Surely there was a mistake.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid – a spacious, comfortable, quiet midsize sedan – was reporting gas mileage that eludes some drivers of the smaller, tinnier, bubble-shaped Toyota Prius.
The EPA pegs Hyundai’s newly redesigned gas-electric family sedan at 39 miles per gallon in the city and 43 mpg on the highway, already impressive figures. But driving gently and attentively (yet still keeping up with traffic), this reviewer steadily coaxed the trip computer’s fuel economy indicator to a magic number of 50.0 mpg on the first day of a weeklong test. The car’s fuel economy display screen stops at 45; this reading was literally off the charts.
It wasn’t a fluke. During the week of driving – a mix of conditions, but with the majority of miles coming on the highway – the computer’s readings remained consistent, standing at 48.8 mpg after 342.9 miles. Pulling up to the gas station at the end of the test was the moment of truth: Was the trip computer lying, as some have been known to do? A manual calculation from filling the tank revealed an almost negligible inflation; with 7.23 gallons used, the Sonata Hybrid had gotten 47.4 miles per gallon.
There was no mistake. This car impresses.
Now in its second generation, the Sonata Hybrid competes with a handful of other gas-electric midsizers: the hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry. All follow the same approximate formula of taking a popular family sedan and fitting it with mileage-boosting electric components, at a price premium of several thousand dollars.
In both of its generations, Hyundai did separate its “Blue Drive” hybrid system from most other hybrids by returning better fuel economy ratings on the highway than in the city. Due to the ability of hybrids to accelerate in all-electric mode at low speeds, most return better mileage in those conditions.
The Sonata Hybrid’s trick is to use its electric power to cruise on the highway with the gas engine shut off, returning infinite gas mileage for as long as it can pull off that trick. It’s the least capable midsize hybrid at accelerating from a stop without using the engine, but it excels at retaining momentum even at speeds beyond 70 miles per hour, even up a gentle incline. The Ford and Honda’s electric-only capabilities top out at around 60 mph; the Camry can’t make it past about 45 mph. Hyundai also borrowed a trick from electric cars: a driver-only climate control option that uses less battery power.
However, if your normal commute includes more stop and go and less steady cruising, the Sonata Hybrid likely won’t be as impressive. You can coax the car to gain momentum in EV (electric vehicle) mode from a stop only at parking lot speeds or when the car is already going downhill, but the gas engine really wants to turn on and take over. All hybrids require a light foot for all-electric acceleration, but it’s borderline impossible in the Hyundai. The competition is better suited to stop-and-go city or rush hour conditions. Also, many hybrids have a clear display showing how hard you can press on the accelerator without needing the engine; the Sonata Hybrid does not.
As with other modern hybrids, the Sonata automatically switches the gasoline engine on and off as needed without fuss. You can often summon EV mode by lifting your foot of the accelerator; keeping this Hyundai in cruise control also returns fairly mileage-friendly behavior and leaves the driver free to concentrate on other driving tasks. Unlike the Camry and several other hybrids, there isn’t a button that locks the Sonata Hybrid in electric mode; it’s solely at the discretion of the car.
For the first time, the 2016 Sonata Hybrid will also sold as a plug-in model, meaning that a wall charger can give the car an estimated 29 miles of all-electric range before it switches to its normal gas-electric driving style. The plug-in Sonata isn’t available just yet; the tested Sonata Hybrid instead follows the more conventional, and less expensive, approach in which the car’s batteries are charged by the engine when it’s running, as well as friction from braking and the turning of the wheels.
Driving with care
All cars’ fuel economy is sensitive to driving style, but hybrids are particularly variable and return their best mileage when they’re driven with utmost attention to staying in all-electric mode. That continued to hold true in the Sonata Hybrid.
As an experiment, this reviewer took the car on a round-trip 66-mile drive – a route with a mix of rural roads, city traffic, and highways at speed limits with 65, 55, and 50 miles per hour – on two back-to-back days with conveniently similar traffic conditions.
On the first day, the focus was on gas mileage; aside from obstructing traffic or otherwise jeopardizing safety, everything was fair game to drive up the fuel economy average. That meant accelerating and cruising more slowly when conditions allowed it, and constantly trying to drive just gently enough that the car could run on its electric motor alone. The result was an average round-trip fuel economy of about 53 miles per gallon, according to the trip computer.
Perhaps even more impressive, though, was that gas mileage was still excellent – about 46 miles per gallon – on the second day, in which there was no attention whatsoever paid to hybrid components. Cruise control was set at about 5-9 mph above the speed limits on the highways, and the EV-mode indicator was studiously ignored. The results suggest that drivers without a lead foot who aren’t in a lot of stop-and-go can likely beat the already high EPA ratings without even trying. Though as noted before, other hybrids are rated for better mileage in city conditions than on the highway.
For comparison (though these unscientific results do not reflect the same driving routes as the Sonata), a tested 2015 Camry Hybrid driven in a mix of conditions returned 45.5 mpg with studious attention to electric mode and 40.1 mpg driven like a normal car on the same roads. This reviewer hasn’t had access to the Ford Fusion or Honda Accord hybrids for more than short drives.
Why to buy it
Although gas mileage is one of the most important aspects of a hybrid car, the market for fuel-efficient midsize sedans offers a diversity of other characteristics. The Sonata Hybrid has more reasons than highway-speed fuel economy to consider it over the competition.
First of all, as you might expect from Hyundai, it’s one of the best deals. The tested Sonata Hybrid Limited’s sticker price of $35,765 may seem lofty, but a fully loaded Accord or Camry hybrid costs almost exactly the same – before you factor in the Sonata Hybrid’s roughly $2,500 in extra features over the Toyota and $3,000 over the Honda, based on calculations by Truedelta.com.
If you can do without the tested car’s panoramic sunroof, radar cruise control, in-dash navigation system, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, Infinity sound system, electronic parking brake, rear parking sensors, and LED interior lights, you shave $4,500 off your price tag. And if you’re willing to give up the leather seat trim, heated and cooled power adjustable front seats (with a memory system), the heated rear seats, built-in rear windowshades, xenon headlights, blind-spot monitoring, split-folding rear seat, and heated steering wheel and go for the base SE version, the Sonata Hybrid’s price drops $4,000 further, to less than $27,000.
These prices continue to undercut comparably equipped Camry and Accord hybrids; they’re comparable to the Ford Fusion’s and the Kia Optima’s. (Note that the Accord Hybrid hasn’t yet reappeared for the 2016 model year as of this writing and that the current Optima Hybrid is so far still based on the previous-generation Sonata, which is far less fuel-efficient than the new 2016 model.)
As of this writing, pricing site Truecar.com estimates that buyers can haggle several thousand dollars off the price of the Sonata Hybrid, unusual for an all-new design. If that holds true, buyers also lose one of the common reasons to avoid buying a just-released new car. And as with other Hyundais, the Sonata has among the industry’s longest warranty coverage.
Importantly, the Sonata Hybrid is a pleasant car beyond just the numbers as well. It lacks a true standout characteristic aside from price and fuel economy, but it also lacks a notable weak point that seriously detracts from those two elements.
The Hyundai has roomy, comfortable seating for five passengers – a nice upgrade from the previous generation – and a slightly larger trunk than competing hybrids. (All give up some trunk space to make room for battery components; the Sonata Hybrid’s, at 13.3 cubic feet, is 3 cubes shy of the gas-only Sonata.) There’s plenty of power for times when you need to momentarily sacrifice gas mileage and get moving in a hurry. The cabin is well-finished, and controls and outward visibility are user-friendly. Ride and handling are forgettable for better and for worse, especially if you concentrate on your gas mileage. Safety ratings are excellent. As noted, there’s a long list of available safety, luxury, and convenience features.
Overall, it’s a well-rounded family sedan that’s also an affordable hybrid with outstanding highway performance.
Why to skip it
As noted earlier, the Sonata Hybrid is at its best on the highway and the competition is at its best in the city. If you do a lot of low-speed acceleration, you’ll likely see better mileage from a competing hybrid, especially if you’re going to be driving to maximize mileage.
And if you don’t especially enjoy driving your hybrid any differently than any other car, it might not be the best choice for you – especially if you don’t otherwise drive gently regardless. Hybrids command a price premium of several thousand dollars over comparably equipped gas-only sedans, about $4,000 in the Sonata’s case. The harder you drive them, the harder it will be to recoup that cost.
A number of non-hybrid midsize cars have also begun to get outstanding fuel economy as well. The gas Sonata isn’t a particular standout, but the gas Accord, Mazda6, and Nissan Altima are all rated for at least 31 miles per gallon in mixed driving and the latter two hit 38 mpg or more on the highway, depending on the trim level. (Their city mileage plummets far faster than any hybrid, though, even the Sonata’s.) Note that, as of this writing, Volkswagen is not selling its Passat TDI diesel, a car known for outstanding highway mileage that averaged 41.9 mpg in a recent weeklong test. The car was pulled from the market when VW admitted to cheating on emissions certification testing and a fix hasn’t yet been identified and implemented.
But even if you are comfortable with the idea of purchasing a midsize gas-electric hybrid, there are reasons besides driving conditions to favor the Sonata’s competition. First of all, although the Hyundai is hardly terrible, the Ford, Honda, and Toyota all offer superior ride and handling. The Sonata isn’t especially quiet, either; on the highway, you don’t even notice whether the engine is on or off due to all the wind and road noise, but the engine can sound a little coarse and rough when you hear it at idle or at lower speeds. When this reviewer conducted a recent comparison review of 10 midsize sedans, the gas versions of the Accord, Camry, and Fusion placed first, second, and third, respectively; the Sonata placed eighth.
Another issue that’s become unfortunately common across the Hyundai line is that some common features are available only as part of costly options bundles. For instance, a power driver’s seat – increasingly found as standard equipment on midsize sedans – requires the $30,000 Limited model with its leather seats and host of other goodies. And you can’t get a sunroof at all unless you also buy nearly every option, raising your sticker price above $35,000. If one of those features is particularly important to you, and you wanted it on a relatively affordable car, the Sonata Hybrid’s price advantage may be out the window.
Lastly, some hybrid buyers might want a car that more loudly announces its “green” credentials. The previous-generation Sonata Hybrid had numerous styling changes compared to the gas model. The 2016 model does still has more than the usual differences by the class’s standards: different taillight coloring, a larger grille, different alloy wheels, some different color choices (including the tested car’s pale blue “Seaport Mist”). But you’d have to be a Hyundai Sonata expert to associate these changes with the car’s hybrid components.
Aside from a midsize sedan, the way to get a lot of space in a hybrid is to look into tall compact wagons – the Ford C-Max and the Toyota Prius v. The Prius v is rated for slightly better mileage than the Sonata Hybrid (with its advantage coming in city driving, like most other hybrids), but it gives up the comfort, power, luxury, and driving dynamics of nice midsize sedan; it’s more like a basic-feeling economy car with a lot of space and good mileage. If that’s to your tastes, though, it could be a good choice. The C-Max is a more refined, polished car than the Prius v, though it’s less roomy and less fuel-efficient. It’s another possible option for someone looking for more space than the iconic standard Prius hatchback.
If you just love it
If something about the Sonata Hybrid really resonates with you personally – the way it looks, the design of its cupholder, a particular rare feature, or anything else – there are just a couple of important questions to consider. Do you care about driving to maximize fuel efficiency, and is a large amount of your driving on the highway or otherwise at a steady cruising speed? If the answer to both is yes, this Hyundai is a great choice for you.
If you answered yes to only the latter – highway driving – you’ll still likely do quite well in the Sonata Hybrid’s, based on this reviewer’s experience. In those conditions, you don’t have to treat this car as special to get special fuel economy.
However, if you answered yes only to the former – careful attention to hybrid driving – you’d probably find the Sonata Hybrid to be far less rewarding to drive than its competition. Those models really reward you in low-speed stop-and-go conditions; the Hyundai’s limited electric-only acceleration would instead be a potential source of frustration.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is a generally pleasant family sedan with world-class highway fuel economy at competitive prices. The competition is strong, but this car fills a compelling niche.
Review: 2015 Toyota Camry Hybrid SE
Review: 2012 Toyota Prius v Three
Review: 2015 Kia Soul EV electric car
Comparison review: 2015 midsize sedans
All Cars Examiner reviews
More about the 2016 Hyundai Sonata:
Gallery of exterior and interior photos
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $21,750
Version tested: Hybrid Limited
Version base price (MSRP): $30,100
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $35,765
Estimated transaction price as tested:* $31,862
Test vehicle provided by: Hyundai Motor America
Length: 191.1 inches
Width: 73.4 inches
Height: 57.9 inches
Wheelbase: 110.4 inches
Weight: 3,560 pounds
Trunk volume: 13.3 cubic feet
Turning circle: 35.6 feet
Engine (as tested): 2.0-liter I4 with electric motor
– Horsepower: 193
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic
Drive wheels: Front-wheel-drive
EPA city mileage: 39 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 43 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 41 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 47.4 miles per gallon
Fuel capacity: 15.9 gallons
Assembly location: Korea
For more information: Hyundai website
* Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.