I’ve driven many hybrids and plug-in hybrids over the last few years, but recently, I asked myself a very specific question: why a plug-in? The only answer that comes to mind is fear. Fear of two things, actually. The first is range. Most EVs simply will not meet the range requirements of those who enjoy longer drives.
The second reason, and I might be going out on a limb here, is that a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is more than a regular hybrid that people have been driving for well over 15 years. What I mean to say is that a PHEV is a non-committal commitment to being green and saving the planet or whatever. The fact of the matter is that it’s nothing short of a crock of bull.
In all PHEV cases, pricing is far greater than that of the hybrid, thus negating any true savings. For example, the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid Ultimate retails for $43,999, while the equivalent Sonata Hybrid Ultimate costs $37,499. That’s a hefty $6,500 extra for the opportunity to cover roughly 35 kilometres on electric power alone.
Am I saying that a PHEV is a bad purchase? Compared to a corresponding hybrid, you bet your bottom dollar it is! Is the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid a bad car? Not even close.
Nu battery electric
The same internal combustion engine motivates the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid Ultimate and the standard hybrid variant. Hyundai’s 2.0L 4-cylinder “Nu” engine generates 154 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque.
As you sure have guessed, the electric motor and battery size are the main differences. The Sonata Hybrid settles for a 38kW (51hp) motor, while the Plug-in Hybrid gets a 50kW (67hp) unit. Battery capacity and output are rated at 1.62 kWh and 56 kW in the case of the former, and 9.8 kWh and 68 kW in the case of the latter. This enables the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid to cover far more ground running on pure electric power.
How it all goes down is quite simple…
The pluggable Sonata is a brilliant urban commuter, as long as driving remains very leisurely. Unlike most hybrid rivals, it relies on a 6-speed automatic transmission to send power to the front wheels. Under light-to-normal loads, shifts are nearly imperceptible and almost CVT-like. However, the second you put a bit too much pressure on the throttle, the entire powertrain gets frazzled.
Would a CVT be better?
Shift shock and throttle delays become prominent. Suddenly, it’s as if the PHEV system is upset that the driver wants to get somewhere, regardless of the selected drive mode (which seems quite unnecessary in such an automobile). In the city or on the highway, getting around at more than a turtle’s pace is a chore. In particular, the transition between EV and hybrid is noticeable and lacks the expected refinement.
Even so, you’re probably thinking that fuel economy must be excellent. Sadly, no. In the real world, the Sonata Hybrid and Sonata Plug-in Hybrid burn the same amount of gas. I spent about 80% of my time in the city, where EV operation is often possible, and yet I averaged well over 7.5L/100km. This car should excel in urban settings, but the numbers sing a different tune.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid Ultimate drives just as you would imagine after reading these lines. It’s far from sporty with very light steering, plus a comfort-oriented suspension that will keep the car on the straight and narrow, but is no big fan of spirited driving.
Big on kit
In order to justify such a steep asking price, Hyundai loaded the roomy midsize sedan with just about every feature in their inventory. When the Koreans slap “Ultimate” on a car, they’re not kidding around.
Standard features include heated seats and steering wheel, ventilated front seats, navigation, cameras, sensors, advanced driving aids, Infinity audio, leather, wood, and those incredibly annoying chimes. This Sonata is truly a luxurious vehicle with fit and finish that is on equal footing with Genesis, Hyundai’s new high-end brand.
The level of comfort is impressive, as well. The car is quiet, well isolated from the outside world, and provides loads of room for up to five adults. As far as trunk space goes, the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid suffers a hard blow as its capacity drops from 380 litres to 280 compared to the regular Sonata Hybrid, not to mention that the seatbacks are fixed instead of folding.
Another fail of the Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid I found was the lack of a more aggressive regenerative braking mode. Most if not all other PHEVs and EVs feature a setting that allows the electric motor to recuperate kinetic energy upon slowing down. This is a fantastic accessory for city driving, enabling the driver to coast to a near stop without ever really needing to apply the brakes.
If nearly all my points on the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid are negative, know that a plain old hybrid is a good car overall if you select the $29,649 base version. Here, you’ll benefit from fuel economy to go along with real tangible value. Alternatively, consider an all-electric model such as the Nissan LEAF or Kia Soul EV.
If you want to stay within the family, the new Hyundai Ioniq will likely prove to be better at all of this than the Sonata because it has been designed from the ground up to carry batteries and electric motors. As a PHEV version will be offered, if you really want one, I’d wait for it. A standard hybrid and a full EV will also be available.