2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid Limited
Yes, it’s hard to believe, but hybrid-forerunner Honda isn’t on that PHEV list above (it used to be, but the Accord Plug-in Hybrid was pulled from the market last year), the five including Chevrolet, Ford, Kia, Toyota, and of course Hyundai, whereas the only mainstream brand currently offering more than one PHEV is Ford. The premium brands that purvey at least one PHEV include Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, and yes it’s also amazing that luxury hybrid initiator Lexus isn’t on that list. Astute readers will also recognize Kia as being part of Hyundai group, so in fact the Korean duo combines for two out of the five PHEV producers. That’s impressive, especially when considering the dearth of Japanese offerings, the single entry being the previous generation Prius PHEV soldiering along into 2016. The Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, on the other hand, is entirely new for 2016, and a solid contender it is.
First off, while superb fuel economy and doing right by the environment are worthy ideals and reasons enough for purchasing within this rarified category, I must admit that being able to park right beside the front door of most shopping malls, many big box stores, hotels and government buildings, where the charging stations are installed, plus the many convenient parallel parking spots fitted with charging stations around my town, is the ultimate side benefit. Many cities allow a single-occupant vehicle to travel in the high-occupancy lane if it’s a plug-in as well. Owning a PHEV gives you instant VIP status, not to mention a fun way to meet other likeminded plug-in do-gooders recharging their vehicles.
They may first question if your car has a right to be parked in a plug-in spot, however, as little differentiates the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid from the regular Sonata Hybrid. Both utilize the same deeper, more pronounced front grille than the regular Sonata and sport a subtle rear deck lid spoiler, with the only noticeable difference being the round electric plug lid on the left front fender, plus of course the small lowercase “plug-in” badge above the other two “hybrid” and “Limited” nameplates.
Inside, the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid Limited is a lesson in entry-level luxury done right. It’s elegant, tasteful, and appealing, with soft-touch surfaces in all the right places including the entire dash top and instrument panel, even down the right side of the center stack, while the primary instrument hood gets a stitched leather-like surfacing treatment. The door uppers are soft-touch front and back, while Hyundai adds padded leatherette to the door inserts, also nicely stitched in the same material used for the comfortable center armrest. These match the leather-surfaced seats perfectly too, the bolsters finished in solid leather and the inserts perforated, important for breathability via three-way forced ventilation up front.
I didn’t use that feature for my mid-winter test, relying more on the three-way seat heaters that were plenty warm in their topmost temperature setting. Another welcome feature was my tester’s heatable steering wheel, while dual-zone automatic climate control took care of my partner and my preferred temperatures that are almost never the same.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel comes filled with controls on the spokes for answering the phone, adjusting the fabulous sounding nine-speaker Infinity audio system, setting and modulating the adaptive cruise control system, and navigating through the multi-information display, the latter a monochromatic screen set within a clean, business-like dual-dial primary gauge cluster. Rather than the usual left-side tachometer, the Sonata PHEV fills the space with loads of useful EV information, while the right side is the usual speedometer and fuel gauge.
Over on the center stack is Hyundai’s usual good quality high-resolution full-color infotainment display, this one including the expected reverse camera system with active guidelines, climate control and audio features, plus a navigation system, phone set-up, and general car info, while the PHEV also includes detailed driving information such as energy routing, expected EV range with map guidance to all the closest EV charging stations, and more. I have to say that it was missing a lot of very good stations, which were no doubt added after Hyundai’s most recent system update (they’re adding them all the time in my area).
While there’s ample features within the infotainment touchscreen, I like that the audio system can also be controlled via analog buttons and dials that sit just below in a tidy, narrow interface that also features go-to prompts for common infotainment features, while just below this is a larger interface for the dual-zone auto HVAC system, both designed in similar fashion and attractively laid out. A small compartment filled with two 12-volt chargers, a powered USB and an auxiliary plug sits just below, while a handy felt-lined sunglasses holder and two reading lamps can be found above in the overhead console.
All of the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid’s switchgear is well made from high quality materials and nicely damped for a premium feel, while Hyundai dresses up the cabin further with satin-silver metallic trim in key areas, a slightly rougher brushed aluminum with piano black detailing for those just-noted HVAC controls, with some of the outer buttons stylishly floating above recessed satin-silver, identically to how the new 2017 Elantra Limited’s HVAC and audio interfaces were designed, while the instrument panel and doors feature some of the best faux woodgrain in the business. It not only looks good, with an attractive wide grain in taupe/brown mixed with resin-like black gloss finish, but it mostly passes the knuckle and fingernail tap tests. They could’ve added a bit more solidity to the plastic, but it’s a far cry better than what you get in a Toyota Camry, for instance.
The front seats are comfortable, ideal for a long trip, with decent side bolstering and good lower back support that’s adjustable via powered lumbar controls, whereas the rear seats are not only comfortable and supportive for the lower back, but the Sonata offers some of the best rear legroom of any car in its class. I’d say limousine-like if the term wasn’t so overused (by yours truly, I must confess), but then again it seems apropos in this Sonata. Unfortunately, this being a PHEV, the trunk is 3.5 cubic feet smaller than the already abbreviated Sonata Hybrid’s 13.4 cubic-foot cargo hold, measuring just 9.9 cubic feet and filled with a big bag for holding its charging cord, plus there’s no rear seat pass-through for loading longer items. I never needed more luggage space during my weeklong test, but this is an issue that could be troublesome for some.
For many, however, the benefits of the PHEV’s trunk-robbing battery far outweigh the negatives of lessened cargo capacity, my as tested average fuel economy being a ridiculous 100-plus mpg. To be clear, while the Sonata PHEV is a hybrid that’s capable of running via its gasoline engine and hybrid electric motor without ever being externally charged, just like the regular Sonata Hybrid, I made sure that it hardly ever ran out of battery power and therefore drove it mostly in EV mode, choosing to work with my laptop in shopping malls (that fortunately have pretty good free internet in my area) and charging at complimentary stations as needed. I don’t tend to drive very far each day so the Sonata PHEV suited my lifestyle well, its range about 22 miles between charges, depending on how it’s being driven.
The battery that fills much of the rear bulkhead is a substantive 9.8 kWh Lithium-ion polymer type, which is mega-sized compared to the regular Sonata Hybrid’s comparatively miniscule 1.62 kWh variation on the theme, with output of 68 kW instead of 56, and maximum voltage of 360 compared to 270. The electric motor is an interior permanent magnet synchronous unit good for 50 kW (67 horsepower), which is 12 kW (16 hp) more than the regular Hybrid’s. Overall net horsepower is 202 compared to 193 in the non-plugged car, and while Hyundai doesn’t provide any zero to 60 mph sprint times I can attest that it feels pretty quick off the line and especially so if set to EV mode where it’s a veritable sling shot out of the hole, plus it doesn’t let up one iota when reaching highway speeds. Hyundai doesn’t offer us any inclination as to the plug-in model’s top speed in EV mode, instead only specifying the regular Sonata Hybrid is good for 75 mph when purely under electric power. Passing performance is exemplary too, the Sonata Plug-in making no excuses for its electrification or what would otherwise be a fairly anemic Atkinson-cycle tweaked version of the brand’s direct-injection, 16-valve, DOHC 2.0-liter four-cylinder with dual continuously variable valve timing that only makes 154 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque on its own. Of course, the electric motor and battery duo make up the remaining 48 horsepower and unspecified amount of front wheel twist, “net” referring to the combined effort of all power sources.
Also notable, rather than the usual continuous variable transmission or CVT that hybrids more often than not incorporate, Hyundai includes a more positively engaging six-speed automatic featuring manual shift mode no less, while the brand’s Drive Mode Select allows you to swap between normal and Eco modes, albeit not a Sport mode like the regular Sonata Hybrid. For that, as noted, switch it into EV mode, although your range will be significantly reduced if you drive with a heavy right foot.
On that note Hyundai shows worse fuel economy for the PHEV than the regular HEV, the plug-in EPA rated at 40 mpg combined city/highway with the Sonata Hybrid estimated at 41 in Limited trim and 42 in base SE guise, but as mentioned earlier its real mileage is much better. To that end EPA estimates the PHEV is good for 99 eMPG, which stands for miles per gallon gasoline equivalent. If you remember the “ridiculous” number I quoted earlier it all starts to make sense, the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid really delivering at the pump, or rather right past the pump as I doubt I’d need to visit my local gas station very often if I owned one of these.
Then again, that performance I spoke of earlier would no doubt get the best of me some of the time. It’s actually in juxtaposition to the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid’s smooth, compliant ride that could easily lull a person into believing it’s merely a quiet, comfortable family sedan that’s only suitable for tooling around town or relaxed highway cruising, but such thinking would totally waste countless hours of engineering development that went into the car’s very capable suspension. As you likely could have guessed both hybrid models utilize the same MacPherson strut front and four-link independent rear suspension setup as the regular Sonata, with coil springs, gas-charged dampers and stabilizer bars at both ends, the only difference between the two electrified cars being a slightly thicker front stabilizer bar for the PHEV version, likely upgraded to offset its 313 lbs of added mass, the PHEV Limited weighing in at 3,810 lbs compared to the regular hybrid’s 3,497 lbs. That’s the base Sonata Hybrid’s weight, mind you, not the fully loaded Limited version that hits the scales at 3,560 lbs, whereas the base PHEV weighs in at 3,787 lbs. The base hybrid gets 16-inch alloys to help coax it around corners whereas Limited gets 17s wrapped in 215/55R17 all-seasons, these providing a little more stick when pushed through serpentine stretches of tarmac.
As it is, all the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid features I’ve mentioned so far are standard with the Limited model and there are no options, making this top-line Hyundai a one-size-fits-all proposition that should make most takers very happy in the long run. Of course, there’s the lesser base version that’s simply dubbed Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, but we’ll leave this nicely equipped $34,600 version for a future review. For an asking price of $38,600 plus freight and dealer fees, not to mention a $4,919 rebate from the fed and other rebates depending on your state, the Sonata PHEV comes standard with everything already mentioned plus HID headlights with auto high beams, LED DRLs, LED turn signals on the side mirror housings, LED taillights, proximity-sensing access with pushbutton ignition, etched aluminum doorsill plates, LED interior lighting, variable intermittent wipers, heatable powered side mirrors, an electromechanical parking brake with auto hold, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with an integrated HomeLink garage door opener and compass, a heatable leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, a leather-wrapped shift knob, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, a 4.2-inch color TFT LCD multi-information display, rear parking sonar, dual-zone automatic climate control, eight-inch touchscreen infotainment with all the features noted earlier, Bluetooth hands-free, satellite and HD radio, leather upholstery, an eight-way powered driver’s seat with memory and six-way powered front passengers seat, heated and ventilated front seats, rear console air vents, blind spot detection with lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, and all the usual active and passive safety equipment including an extra airbag for the driver’s knees. My only complaint is that the regular Hybrid Limited’s optional heatable rear outboard seats aren’t available in the PHEV model, as other markets get them standard with the Plug-in Limited.
If you’ve never experienced the active safety features just noted, you’ll get visual and audible warnings when a car is traveling alongside you in an adjacent lane, especially helpful when it’s in your blind spot, while it will actually stop you from pulling into that lane if you unwittingly attempt to do so without checking first. Likewise if you approach the car in front too quickly or alternatively if that car slows faster than expected you’ll also receive visual and audible warnings that if not heeded result in the brakes automatically being applied. Yes, we’re already very close to the autonomous vehicles being promised in the near future, Hyundai having been a leader in this respect for quite some time. Important, the Sonata PHEV’s various active safety features were never overly sensitive, a problem I’ve experienced with other carmakers, these systems only reacting when absolutely necessary. The result of all this attention to detail is a Top Safety Pick + rating from the IIHS, whereas all Sonata models receive a five-star crash test rating from the NHTSA.
That’s a comforting thought, a bit of a “have your cake and eat it too” moment that only gets better when perusing the latest J.D. Power 2015 Initial Quality Study that shows Kia and Hyundai as the top two mainstream volume brands, whereas Hyundai just narrowly missed making the top-10 in Consumer Reports’ 2016 report card on reliability. They did manage to rate higher than Mini, Volkswagen, Ford, Scion, Chevrolet, Nissan, GMC, Dodge, Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Jeep, not to mention a host of premium brands that don’t compete directly (at least not until Hyundai’s new premium brand, Genesis, launches later this year).
I’m guessing Genesis won’t offer a regular or plug-in hybrid in its first year, but expect many of the technologies Hyundai has developed for its electrified models, such as auto start/stop that shuts the engine off while it would otherwise be idling and regenerative braking that captures kinetic energy from disc and caliper friction before rerouting it into the electrical system to reduce load on the engine’s alternator, to eventually make their way into that new luxury line of automobiles. Back in the here and now the new Sonata Plug-in Hybrid Limited delivers a seriously luxe cabin filled with premium materials, impressive build quality and top-tier technology, not to mention great style. It’s hard to believe I drove it like a getaway car half the time and still achieved better than the 99 eMPG EPA estimate, but such is life behind the wheel of Hyundai’s new PHEV. I can’t wait to try out the upcoming Ioniq.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Trevor Hofmann and Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press