Five years after launching its first hybrid electric vehicle, Hyundai is at it again with the second-generation Sonata hybrid. Hyundai went its own way with the powertrain architecture it developed in-house. Unlike the two-motor power-split systems used by Toyota, Ford and GM when it debuted in 2010, the Sonata had a single-motor system with a fairly conventional six-speed automatic. Hyundai priced the Sonata hybrid aggressively and it sold well but it wasn’t considered as refined as some of the competition. I spent a week with the 2016 Sonata Hybrid Limited to see how it compares.
A year ago, I drove the redesigned Sonata Eco and came away impressed with the 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and seven-speed dual clutch transmission. Like the previous Sonata, Hyundai has given the hybrid some distinguishing features to set it apart from conventional models although this go-around, the changes are more subtle.
The most prominent change besides the unique alloy wheels is the larger grille that stretches down below the bumper and slightly reshaped headlamps. In combination with deeper rocker panel moldings and rear fascia extension, the hybrid’s drag coefficient has been reduced from an already impressive 0.27 to 0.24. The base hybrid rolls on 16-inch wheels with 205/65 tires while the Limited I drove had 17-inch wheels with 215/55 rubber.
The nicely finished cabin is carried over from gas-fueled models and there’s nothing wrong with that. The front seats are very comfortable and provide excellent lateral support while the rear seat provides ample room for three adults. The last Sonata was the first regular production hybrid to use a lithium ion battery pack, a technology carried over to the new model.
Last time, the battery was mounted up against the rear seatback, leaving only a small pass-through for long, narrow objects. This time the battery is installed under the trunk floor where a spare tire would normally go. Like an increasing number of cars, the Sonata includes a tire sealer and inflator kit. In addition to a full fold-down rear seat, the trunk volume increases from 12.1 to 13.4 cubic feet. The battery capacity has also been increased from 1.43 to 1.62-kWh.
Under the hood, the basic architecture of the original is retained but refined. The electric motor sits between the 2.0-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine and transmission where a torque converter would normally sit. The hybrids from Toyota and Ford use the electric motors to handle restarting the engine after it switches off. Hyundai uses a belt-driven integrated starter/generator to accomplish this task allowing the engine to be re-started before the clutch between the engine and motor is re-engaged. Restarts in the Sonata were exceptionally smooth and seamless.
The motor power is increased by 3-kW to 38-kW while the efficiency jumps from 90.1% to 92.8%. Despite those improvements, the motor is four-pounds lighter and the starter/generator loses two-pounds. The redesigned power electronics unit shaves another six-pounds from the system weight. All totalled, despite more equipment and features and slightly larger dimensions, the new Sonata hybrid is about 10-pounds lighter than the old model.
While an electronic continuously variable transmission like the one used by Toyota, Ford and GM may offer somewhat better efficiency, the more conventional step ratio transmission used by Hyundai generally offers a more pleasant driving experience. It doesn’t exhibit any of the motor-boating effect of a CVT under acceleration where the engine revs up to its peak torque and stays there as the rest of the car catches up.
In fact part of what makes the Sonata so pleasurable to drive is its overall refinement. Engine on or off, this car is exceptionally quiet and and it’s hard to even distinguish when the engine is running. When the battery is charged the car can sail on electricity alone at speeds up to 75 mph. On level ground or downhill grades at highway speeds the engine will switch off and de-couple from the rest of the drivetrain. The beauty of it is that you wouldn’t even notice without looking down at the power gauge and seeing the EV lamp on.
Another interesting fuel economy feature new to the 2016 Sonata is the coasting guide. If a destination has been set in the navigation system, it will keep track as you exit a highway or approach known stop signs and flash up an icon of a foot lifting off the gas pedal. The idea is to coach the driver on when it’s a good idea to lift off and coast toward a stop rather than maintaining speed and using the brakes later. This will allow the engine to switch off and while the regenerative braking charges the battery.
Even at around town speeds, the transitions between the engine and electric drive are virtually indistinguishable. During a week of some of the coldest weather of the year so far, requiring use of the window defoggers and seat heaters, the Sonata achieved an impressive 37 mpg combined. In more temperate conditions, it could probably achieve 40 mpg without trying too hard. The EPA rates the 2016 Sonata Hybrid at 39 mpg city, 43 mpg highway and 41 mpg combined.
The Limited model I drove was equipped with a suite of advanced driver assist features including blindspot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, lane departure alert and radar-based adaptive cruise control. That latter feature demonstrated again the current limitations of the technologies required for autonomous driving.
During a drive to a meeting during morning rush hour during a snow-shower, the adaptive cruise control was a great way to follow traffic as it fluctuated between 20 and 60 mph. Unfortunately, after about 15 minutes a warning message popped up in the instrument cluster informing me that the cruise control was disengaging and suggesting I clean the radar sensor. This is not a problem unique to Hyundai by any means. I’ve experienced similar problems with sensors in different weather conditions from numerous vehicle brands.
Weather related driving sensor issues aside, there’s really very little to complain about with the new Sonata hybrid. The 2016 Sonata hybrid starts at just $26,000 with the Limited starting at $30,100. My loaded tester went for $35,765 including delivery charges. There’s also a plug-in hybrid model with a larger 9.8-kWh battery and 24-mile electric driving range that starts at $35,435. Anyone looking for an attractive, efficient midsize sedan at a very reasonable starting price should definitely try out the Sonata Hybrid.