Running 80 MPH. Full throttle jackrabbit starts. Doing my best to make it use as much fuel as possible. The car serving as Rocky Balboa to my Ivan Drago.
I must break you.
You will lose.
The thing refused to suck gas.
Driven by someone not deliberately abusive, the Sonata hybrid will give you 40 MPG – or better- on average.
On the highway, it will do better (explanation follows).
The problem – and it’s a weird one – is that the non-hybrid Sonata with the new 1.6 liter turbo engine is almost as fuel-efficient as the hybrid version. And with gas now about $2 a gallon (instead of $3 or $4) it’s harder to justify spending the extra roughly couple-thousand-bucks-plus to get into the hybrid … unless you just like the idea of driving a hybrid.
This is a problem facing every car company selling hybrids, not just Hyundai.
Five years ago, it was impossible to find a 40 MPG-capable mid-sized sedan that wasn’t a hybrid (or a diesel, which also costs more up front). But over the past five or so years, various technical improvements – including direct gas injection and very small engines made temporarily large when power is wanted via turbocharging (as in the case of the Sonata’s available 1.6 liter “eco” engine) have narrowed the MPG Gap significantly.
For instance, the turbo 1.6 liter Sonata Eco rates 28 city, 38 highway vs. the Sonata hybrid’s 40 city, 44 highway. If you average each (mixed-use, city-highway) you come up with about 33 MPG for the Sonata 1.6 and 42 MPG for the hybrid Sonata – a difference of 9 MPG.
Now factor the price difference between these two versions of the Sonata.
The hybrid’s base price is $26,000 – vs. $23,725 for the same car with the 1.6 liter turbo engine instead of the hybrid powertrain. If you buy the hybrid, you’ll pay $2,275 more for it.
Is that worth a 9 MPG – or even a 15 MPG – difference in fuel economy given $2 a gallon gas?
That sum will buy you – roughly – 1,140 gallons of unleaded at today’s prices. Assuming 33 MPG (the 1.6 “eco’s” average) you just bought yourself about 38,000 miles of “free” driving … by not buying the hybrid.
On the other hand, after 38,000 miles, the hybrid will begin to earn its keep. And if gas prices uptick, that will happen much sooner.
These are some of the intangibles to consider when shopping any hybrid – not just this one.
The Sonata is Hyundai’s mid-sized Camry/Fusion/Accord fighter – and like those rivals, it is available in hybrid form.
Like them, it offers exceptionally high fuel efficiency – especially on the highway, where it actually does better than almost all of them.
Also like them, it costs more in hybrid form: $26,000 for the base trim; $30,000 for a Limited – and $34,600 for a Limited with the Ultimate package, which includes a full-length panorama sunroof, upgraded eight-inch LCD touchscreen with navigation and a premium nine-speaker Infinity sound system with satellite radio and Pandora piped in via Bluetooth.
This pricing structure makes the Sonata slightly more expensive on the lower end than the least expensive of this bunch, which would be the Ford Fusion hybrid (which starts at $25,675) and just slightly less expensive when loaded than the similarly equipped hybrid version of the Honda Accord (which stickers for $35,055).
The Accord’s mileage is, however, significantly better than all the others: 50 city and 45 highway.
On the other hand, the least expensive hybrid Accord trim still costs almost $30k ($29,305) and that chews away at the economic argument for the Honda.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2016
The efficiency of the Sonata’s hybrid drivetrain has been improved by about 10 percent (the ’15 topped out at 36 city, 40 highway). The hybrid also gets a wheels-up update of its body and interior. It is larger and roomier than the previous model, especially in the back seat – where it gains an inch of legroom.
The hybrid also gets unique, pie-cutter wheels (they’re flush enhance the aerodynamics of the car) as well as a slightly different front and rear clip (again, to decrease aerodynamic drag and so improve its fuel economy).
A plug-in version will be available later in the model year.
Highway mileage (44 MPG) is bested only by the Accord hybrid (45 MPG) and the least expensive version of the Accord hybrid costs $3,305 more than the base-trim Sonata hybrid.
700 mile cruising range on a full tank.
Conventional six-speed automatic is much quieter than CVT automatics in rivals like Camry, Accord and Fusion.
More legroom up front (45.5 inches) than in a Mercedes S-Class (41.4 inches) or BMW 7 Series (41.3 inches).
Cush seats, easy to use controls – including “pinch-to-zoom” touchscreen and large, self-explanatory pushbuttons and knobs for the various systems and features.
Gas-engine-only version of the Sonata costs a couple thousand less to buy and is also impressively fuel-efficient.
It’s debatable whether buying the hybrid will save you much money… unless gas prices go up significantly.
City mileage is a bit less than rivals.
Camry hybrid still has a lot more backseat room (38.9 inches) than the Hyundai (35.6 inches) and any other hybrid sedan in this class.
UNDER THE HOOD
The hybrid Sonata gets a new (and direct-injected) 2.0 liter gas engine – replacing the larger (and thirstier) 2.4 liter gas engine used previously. This engine features very high compression (13.5:1) to get the most power out of every drop of gas, yet it is designed to operate on unleaded regular fuel – not premium.
Also improved is the other side of the hybrid powertrain – the electric motor and 270 volt lithium-ion battery pack – which are capable of powering the Hyundai to speeds as high as 75 MPH (briefly) without any assist from the gas side of the drivetrain.
This accounts for the new model’s much-improved EPA numbers, as described above.
Combined output is 193 hp – a bit stronger than the Fusion’s 188 hp combo and a bit less than the Camry hybrid’s 200 hp.
Acceleration is mid-pack. It takes the Hyundai about 7.8 seconds to get to 60 vs. about 8.5 seconds for the Fusion (the least peppy of the bunch) and 7.5 seconds for the Accord hybrid (which is the quickest).
Worth a mention here is the Sonata hybrid’s emphasis on highway rather than city mileage. All the other hybrids in this class (and generally) are optimized to deliver their best mileage in stop-and-go/low speed (45 MPH or less) driving. This makes them better commuter cars than road trip cars.
The Sonata hybrid, on the other hand, is a highway car that can go from say Washington, D.C. to New York City – and back – without a pit stop.
One reason for the Sonata’s long legs on the highway is its unique in this class six-speed automatic. All the other hybrids have continuously variable (CVT) automatics. The Hyundai’s box has deep overdrive gearing (.772 in sixth) which helps the car maintain high road speeds with less energy expenditure. On a full tank (and fully charged) the Sonata hybrid can travel almost 700 miles (699.6) vs. 663 for the Camry hybrid and just 553.5 for the Ford Fusion hybrid.
On the other hand, an Accord hybrid can go almost 800 miles (790) on a tankful if you’re just puttering around… vs. 636 for the Sonata (and 594 for the Fusion and 731 for the Camry).
A plug-in version of the Sonata hybrid will be available during calendar year 2016. It will be able to run on just electricity for longer – and rather than relying on the gas-burning engine to recharge its battery pack, you can plug this one into a standard 115V household outlet and burn no gas at all. Ford also offers a plug-in (“Energi”) version of the Fusion hybrid. However, these plug-in hybrids are very expensive ($33,900 to start for the Ford; Hyundai has not yet released pricing info for the Sonata plug-in hybrid) and so are even harder to make an economic case for vs. the non-hybrid versions of these cars.
ON THE ROAD
Most hybrids feel (and sound) like hybrids.
It drives like a normal (non-hybrid) sedan that could maybe use a little more power under the hood. Very much like the four-cylinder-powered versions of other cars in this class – and the four cylinder-powered version of the Sonata, too.
The chief reason for this being the “normal” six-speed automatic, which shifts up to the next-highest gear when you’re accelerating – lowering engine revs. The other hybrids have CVT automatics – which raise the revs – and hold the revs at or near redline – until you back off the accelerator pedal.
During merging and passing and even just accelerating, they often feel – and sound – like they’re giving ‘er all she’s got, captain.
And kinna stand much more, either.
The Sonata’s not exactly quick, but it is impressively quiet. Floor it and it just goes, the six-speed automatic shifting normally through the gears. It maintains 80 and more without signs (or sounds) of mechanical duress. If the car had a standard gauge cluster – tach and speedo instead of speedo and hybrid power gauge – it’d be easy to forget that it is a hybrid.
The normalcy of the Hyundai is one of its most appealing qualities.
I mentioned earlier that I never managed to average less than 34.6 MPG – no matter how hard I tried. This is an important point – when considering whether to buy the hybrid Sonata or the non-hybrid (in particular, the Sonata with the new 1.6 liter “Eco” engine).
If you drive the Eco Sonata with a light right foot, you’ll come close to – maybe even beat – the EPA’s 28 city, 38 highway numbers. These are very good numbers – as discussed above. Within a close enough margin to the hybrid’s numbers to make it worth considering – especially considering the hybrid’s much higher “up front” price tag.
If you work the 1.6 Eco (as I have done) its real world mileage will probably sink to the mid-20s. The mileage gap between that and the hybrid – which it’s almost impossible to get below 35 MPG, no matter how you drive it – is now double digits. And that could be enough to make buying the hybrid worthwhile – even if it does cost more up front.
The hybrid also offers time savings. Fewer pit stops on highway trips; probably one (or even two) fewer fill-ups each month vs. the gas-engined version. That’s worth something, too.
Looming over all our heads, in addition, is the possibility of a sudden doubling of current gas prices. It’s happened before – and that means it could happen again. If gas goes to $4 a gallon, the Sonata hybrid’s roughly $2,300 higher “up front” price will get washed away within two years of driving.
It’s something to keep in mind.
The hybrid Sonata – like the regular Sonata – is a slightly bigger car now. It’s 1.3 inches longer overall, the wheelbase has been increased by about half an inch (110.4 inches for the ’16 vs. 110 previously) and it’s 1.2 inches wider than before (73.4 vs. 72.2 inches).
These punched-out exterior dimensions have allowed Hyundai designers to carve out more interior space, including an incredible 45.5 inches of front seat legroom. This is not only more than rivals (Camry has 41.6 inches, Accord 42.5 inches, Fusion 44.3 inches) it is more than six-figure/full-size luxury sedans like the current Mercedes S-Class – which only has 41.4 inches of legroom in its first row. (That’s all you get for nearly $100,000 to start? Really?)
The Sonata’s second row, though, is noticeably tighter than it is in rivals: 35.6 inches of legroom vs. 38.9 in the Camry, 38.3 in the Fusion and 38.5 in the Accord. Like its better-on-the-highway gas mileage, the Sonata’s pleasantly outside-the-norm. It’s harder to choose between a Camry and a Fusion, because they’re objectively so similar. But the choice between a Camry and a Fusion and the Sonata is easier – because you’ve got something different here for a change.
Likewise the general layout of the controls – especially vs. the Ford, with its god-awful “MyFordTouch” LCD screen, which is as inscrutable as broken Cuneiform tablets and as easy to use as the control panel at the Chernobyl reactor. I like the Fusion, but whoever designed that atrocity deserves a wood shampoo and after that, directory assistance (ask a cop).
The Sonata’s buttons are large – and legible. There are simple, left/right (for colder or hotter) knobs for the temperature settings (with accompanying digital readouts, also not-small). The LCD screen is similarly ergonomic, with a main display consisting of two rows of large colored icons that you select by touching and scrolling. The screen display can be split into halves to show, for instance, both audio and GPS. That’s fairly common. What’s not common is that you can finger pinch to expand/contract the view, smartphone-style.
The hybrid Sonata has its own unique gauge cluster, with a charge/power display to the left of the speedo instead of a tachometer. There is also a secondary hybrid “power flow” display that can be called up on the LCD monitor. As in other hybrids, it shows you which of the three power sources (the gas engine, the electric motor and the battery pack) is either being used – or, not. The Sonata doesn’t have the “coaching” (for maximum) fuel savings display that you’d find in the Camry and Fusion hybrids, but the Hyundai’s less involved hybrid displays downplay what you’re driving and – again – make it seem more like a normal car than a hybrid car.
One last unusual thing.
The Sonata still has a CD slot.
If you’ve been car shopping lately, you’ll know these are becoming hard to find as digital/streaming music replaces physical media like CDs(which are becoming the cassette tapes of this generation).
But it’s nice to have both – which the Sonata does.
It also has playback capability for the SiriusXM radio. You can rewind live radio – and get back to something you missed. This is super handy with SiriusXM because satellite radio sometimes cuts out for minutes at a time due to tree overhang or because you’re in a dead zone (as in mountainous areas). This system ought to be part of every SiriusXM radio – but it’s not.
Like many new cars, the Sonata has some peremptorily annoying “safety” features – such as turn signals that signal three times, even when you just want once (or none at all, as when you inadvertently tap the stalk when you were reaching for some other thing). Put the transmission in Reverse and the radio volume dials back to a whisper and you are admonished – via the LCD touchscreen – to “check surroundings for safety.”
I never see him.
It’s also aggravating that many of the apps and settings can’t be adjusted while the car is moving. No doubt the lawyers are responsible for this (and not just Hyundai’s; this is an industry-wide thing) and I guess you can’t blame them. But it’s an annoyance, nonetheless.
The hybrid Sonata’s main thing to worry about, though, is low gas prices. And how efficient gas-engined cars are becoming.
THE BOTTOM LINE
How much is saving nine or so MPGs worth to you?
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