Toyota may well have popularised the use of Hybrid technology with their ground-breaking and now ubiquitous Prius, which first appeared a full twenty years ago, but as with all innovations that strike a chord with the paying public, it was not long before other manufacturers produced their own products on similar lines. The most obvious rivals are those that follow similar design and appearance principles, with the Honda Insight (the second one to bear the name, not the first which was a futuristic looking small 2 seater) and the more recent Hyundai Ioniq being the cases in point. But there are far more Hybrid models on the markets on the world than these, and this has been the case for some time. Tax regimes and incentives in Europe have seen the technology applied to popular cars like the BMW 3 Series and a range of Mercedes cars, as well as the GTE versions of the VW Golf and Passat, but it is actually the American market which has led the way with the technology offered in models ranging all the way up to some massive SUVs. Perhaps this is not entirely surprising, as America had not embraced diesel power, even before VW’s well publicised Dieselgate scandal broke, and so the only way to achieve some of the mandated targets on emissions and efficiency were to look at some form of electric propulsion. There are Hybrid versions of many of the big selling family saloons available, including the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Kia Optima and subject of this test, the Hyundai Sonata. I spotted some months back that Hertz had moved over from supplying the Toyota Prius as the only car in their Hybrid booking class, and that growing numbers of the Sonata were appearing on fleet instead. I conceived a test where I would try to rent a regular petrol powered car and then get a Hybrid one as back-to-back as I could manage, certainly on the same trip. However, having sampled the petrol model, when it came to the Hybrid, Hertz came up with a Fusion instead, so although I was able to test the concept of what advantages and penalties there were with a Hybrid in your large family saloon, it was in Ford guise, not Hyundai. I concluded that there were not many, really, with a small reduction in boot space and slightly grabby brakes being the things you would have to live with every day, in return for significantly better fuel economy and a general improvement in refinement and noise levels. For an extra couple of $ a day on your rental car, it seemed like the Hybrid was worth strong consideration. To validate this hypothesis further, when I spotted a smart pearlescent white Sonata Hybrid parked up in the Hertz area where I could take it for no extra $ day over what I had booked (the regular petrol sized car), I did not hesitate to grab it before someone else did.
You can identify the Hybrid version of the current Sonata, the sixth to bear the name, from a number of visual clues. There are special badges on it, with one on the boot lid and also ones reading BlueDrive on the front wings. The front grille is different to the regular models, and at the back there are different rear light clusters with a clear lens for part of the unit. The wheels use flush-fitting plastic covers, on special Hankook Kinergy tyres. Under the bonnet, you get a 160 bhp 2 litre petrol engine, Add in the power of the batteries and the combined total for the car is 193 bhp, which is slightly above average compared to the petrol-only models in this class.
To start the Sonata Hybrid, you just press the button to the right of the steering wheel. You will, of course, hear nothing, but the dash lights up and then you can simply select a gear, and go. Once you have gained a little bit of speed, the petrol engine cuts in. This is very smooth, lacking the slight jerk that you got in early versions of the Prius, and which can still afflict some other Hybrid-assisted cars. Thereafter, the Sonata Hybrid is perfectly normal to drive. It even has a conventional 6 speed automatic transmission unlike the CVT unit that features in most Hybrid models. The petrol engine does most of the work, of course, and proves well up to the job. There is a graphic in the digital display in the instrument cluster which allows you to see whether the engine is just driving the car, or whether it is also charging the batteries, or the car is simply running on the battery alone, and you can also see this from the Eco dial that is on permanent display in the instrument pack. What I discovered is that as you lift off the throttle, power flows to the batteries, and as you brake, then more does so. During the course of the day, the batteries went from being about 50% charged to around 75% and back again pretty much continually. A period of hopping in the car and moving it a few feet to take photos clearly saw their available capacity reduce, but get back in and drive “normally” and they were soon back to their previous level. To all intents and purposes, you simply drive this car as you would a non-Hybrid. Once underway, and cruising at a steady speed, the most notable impression is just how quiet the Sonata Hybrid is. About the loudest source of noise seemed to be from the air conditioning system that was trying to keep the interior of the car cool. Engine, wind and road noise are all extremely well suppressed. Couple that with the long range, and the innate comfort of the seats and this would be a very good choice for a long road journey. And the range is good. After I filled it up at the end of the day, it showed that it would last 665 miles. During the test, I had driven over 100 miles before the fuel gauge extinguished the first of the little bars (of which there were 4 in each quadrant of the tank). Whilst others did go out a little more quickly after that, it was clear that the Sonata Hybrid was delivering impressive levels of fuel economy. I covered 392 miles and needed to put in 8.3 gallons, which means that it achieved 47.22 mpg US or 56.4 mpg Imperial, a commendable result, and a full 17 mpg better than I got out of the regular 2.4 litre petrol car that I tested. The only slight issue that you get from the Hybrid model compared to the regular model concerns the brakes. As regenerative braking is fitted, which means that as you slow down, energy is generated to charge the battery, they do feel a bit grabby, and you sometimes find that the braking effect continues after you have released the pedal. This is a not uncommon characteristic of Hybrid cars. I suspect that after a few days you adapt your driving so you can brake more smoothly without the effect being felt, but in the day that I had the car, it was noticeable most of the time when braking, say in traffic and even when coming to a halt at road junctions. The other driving characteristics are very much as I recall from the regular Sonata model. It steers nicely, with good levels of grip, predictable handling which tends to understeer as you add more gusto to your cornering, and steering that is well weighted and feels precise enough. There are three Drive Modes, of Eco, Normal and Sport. If you select the last of these, you could definitely feel a tightening of the throttle and a little more weight in the steering. The ride is comfortable. The fact that the Sonata sits on 205/54 R16 tyres means that there is higher profile rubber than in some cars with more sporting pretension. All round visibility proved good. There is a second piece of glass in the top corner of the driver’s side door mirror to reduce blind spots, which works, and a generally good field of view from the mirrors anyway. A rear-view camera helps you to see exactly where the back end of the car is, something you would struggle to judge otherwise thanks to the slope of the rear window.
The interior of the Sonata Hybrid is very similar to that of the regular model that I sampled last year. And that is no bad thing. I remarked then that you could see the influence of Hyundai-Kia’s chief designer, Peter Schreyer, as there are distinct overtones of the previous generation Audi A4 and A6 about the overall dash design. Fit and finish is excellent, and there is a cohesion about the choice of materials that makes this car look like Hyundai really thought about it, rather than just used what they thought they could get away with. Whereas the previous test Sonata was black inside, this one used a light oatmeal colouring for the seats and that means you also get this on the lower part of the dash and the door casings. A dimpled metal effect inlay is used on the dash, and although it is clearly not metal, it manages to enhance the appearance rather than detract from it. Only the fact that in SE trim you get a plastic moulded steering wheel is a slight demerit. There is quite a large dash moulding which extends about 2/3rds of the way across the car to embrace not just the instrument cluster but also the central elements of the dash including the central air vents and audio/infotainment screen, just as there used to be in Audi models of the last generation. It is when you look at the instruments that you spot the main difference between the Hybrid and the rest of the range. There are still two dials, but instead of a rev counter, the left hand one is an Eco dial. The outer circumference, in the top half shows the rate at which you are charging or depleting the battery, and the dial in the lower portion shows the state of charge of the battery. The right hand dial is a conventional speedometer, with a gauge for the petrol tank set in its lower portion. Between the two is a digital display area, with various menus available by pressing the buttons on the right hand steering wheel spoke. As well as a digital speed repeater, trip info and average fuel consumption, and car settings data, there is a chart which breaks into percentages your driving into “Economical”, “Normal” and “Aggressive”. I am not sure how it defines each, but I can report that I average around 70% Economical, 2% Normal and only 3% Aggressive, which was probably when I had to do a burst of acceleration and then break sharply in the cut and thrust of freeway driving. Also on the steering wheel hub are cruise control switches and repeaters for some of the audio unit functions. There are twin matching column stalks, with lights operating by twisting the end of the indicator one and wipers operated on the right hand stalk. Top of the centre of the dash is the colour display screen for the audio and infotainment system, which sits inside a pair of air vents and below a CD slot. The screen is touch sensitive, though there are buttons and knobs lower down on the dash for most of the functions it contains. It has been upgraded for the 2017 model year. The screen is now larger, at 7″ rather than 5″, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are added as is HD radio, across the whole range. There is a fairly simple menu structure, with options for the various radio wavebands which includes XM Satellite, as well as Hyundai’s BlueLink system (a sort of GM ON-Star equivalent), some Apps, access to the Pandora audio streaming and some Set Up options for the car. It proved easy to use and the sound quality for the audio system was very good. Below this unit are two banks of controls, the upper set for the audio system and the lower ones for the air conditioning. The lower set number less switches and thus the bank is smaller, but it follows the same format as the upper one, which makes it look neat and tidy. Aside from the gearlever, the only switch in the centre console is one to select Drive Mode, of Eco, Normal or Sport. Otherwise this space is given over to cupholders and places for odds and ends.
In SE trim, the entry level model in the range, you rather expect to have manual adjustment of your seating position, and that is what you get. But there is a height adjuster on the seat, and the column does go in and out as well as up and down, so the right driving position was easily found. The seat proved comfortable, as I discovered when making the longish journey out beyond Palm Springs and back again. Those in the back get a good deal, too, as there is plenty of space here. There is not much of a central tunnel, so even the middle seat occupant will get ample space for the legs. Headroom is fine despite the slightly sloping rear roofline. There is a drop down armrest with a pair of cupholders in is upper surface. There are map pockets on the back of the front seats and useful bins on the doors with a moulding to take a bottle in them.
Unlike the Ford Fusion, where there is quite a reduction in boot space, thanks to its location of the batteries behind the rear seat, in the Sonata, there is no such penalty. The boot is as generously proportioned here as it is in the regular petrol cars. Pull up the floor covering and see if there is any space underneath and you will see that this is where the hybrid’s batteries are now, which means no spare wheel, just a puncture repair kit, as that is all there is space for. Unlike the last generation Sonata, there is now an external boot release. There is also what Hyundai call “Smart Trunk”. As long as the key fob is in range, 40 – 100 cm from the back of the car, if the car is locked, you will hear a chime and then the boot lid releases itself. Slightly surprisingly, the rear seats remain fixed in the SE models. You need to upgrade to a Limited trim to get the 60/40 folding seats. Inside the cabin, there is a decently sized glovebox, a cubby under the central armrest and another lidded on in front of the gearlever, as well as lipped recesses on the centre console, bins on the doors and a pair of cupholders in the console.
There are four version of the Sonata Hybrid available. The regular hybrid model, as sampled here, comes in two trim levels, and there is also a plug-in hybrid model that also comes in two trim levels. Most will probably conclude that the entry level Hybrid SE is the best choice. At $26,000, the Sonata Hybrid SE is already priced above average for the class, but it comes with pretty much everything you need these days. Standard features include cloth upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth, a USB port, a six-speaker audio system, satellite radio, HD Radio, a proximity key, the “Smart Trunk” hands-free powered boot lid, a rearview camera, and a 7-inch touch-screen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The $30,100 Hybrid Limited trim gets you leather upholstery, power-adjustable front seats, heated and ventilated front seats, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert. The Hybrid Limited model is the only trim available with an options package. The Ultimate package for the Limited is priced at $4,400 and adds a panoramic sunroof, a nine-speaker Infinity premium audio system, an 8-inch touch-screen infotainment system, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and rear parking sensors. The base Plug-in Hybrid model is rather more costly, at $34,600 and is equipped with the same features as the Hybrid SE, plus a power-adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats, a seven-speaker Dimension premium audio system, navigation, an 8-inch touch-screen infotainment system, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert. The top-of-the-line Plug-in Hybrid Limited costs $38,600. It adds leather upholstery, a power-adjustable front passenger seat, ventilated front seats, a nine-speaker Infinity premium audio system, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and rear parking sensors.
For the rental car customer, I would say that picking the Hybrid over the regular petrol powered car is pretty much a no-brainer. The only penalty here is the slightly grabby nature of the brakes, but the upside is massively better fuel economy. If you are going on a long trip, the few dollars a day extra you may pay for the rental will be more than offset by fuel savings. For the retail customer, though, the case is more difficult. If you compare quoted consumption rates of the two versions over an annualised average mileage, the saving would amount to around $400 a year. But the trouble is that the Sonata Hybrid costs $4000 more to buy, so you would not justify the Hybrid version purely as a financial proposition. You may well choose it for other reasons, and I can easily see why you would. Even beyond those of social responsibility, it remains the case that this is an excellent, well-thought out and solidly engineered car. It’s not an exciting car, for sure, but as practical family transport, it ticks pretty much every box, just as the regular Sonata does, but with added levels of refinement. As emissions laws get tougher, and the pressure against diesel grows ever stronger, as it seems to be doing at quite a rate at present, then I predict that in a few years time, all cars that still have a petrol engine in them will have some form of Hybrid assist like this one does, and although a few years ago, I would have winced at the thought, now I think I even relish the prospect.