Review: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Swings for the Fences

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid/ Eric Schaal
Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

Have you driven a Hyundai lately? Ride-alongs and quick spins in the previous generation (pre-2015) Sonata changed the way we thought about the brand, and we felt an even bigger shift when the new generation arrived last year at the 2014 New York Auto Show. Yet, we weren’t in love with the 2015 model’s styling when it was unveiled. We also wanted to see what the hybrid models could do on the fuel economy front.

Enter the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, which the automaker loaned Autos Cheat Sheet for what became a whirlwind three days in mid-September. From the first impressions seeing the car doubled-parked in Manhattan to its performance on winding, hilly roads in Vermont, it was clear that Hyundai is playing in a different league with every aspect of its family sedan.

But is it economical and cozy enough to butt heads with the Camry, Accord, Altima, and Fusion? Here’s what made us believe this Hyundai is indeed a force to be reckoned with in the midsize segment.

2016 Sonata Hybrid Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet
Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

On the styling front, we were a bit taken aback when we first laid eyes on our tester, which was the Sonata Hybrid Limited ($30,100) in Venetian Red with Hyundai’s Ultimate Package ($4,500). All told, it was a car with a sticker price of $35,765 after delivery, and it managed to look the part.

The Limited trim offers the daytime running LED lights, panoramic sunroof, rear spoiler, LED tail lights, and leather-wrapped heated steering wheel, among other refinements. For our short stint with the car, we had the impression we were in a premium cabin, while the exterior turned its share of heads in that shade of red, even on the jaded streets of Manhattan. (Chrome door handles, essential in our minds, are a nice detail.)

In fact, my colleagues and I agreed the fascia of the 2016 Sonata Hybrid Limited was a knockout. The automaker’s press shots with LED lights going do it the most justice.

Source: Hyundai

In the 2016 hybrid model, which first debuted in Korea and came one year after the redesigned model in the U.S., gone are the three down-sloped crossbars in the grille we saw at this Sonata’s NYIAS debut. Likewise, the four-barred grille we saw on some 2015 models made way for the five-bar design in the 2016.

With the hexagonal, sleeker grille and daytime LED lights running on this car, it projects elegance that we normally associate with luxury brands. In profile and from either end, the styling of the Sonata Hybrid was impressive. the best to our taste outside of the Ford Fusion.

Source: Hyundai

Inside the Sonata Hybrid Limited, the controls were self-explanatory enough that we didn’t have to root through the manual to get the basics, which is always a pleasure. Heated and (this being September in New York) ventilated seats came in handy with the sun beating down upon us on an ill-advised errand run in midday traffic.

Being the roomiest midsize sedan for front headroom and legroom, the car was a pleasure to be inside. The effective sound-damping work Hyundai has done made it one of the quietest cars we’ve driven, even when buzzing along on the highway. Again, you feel like you are riding in a $35,000 car at every bend in the road.

Getting out of the city and onto roads where we could open up a bit, we came to like the hybrid drivetrain. Featuring the 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine matched to a 38 kw electric motor, the total output of the Sonata Hybrid is 193 horsepower in either SE ($26,000) or Limited trim. In ECO mode, you get the dulled-down acceleration you’d expect when trying to conserve fuel.

Nonetheless, when you put your foot down to merge or change lanes, 193 horses were plenty, ECO or not. Drivers who want to feel what the 2016 Sonata can do at peak power can turn to Sport mode. You won’t be disappointed when you do.

2016 Sonata Hybrid Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet
Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

Getting out of ECO mode for a bit of breakneck highway driving was a surprisingly exhilarating experience. The responsiveness got an immediate boost as soon as we switched over to Sport mode, prompting a colleague to wonder if we were inside a six-cylinder model.

Indeed we weren’t, which is to say the 193 horsepower at 6,000 RPM delivers the goods. We know this car tends to operate as a trusty child-hauler and daily family driver, but those weekends when the kids are off with their grandparents you can get your kicks with this car. If we had to choose between this Sonata Hybrid and the Camry Hybrid XLE we tested back in August, we would choose the Hyundai based on the driving experience.

As far as fuel economy goes, we average around 37 miles per gallon over a long and brisk highway trip, lead foot and all. Without the love affair with Sport mode and more conservative driving, we see it easily cracking 40 miles per hour on the highway. Once we got to hilly Shelburne and nearby Burlington, we approached 39 miles per gallon in local driving. Finally, on two short trips between a few city blocks back in Manhattan, we saw economy peak at 42.9 miles per gallon operating in EV mode. All in all, we’d say the EPA-estimated 39 miles per gallon city and 43 miles per gallon highway are both accurate, if not conservative.

Tech-wise, the 2016 Sonata Hybrid Limited equipped with the Ultimate Package is one of the most user-friendly cars we’ve had the pleasure to operate. The touch screen is perfectly responsive, what we’d describe as sensitive without being fickle. Navigation is a pleasure to use as well, which is something we do not take for granted. It leads the way with the view zooming in and out as appropriate, never forcing you to take your eyes off the road for more than a split-second. The app suite was equally simple and functional.

Sonata hybrid 2016 Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet
Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet

Moreover, we loved the feature on the side mirrors that automatically raises them while reversing then lowers them when you shift back into drive (remember when this was exclusive to Lexus and Mercedes? No longer.) Power gauges tell you when you are charging the battery during breaking, when you are using low-level power during acceleration, and when you are flat-out burning fuel recklessly. (On a long drive split between highway and city roads, we did much of all three.)

The best praise we can offer for the Sonata Hybrid Limited technology (and car overall) is we never questioned why it was performing as it did and never wondered how to turn off something that annoyed us. Its technology is subtly advanced, with even the Lane Departure Warning acting reasonably with its alerts. We wouldn’t change a thing about the driver controls.

In sum, the 2016 Sonata Hybrid is a refined midsize sedan that presses all the right buttons in technology, comfort, and performance. The Limited trim starting at $30,100 might sound high — even before the Ultimate Package — but you’ll see exactly where that money was spent. In a segment where value is everything, that makes the Sonata a worthy midsize player. It can hang with the best of the class.

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