Wireless technologies are all the rage these days from smartphones to televisions, and everything in between. Car interiors have followed the same trend, but their exteriors have not. I’m talking about plug-in hybrids, of course.
As we wait for fully electric cars to develop and mature into more viable, mainstream options, plug-in hybrids offer the best compromise for saving money at the pumps. There are more alternatives in the luxury market, but for those on a tighter budget, the Ford Fusion Energi and Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid were (up until recently) the only choices available.
Now, meet the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, a more advanced version of the Sonata Hybrid that’s said to provide an EV range of about 43 kilometres -- 11 more than the Fusion Energi -- and a total range of 925 kilometres. I took one for a spin to validate the Korean manufacturer’s claims.
How much different is this Hyundai Sonata?
Similar to its American rival, Hyundai preferred not to play the fancy card and instead kept the exterior as close to the Sonata Hybrid as possible. In fact, the only visible cues on the outside are the charging port on the left front fender, and a special badge on the trunk lid. That’s it.
Inside, those familiar with Hyundai’s midsize sedan will feel right at home. Obviously, the instrument panel is unique to the hybrid variants, with the left gauge serving as a power metre. The 4.2” TFT display in the middle provides a ton of information that you can access using a button on the steering wheel. The centre touchscreen (5” standard, 8” optional) similarly provides access to multiple vehicle functions and settings including eco driving tips, fuel consumption history, and available range.
The rest of the dashboard is typically Sonata, except for a button called “Driver Only.” Also seen in the Kia Soul EV, it focuses the HVAC system on the driver in an effort to save energy. The layout as a whole may not be revolutionary, but it sure is ergonomic and user-friendly.
Close to the shifter, you’ll find the HEV control; press and hold for a few seconds and the 4-cylinder engine will permanently engage to provide constant battery charging. A 40-minute drive is enough to fully charge the lithium-polymer unit, after which you can revert to hybrid or EV mode. While charging on the go, the Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid burns over 6L/100km; with the electric motor, that number can drop below 3L/100km.
How is the drive?
If you’re looking for thrills behind the wheel, this car isn’t for you. The primary purpose of a plug-in hybrid is to cover as much ground as possible between your visits to the gas station, not to push the limits like you would with a performance sedan.
In that regard, the most frugal and most expensive of all Sonatas does a fantastic job: After a 300km road trip my tester averaged 2.7L/100km. How great is it to see the fuel gauge stay put for hours? By limiting your commutes and driving conservatively, you can extend those stretches in EV mode. However, there is a catch…
You see, I didn’t have a heated garage to keep the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid warm, so I had to leave it outside all day and all night long. The cold temperatures prevented me from enjoying zero-emission starts, and I had to wait a certain amount of time for the car to warm up and allow EV driving. So, if you want to make the most of your purchase, you’d better have a warm and cozy place to store the car.
What about the claimed 43km EV range? Hyundai isn’t lying, because at one point I managed to travel 38 kilometres on battery power alone. With more efficient driving techniques, I could easily have matched that distance. Still, it’s good to know that you can drive in EV mode for more than 30 kilometres without even trying to set records.
Beyond that, the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid handles like any other midsize sedan. The stiff chassis inspires confidence, steering is sharp enough, and the suspension favours a comfortable ride. Acceleration can be pretty good if your right foot insists, and the drive is pleasantly quiet overall, even when the gasoline engine kicks in. What’s more, the 6-speed automatic transmission feels more dynamic than the CVTs typically found in other hybrids -- just don’t expect the fun factor to be part of the equation.
At $43,999, there will be very few Sonata Plug-in Hybrids on the road. Sure, some provincial governments offer incentives to hybrid-car buyers, but shelling out over $40k for a Sonata is a bit excessive, wouldn’t you agree?
Is that really the price to pay for going green with a plug-in hybrid that can occasionally cover long distances? Right now, it looks like it.