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First Drive: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid [Review]

Hyundai is hoping to bring hybrid tech to the masses.

Feeling blue? Automakers seem to glom on to a particular theme or style and milk it for all it's worth. Witness Mercedes-Benz BlueTEC and BlueEFFICIENCY themes. Or Volkswagen Group's Blue Motion. Well, make room for one more: Hyundai's Blue Drive initiative.

Blue Drive is the new badging that will adorn all of Hyundai's alternatively-powered vehicles, including the Fuel Cell EV and Battery EV, and in the case of the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Sonata Plug-in Hybrid, it will occupy the body used by the updated version of the Sonata that was introduced in 2014 as a 2015 model year vehicle.

What's new?Now into its seventh generation of Sonata, the 2016 Sonata Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrids are consistent with the latest model. Although a Sonata Hybrid was available in the 2015 model year, it was in the previous generation body from 2014. The 2016 Hybrid versions now offer continuity through the lineup.

Featuring a subtly revised version of the latest Sonata, with its Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 styling, the new Hybrids feature larger intakes across the front fascia and grille area, which now include active air flaps and air curtains that help to sweep airflow over the hood and around the outside of the front wheels for improved aerodynamics. It is joined with revised versions of the aero-friendly alloy wheels, a new aerodynamically redone rear fascia and a trunklid spoiler to increase downforce at the rear. With a drag coefficient of 0.24, it joins the Tesla Model S as the lowest in the class. Overall, the Sonata Hybrids have grown just over an inch more in length than the standard model, owing to a rear aero-friendly bumper.

The Sonata Hybrid is now available in three trim levels ranging from base SE to Limited and Limited with the Ultimate option package that includes Smart Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning, Forward Collision Warning, Panoramic Sunroof, Navigation and Infinity Audio Systems. The Plug-in Hybrid is available in standard Plug-in Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid Limited range, which includes the same items as the Ultimate package.

Underneath the exterior skin, the Sonata's unibody jumps from 21-percent to more than 50-percent advanced high-strength steel. That's a 40-percent increase over the previous version.

More updating arrives under the hood as well. Several other hybrid vehicles feature raw diecast casings for electronics as well as large orange cables for power transmission, but the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrids feature nicely thought out packaging that doesn't make the underhood area look like a science experiment cobbled together by power company linemen. While the 2015 Sonata Hybrid used a Theta II 2.4-liter multi-port injected inline four-cylinder engine, the 2016 Hybrid and Plug-In hybrid use the Nu 2.0 gas direct-injection engine, which manages 154-horsepower, and 140 lb-ft of torque.

The Nu engine is coupled with a six-speed automatic transmission rather than the CVT type transmissions found in competing hybrid vehicles. In place of a torque converter, Hyundai has packaged an electric motor and clutch. This Transmission-Mounted Electrical Device (TMED) produces 51 horsepower in the HEV and 67 ponies in the PHEV, for a net horsepower rating of 193 hp and 202 hp, respectively.

Hyundai officials claim the downward trend in power yields more than a ten-percent increase in efficiency over the outgoing engine. EPA rates the standard HEV at 40 city/44 highway, with an average of 42 mpg. Additionally, the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid can run at speeds up to 75 mph in total electric mode. We estimate you would be able to get approximately 20 miles in such a scenario.

The new Sonatas feature regenerative and hydraulic braking that combine to stop the car and at the same time replenish some, if not all of the energy usage. Hyundai includes their new ECO-Foot guide that helps to detect your typical (economical, normal or aggressive) styles in an effort to find the most efficient style of driving for you.

By the numbers, charge times for the Sonata Plug-in Hybrid are 9 hours using the standard 120-volt charger, while Hyundai officials say the use of a 240-volt charger reduces the length of a full charge down to 3 hours.

While the standard Hybrid will be sold nationwide, the Plug-in Hybrid will initially be available in the 10 Zero Emission (ZEV) states that include California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

The inside lineThe interior is shared with the standard Sonata, but has unique features. We immediately noticed the more-hugging attitude of the driver and passenger front seats, which dispensed with the flatness that seemed to hold sway in earlier generations of one of Hyundai's best sellers. Interior dimensions have also improved, with best in class head and legroom. And let's not forget the rear seat. Rear seat legroom rivals that found in some luxury cars, not to mention extended wheelbase vehicles. As a result, we rode in absolute comfort in the rear, with the added benefits of additional air conditioning ventilation. Sometimes, though, the added weight of the batteries did rear their extra heavy head when we encountered rough surfaces.

The available 8.0-inch navigation screen features improved touch functions, as well as the ability to download additional apps. All Navi-equipped Sonatas also support Apple's Siri functionality.

Trunk space in the standard Sonata Hybrid was exceptional and almost exactly the capacity found in the gas model. Thanks to engineers using the area that would accommodate the temporary spare tire (an inflator kit is now included in its place) the Sonata Hybrid now includes a flat cargo floor, and is complete with a 60/40 split folding rear seat for 13.3 cubic feet of cargo space. The Plug-in Hybrid has 9.9 cubic feet of space, losing some of the flat floor cargo area due to the extra lithium-ion polymer batteries that vehicle requires.

Drive timeBoth the Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrids were the type of alternative vehicles we could actually live with. Steering has been firmed up to give more road feel, without the numb, dead spot that tends to live on center. We found a normal tip-in that didn't make us feel that we were putting all our foot into the accelerator before we were able to get underway.

Adaptive cruise control enabled us to drive accelerator-free on the PCH. By extending our stopping distance to the farthest approach allowed, it gave the car the ability to come to a complete stop as its nose-mounted sensors picked up slowed or stopped cars ahead.

Aggressive driving from us during our first drive had both vehicles acting in a manner that actually rewarded our bad behavior. The Sonata PHEV even went so far as to chirp the tires during rapid starts from stoplights on California's Pacific Coast Highway. It's kind of like drinking a Diet Coke, where you get all the taste without the guilt. Yes, we consider an observed 38.3 mpg while behaving like hooligans to be guilt free.

But just to be safe and keep you on the straight and narrow, the Sonata Plug-In Hybrid has an Eco Driving monitor that observes how you are driving and reports back to you with a graph that shows the good, the bad and the ugly, as it pertains to you trying to save fuel, or not.

It's behavior modification in its most basic form.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Sonata Plug-in Hybrid move HEV and PHEV vehicles closer to the point where owning a hybrid is no longer a novelty proposition. In fact, the only real way to identify either as a hybrid-based vehicle is through the Hyundai Blue Drive badging on its flanks. With these two new models, the brand hopes ownership becomes a guilt-free prospect, which encourages more car shoppers to pull the trigger on such a buy.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid base price: TBD2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid base price: TBD

Photos by Mark Elias.

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