First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-in

The Sonata hybrid arrives this summer, followed in a few months by the plug-in

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

HUNTINGTON BEACH, CA – As the next step in a long term move toward electrification of its vehicles Hyundai has developed a next-generation Sonata Hybrid and its first Plug-in Hybrid variant. Both will be 2016 models with the hybrid arriving this summer, followed in a few months by the plug-in version.

Hyundai says it is on a path toward pure electric vehicles, whether their energy comes from batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. That long-term plan includes not only the two new Sonatas but the recent delivery of Canada's first fuel-cell powered Tucson to a young couple in British Columbia. Hyundai thus became the first automaker in Canada to retail a mass-produced fuel-cell vehicle.

It's all part of what the company calls Blue Drive, a plan to develop “low-carbon, fuel-efficient vehicles that minimize fuel consumption and reduce CO 2 emissions.”

At present it's a small market segment, but Hyundai realizes that limitation. Hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric cars accounted for only 1.2% of the entire Canadian market last year and that number has dropped below 1% in the first quarter of 2015, thanks in part to low fuel prices.

But Hyundai says the long term is more important so development continues.

Production of the 2016 Sonata has begun in Korea with the plug-in version going into production this summer. I drove early-production hybrids and pre-production plug-in models during the introduction here.

Visually distinct

To visually distinguish the 2016 Sonata Hybrid and plug-in hybrid the two get a new front bumper and fascia, unique head- and tail-lights and attendant graphics, a new grille, extended rocker panels and “eco-spoke” wheels.

There are active front air flaps within the grille, a lower bumper air curtain, under-floor covers and a small rear spoiler. The entre design effort has been geared to reducing aerodynamics drag – and it's been successfully as the two share the lowest co-efficient of drag of any hybrid or electric vehicle with the Tesla, according to Hyundai.

The new Sonatas are 34-mm longer overall than the Camry Hybrid and shorter than the Fusion and Accord hybrids but they're one of the wider vehicles in the intermediate segment thanks to a 30-mm width increase from the outgoing Sonata. 

Thanks to a slight increase in height and a 10-mm longer wheelbase, Hyundai claims best-in-class front seat head- and leg-room, as well as class-leading in addition to overall interior cargo volume.

Because Hyundai knows buyers in this tiny segment want the latest and best – it is also extremely well equipped. The Hybrid will be available in Base, Limited and Ultimate trim levels.

More power, less size and weight

Hyundai’s parallel hybrid system remains unchanged in theory and practice, but with detail changes to each component. Its lithium-ion polymer batteries remain unique in this class of hybrids.

The big news is that further development of the overall system has resulted in more power from less weight and a smaller physical package.

For example, the lithium-ion polymer batteries can be shaped as desired which has enabled the development team to put them beneath the floor rather than behind the rear seat.

As a result, the 2016 Sonata Hybrid has a 60/40split folding rear seat and access to a flat trunk floor, which is something the competition cannot offer.

To provide the necessary space for the battery pack, the spare tire has been replaced by a sealant kit.

Because of the much larger battery pack required for additional energy storage by the plug-in version, the space behind the rear seat is required as well, eliminating the folding rear seat on that model. 

Unique system

The Sonata remains the only hybrid with a conventional six-speed automatic transmission rather than some form of CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), in the interest of customer preference.

But this transmission has no torque converter. Instead, an electric motor is sandwiched between the engine and transmission to provide power or to assist the engine and recover and store energy during deceleration and braking.

While the operation is similar to that of the current Sonata Hybrid, each of the major components has been seriously upgraded.

ENGINE - A 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine replaces the 2.3-litre unit used currently. It too operates on the fuel-saving Atkinson cycle but thanks to direct injection and numerous small details it uses 6.5% less fuel. Torque has dropped 10 lb-ft, however, to 140 lb-ft.

ELECTRIC MOTOR - The permanent magnet electric motor is smaller, 1.7-kg lighter and produces 3 KW more power.

TTANSMISSION – The six-speed automatic is 9.5% more efficient thanks to a high-voltage electric oil pump.

CONTROLLER = The integrated controller is 21% lighter and has 24% greater power density.

In addition regenerative energy capture has been increased by more than 11% and the battery pack has 19% more power.

Helpful tools

In addition to a new look and technical improvements across the board, the development team has equipped the new Sonatas with some unique and helpful tools – like a “Driving Style Guide” that monitors your driving style through brake and throttle application and the transition between them.

The results are displayed on a small screen, broken into economical, normal and aggressive styles with percentages of each.

My first half hour with the car at regular speeds in town and on the open road, including lots of hills showed 10% economical, 63% normal and 27% aggressive.

Later on the same route, without reducing speed, I was able to average 72% economical, 28% normal and 0% aggressive. The difference in fuel consumption was in the region of 7% which would make a major difference in my fuel bill over time.

In vehicles with a destination programmed into the navigation system, information from the GPS satellites provide advance information about the route telling you when you can coast to save fuel, for example when it sees a downhill section or a traffic light ahead.

Improvements to the regenerative braking system have yielded not only additional energy capture but a more natural pedal sensation.

The Sonata hybrid is quiet, refined and extremely well finished. There is more than ample power and the transition between electric and combined gas and electric power is seamless.

Plug-in version

The plug-in version uses the same electric motor as the hybrid but at a higher voltage. With a battery pack that is eight times larger than the hybrid's, Hyundai says it can travel a class-leading 38 kilometers on electricity alone.

That seems to be a conservative number as many of us here managed in excess of 40. A young Hyundai PR lady holds the record so far at 49 km.

This is an amazingly quiet vehicle, so much so that it is equipped with a sound generator to warn pedestrians of its presence. It operates in electric, hybrid (both) and charge modes.

Electric is best for city driving, hybrid for the open road and charge when you want to recharge a depleted battery pack more quickly by using the engine to maximize the effort – for example on the highway in advance of going into the city.

The batteries can be fully charged from an external source in less than three hours using a level 2 (220-volt) charger and less than nine hours from a household 110-volt outlet. The total driving range available is 974 km between gasoline and electric.

There will be only one version of the plug-in hybrid – the Ultimate.

With significant and thoughtful improvements across the board, Hyundai has moved the 2016 Sonata to the lead of this small but significant sector.

SPECIFICATIONS:

Model: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid / Plug-in Hybrid

Price: TBA (expect aslight increase from 2015 hybrid and $6,000- $8,000 premium for plug-in)

Engine: 2.0 litre four-cylinder, 154 horsepower, 140 lb-ft of torque.

Electric motor: 50 kW (67 horsepower); net system power – 202 horsepower

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Length: 4,854 mm

Width: 1,864 mm

Wheelbase: 2,804 mm

Competitors: Honda Accord Hybrid, Ford Fusion Energi, Ford Fusion Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid

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