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2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Plug-In First Drive Review

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 5/29/2015 Kim Reynolds
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Plug-In First Drive Review

Every year — and for several years now — I've spent the better part of a workweek slouched on thin-cushioned hotel ballroom chairs while sipping weak coffee and watching smart engineers click through PowerPoints of their company's latest developments in electrified drivetrains. Boring? No. Necessary.

Like it or not, the EPA's 54-mpg bogeyman is creeping closer by the year, making these SAE Hybrid/BEV/Fuel Cell symposiums a de facto ringside seat to the future of the automobile. But even given all that, whenever some completely new drivetrain gets presented, I always lean forward, pen clicked into ready position. How often are you shown a brand-new type of drivetrain?

However, the instant I realize that the presenter is starting to explain yet another version of what's actually a conventional drivetrain with a smallish electric motor inserted somewhere, I unclick the pen and go right back to slouching. What's the point? Of all the various ways to arrange a hybrid, these never seem to work very well. Either the electric motor is too weak to do very much, or it involves a clutch for coupling it to the engine — and that's always a bugger to smoothly coordinate. Although these SAE symposiums commonly include somebody's presentation arguing that this is a very clever, low-cost scheme for getting into the hybrid game, I always suspect that the guy up there talking hasn't ever driven one.

Related Link: Research the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid© Provided by MotorTrend 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

So when the other day (at Hyundai's sparkling new North American headquarters in Fountain Valley, California) I realized that the drivetrain of both the second-gen Sonata Hybrid and the all-new Sonata Hybrid Plug-In they were introducing was the very type I've learned to hate, I put my thumb on the pen's button, ready to unclick. Fortunately, I hesitated.

As with the first-generation Sonata Hybrid, its drivetrain architecture is that very kind I generally dislike. But wow, has there ever been a lot of refinements since its inaugural edition. Foremost is a new engine — now a direct-injection, 2-liter Otto-cycle with 154 hp replacing its 2.4-liter Atkinson-cycle predecessor. And it's dripping with efficiency tweaks beyond just direct-injection, too, like an electric water pump, lower internal friction, an oil warmer, and a variable pressure oil pump. Strapped to its side is a hefty starter for those frequent engine spin-ups — which, by the way, is a much better solution than bump-starting (via the clutch) while the car's underway in EV mode (as some others have attempted). I'll also point out that there's also only one multi-plate clutch (where the flywheel would be) — there's no second, additional one behind the electric motor that would allow the engine to spin the motor as a generator while stopped, but is tricky to make work.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid© Provided by MotorTrend 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Everything else appears to be familiar stuff — a conventional six-speed automatic transmission and so on, but again, if you look at it all through even a weak magnifying glass, you'll suddenly realize all the hard work Hyundai has actually done here. While the main differentiators between the Hybrid and the Plug-In's electric motor is slightly more power (51 hp for the former, 67 for the latter), these motors are shorter, lighter, and higher output. Ditto the transmission, which is now water-cooled with an electrically powered oil pump and an efficiency that's climbed by 9.5 percent.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid© Provided by MotorTrend 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

For the Plug-In version, the Hybrid's 1.6 kW-hr, air-cooled lithium-ion battery (that's neatly slotted under the trunk's floor — there's no spare) gets supplemented by 8.2 more kW-hrs stashed behind the rear seat, bringing the total to 9.8. That's pretty high for this particular fish bowl. (The Accord Plug-In has 6.7 with far, far lower energy density.) In fact, you can almost track the progress in battery cost (lower) and energy density (higher) by observing how these batteries are impacting their trunk's space less and less. For instance, in the case of the Fusion Plug-In, the lost cargo space is startling; it's quite a lot better in the recent Accord Plug-In, and here, it's perfectly livable at 9.9 cu-ft — albeit the car's standard trunk is quite large to begin with, at 13.3 cu-ft. (Like the Fusion Energi and Accord Plug-In, the Sonata's rear seatback doesn't fold down.) Charging at 3.3 kWs, the battery takes less than 3 hours to replenish with a 240-volt (level 2) power. (The Accord Plug-In charges at 6.6, but that's a rate that really only matters to pure battery-electric vehicles, anyway.)

OK then. How well does it work?

Really well! There goes a very handy preconception right out the window.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid© Provided by MotorTrend 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

There are two key takeaways here. First, the electric motor's power — though not great (the engine starts for supplemental power at anything more than modest acceleration) — still has a substantial impact on the Sonata's overall efficiency. The Hybrid's mileage is estimated to be 40/44/42 mpg city/highway/combined; the Plug-In, when the battery is depleted, is estimated to be 40 combined. However, the Plug-In's battery-powered efficiency pegs at 93 MPGe along with an EV range of 24 miles and a top EV speed of 75 mph. (The Accord Plug-In has better battery-depleted mileage but a comparatively feeble 13 miles of range.) OK, yes, absolutely. I'd like to see a higher horsepower electric motor, too, one that can keep the car in EV mode continuously during that 24 miles (in real-world traffic conditions). But that's the only thing that really bugs me here.

However, the car's capstone is its drivetrain's unexpected slickness, which had me leaning forward and writing notes. That tricky clutch engagement that's been this architecture's Achilles' heel? Solved. The drivetrain steps back and forth between electric and gas propulsion with little more than audible cues. And meanwhile, its six-speed automatic provides the sort of very familiar, stepped-acceleration experience that drivers new to hybrids might find comforting. (The Accord Hybrid's wild swings in revs is entertaining to me, but maybe not you.)

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid© Provided by MotorTrend 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

On the road, it drives like a normal car, not only with zero "motor-boating" oddness, but a close-to-natural regen brake pedal feel and an otherwise quiet cabin, in part due to the latest Sonata's stiffer chassis but also owing to its (surprisingly attractive) aero tweaks that drop its Cd from 0.27 to a Tesla-rivaling 0.24. Its acceleration is class-matching (193 combined hp for the Hybrid, 202 for the Plug-In). And meanwhile, there are some fun driving-strategy tricks to play, such as a "coasting guide" that — if you set a destination and establish a route — will calculate locations prior to corners where it's advantageous to coast, saving about 3 percent in fuel. Meanwhile, the Plug-In version includes button settings to force EV mode, Hybrid mode, and Battery Charge mode (similar to the Volt's Mountain mode, which commanded the engine to replenish the battery). Neat stuff.

Pricing hasn't been announced, but Hyundai hints that it'll be similar to the existing model ($26,000 to $29,500) and sold in the usual hybrid-embracing collection of Western and Eastern states (though anybody, anywhere will be able to order the Plug-In through their dealer). Music to the ears of anybody wanting a non-hybrid driving experience but with full-fledged hybrid mileage (and is smart enough to realize that cheap gas won't last forever).

Dare I say it? OK, I can't help it: The new Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In are finally singing my song.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid© Provided by MotorTrend 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
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