What a difference a year can make.
– Montreal, Quebec
If at first you don't succeed, throw everything out the window and just build something much, much better. That seems to have been the guiding logic behind the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid, the EV update of its next-generation mid-size hybrid sedan.
I'll get this out of the way right from the start: the original Hyundai Sonata Hybrid was a disappointment in almost every department. Featuring compromised styling that made too many aerodynamic accommodations combined with a gasoline/electric drivetrain that lacked any of the refinement of its peers, the car felt unacceptably rough when shifting back and forth between battery and internal combustion power, a sensation that was compounded by ultra-grabby, difficult to modulate regenerative brakes.
Stepping up to the Plug-In model adds an extra layer of class, comfort, and technological prowess.
What a difference the Sonata's total re-think has made on its most eco-conscious models. I'd had the pleasure of driving the base Hybrid last year and marvelled at how many of the older edition's sins had been completely wiped away by Hyundai's renewed engineering effort. Stepping up to the Plug-In model adds an extra layer of class, comfort, and technological prowess that finally elevates the sedan into the upper tier of battery-assisted models.
Banished is the original 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder gasoline engine found in the original hybrid, and in its place is a new 2.0-liter unit shared across the electrically-assisted line-up. The biggest differences between the Sonata Hybrid and the Sonata Plug-In Hybrid include battery size, which jumps from 1.62-kWh to 9.8-kWh, and the output of its electric motor, which adds 12-kW to stand at 50-kW total (or 67 horsepower).
That enormous power pack is what allows the Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid to perform its most impressive parlour trick: prevent the gas engine from starting up under almost any circumstances for the 40 to 50 km of electric-only operation that it provides. Range is represented by a variable figure due to the outstanding efforts of the vehicle's now-seamless regenerative brakes, which are quite effective at capturing stray electrons and feeding them back into the battery.
I can recall only a few instances, seconds long, during my entire time driving the sedan where the gas motor quietly purred to life.
So competent, in fact, is the Sonata's hybrid system that I can recall only a few instances, seconds long, during my entire time driving the sedan where the gas motor quietly purred to life. While I didn't take the Hyundai on any extended highway sojourns, I did include a substantial amount of high-speed driving on the arteries that crisscross Montreal. By mimicking the commuting habits of the vast majority of Canadians, I was able to determine that the electric motor and battery were quite capable of handling daily driving duties without petrochemical assistance.
Of course, it also helped that the Sonata Plug-In Hybrid's battery pack was willing to recharge itself relatively quickly on household current. Hyundai estimates five hours from empty before you've topped up the unit (which takes up a substantial amount of trunk space), and I was able to confirm that rate of recovery when hooked it up to my 110-v outlet in between trips. If you can plug it in at work, range anxiety will be a non-issue for most owners keen on avoiding tailpipe emissions.
Of course, that gas engine also guarantees that you'll never be stranded due to a dead battery. With 202-hp available when operating in hybrid mode, there's plenty of oomph available at all times, but I found that the 67-hp and more than 150 lb-ft of twist offered up by the electric motor was sufficient during my EV-only driving. The motor is wedged in between the gas engine and the six-speed automatic transmission in place of the torque converter, and pedal response is natural and linear when rolling away from a stop (although you can always chirp the eco-spec tires if you want to).
In hybrid mode, the added mass of the bigger battery actually slices some of the car's efficiency away.
Given that the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid is only available in Ultimate trim, the extra weight of all that gear, plus the added mass of the bigger battery actually slices some of the car's efficiency away, as compared to the base Hybrid. Still, with the gasoline engine firing you'll see 5.8 L/100 km in combined driving. You also get to enjoy all the extra features that the Ultimate model stuffs into the Sonata's generous cabin, including heated and cooled seats, attractive leather upholstery, a heated steering wheel, the most advanced infotainment system available from the brand, and a full complement of active safety features.
As with almost all models incorporating battery technology, you'll have to pay to play with the Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid. The sedan comes with a $44,000 price tag, which is mitigated somewhat by the availability of a range of tax credits from the Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbian governments (with the caveat that you have to live in one of those three provinces, of course). Still, at more than $6,000 more than the already costly Sonata Hybrid, you've got to really want to go green for the Plug-In Hybrid to end up in your driveway. Should you decide to ante up, however, you'll be delighted with what Hyundai has been able to accomplish with this all-new model.
Photos: Benjamin Hunting