One in an occasional series reviewing consumer vehicles that are powered by water, natural gas, electricity, hybrid motors, high-efficiency gasoline engines or some other alternative source.
For its North American headquarters in Fountain Valley, Hyundai replaced its old building with a luminous structure that is 21-percent more efficient than its predecessor, employing smart technology to lessen its power costs and carbon footprint. We're talking recycled water irrigation, insulated acoustical glass (everywhere) and daylight-harvesting window shades.
The difference of appearance between a standard 2016 Hyundai Sonata and its plug-in hybrid sister is not as striking looking at the outside, but the power/operating cost stinginess of the latter is comparable to what's being achieved at the Korean carmaker's shrine next to the 405 freeway.
Even more amazing, to someone with little driving or riding experience in fine luxury automobiles/driving machines, is how much the plug-in hybrid (PHEV) reminds me of a luxury car, or at least my perception of driving one. There is a load of leather, soft-touch surfaces and an infotainment center that, the more you use it, the more you wonder how you've done without it for so long.
There are some tweaks to this four-door midsize sedan's look compared to the 2015. The headlights are reshaped, the rear bumper is optimized for air flow, the grille replaces the mesh pattern with straight slats and there are new rocker panels and lamp graphics. My test car was black ... wait, let me check ... Eclipse Black. Combined with the chrome of the front grille, side molding and exterior handles, it looks like a very classy, aerodynamic ride.
But it was the inside that had me thinking, "It would not suck if Hyundai forgot to come pick this car up." The love starts when you get in. There's no way to sugarcoat it, folks: I'm chubby. People of my girth appreciate that the seat is pushed all the way to the back when we climb in. Put your foot on the brake pedal and push the keyless start button, and the seat moves automatically toward the steering wheel. You can, of course, set it to stop wherever you like, and the computer will remember where that was next time you push that button.
The 106 cubic feet of interior passenger space translates to ample leg, arm, head and wiggle room. The instrument cluster has a sleek, modern look that is quite functional, allowing you to know, for instance, when you are running on gas, when you are running on battery or when you are shifting between the two. These are options you can control or allow to function automatically, by the way.
Move your eyeline a foot or so to the right, and you'll be looking at the screen for the navigation system, Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio, high-definition AM/FM radio, content from iPod/USB ports and functions like heating, air conditioning and charging the battery—all standard on the PHEV. The nav system alerts you to traffic jams, construction sites and charging stations, which anyone who read about my electric car fail in my last review knows I appreciate.
One design change has involved moving the battery pack lower into the tire well, giving you 10 percent more trunk room (and adding to that impressive passenger volume). The charger for standard household 120V outlets is kept in a leather bag attached to the back trunk wall. Charging takes nine hours with this, or as little as three hours at a 240V home or commercial charging station.
Now for the gearhead candy. The car has a 2.0-liter GDI 4-cylinder engine and a 360V electric motor that together net 202 horsepower. A six-speed automatic with a manual shift mode routes power to the front wheels.
When it comes to safety, there are dual front, side and side curtain airbags and a driver's side knee airbag. Forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert systems are standard.
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My only knock was I had a heck of a time trying to charge the battery at my home. I learned via that nav system that someone I assume with the service that provided the car pre-scheduled the times the charger would turn on and off, which is quite a handy feature. But for someone coming in cold and just wanting to charge the damn car, this meant that the green indicator light at the top of the dash only lit up for a minute or so and then shut off, because I obviously was not on the pre-set schedule. I was able to deactivate the pre-set mode (sorry, car service), but I still could not get a sustained charge.
Then again, driving in Eco mode, your braking adds juice to the lithium battery, which when it gets too low is automatically recharged by the gas battery anyway. So now worries about the driving range anxiety I've written about before. Oh yes, I should mention Hyundai claims the PHEV nets 39-mpg city, 43 highway and 41 combined and that it can travel up to 24 miles solely on electric power.
The PHEV starts at $34,600, which is pricier than the standard Sonata hybrid ($26,000) or most affordable gas-powered Sonata ($21,700). But even that highest price seems affordable compared to other mid-size sedan models that won't give you nearly as many goodies, let alone the fuel cost savings. I look at it like this: With the right voodoo economics, I might be able to afford one and those used to spending much more for their cars should feel no shame downsizing their wallets to one.
I could go on and on, but this car is just downright comfortable and a blast to drive. I did not think of this until writing this sentence, but that is especially key when driving a hybrid, electric or alternative-fuel car. To get the most out of one of these models, you are going to want to limit taking off fast, speeding unnecessarily or putting the pedal to the metal while climbing mountain highways. Driving this Hyundai Sonata plug in hybrid, I would not want to do any of that, I'd want to take my time.