, and they are both unequivocally solid choices.

They may not be driver’s cars, but plug-in or no, the four-door duo will strengthen Hyundai’s status as the lowest CO2 emitting automaker among mass-market manufacturers. After my short time with both vehicles, I’d say they are a good sign of things to come from the Korean brand. And no, I’m still not ashamed to say that I liked them.

We don’t have pricing information on either car yet, but we will keep you updated when the MSRPs are released. The hybrid goes on sale this summer nationwide, while the plug-in hits California and Oregon showrooms in fall, with other zero-emission vehicle states to follow.

Highs

  • Over 40 mpg on the highway
  • Eye-catching looks inside and out
  • Comfortable cabin
  • Smooth ride
  • Impressive luxury and tech features

Lows

  • Regenerative brakes feel spongy when pushed
  • Uninspired performance overall
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