Thursday, February 16, 2017

2017 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid

Hyundai portrays itself as all-in for electrification of its vehicle lineup, and the soon-to-arrive compact Ioniq will amplify that message. Meanwhile, the Sonata plug-in hybrid carries Hyundai’s electric banner, rolling into the 2017 model year with modest updates and at least one bragging point.

Hyundai upgraded the infotainment and connectivity for 2017 and prescribed a fresh exterior color palette for both the standard Sonata hybrid and this plug-in (PHEV) variant. The braggadocio is rooted in a double-digit factoid: 27. That’s the number of miles, according to Hyundai and the EPA, that the plug-in can operate without disturbing the slumber of its internal-combustion engine, all the way up to freeway speeds. That’s assuming you drive as if you’re running the EPA test cycle, with extraordinarily gentle pressure on the accelerator.

That all-electric distance tops those claimed by competing plug-in sedans such as the Ford Fusion Energi (22 miles), although the EPA combined rating—39 mpg—isn’t quite as good as the Ford’s 42. The combined rating based on pure-electric operation is 99 MPGe, trailing dedicated-platform plug-in hybrids such as the Chevrolet Volt (106) and the Toyota Prius Prime (133) but second only to the mechanically similar Kia Optima’s 103 MPGe among looks-like-the-conventional-version family sedans (the Kia also claims a longer 29-mile electric range). That 99 MPGe figure may bear some relation to reality—provided you have a short commute, are diligent about plugging in at every opportunity, are phobic about visiting gas stations . . . and provided you have no need to visit your aunt in Poughkeepsie or anyone else far from your home.

Of course, once you’ve discharged the lithium-ion battery pack, there’s good old gasoline-fired combustion to fall back on. So if you experience a sudden onset of conscience and/or don’t want to be left out of Aunt Poughkeepsie’s will, you have a max range of 590 miles, according to the EPA, before you have to confront your gas-station phobia. This total range falls between the Volt’s 420 miles and the Prius Prime’s 640, per the EPA figures, and it’s enough to challenge the endurance of any human bladder known to medical science. But most interstate rest areas are cleaner than gas-station restrooms anyway.

As in the standard Sonata hybrid without a plug, the PHEV’s engine is a DOHC 2.0-liter inline-four with direct injection and the same output ratings: 154 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque. But the pluggable car gets more punch from the electric motor/generator that’s integrated with the six-speed automatic—67 horsepower versus 51 in the regular hybrid—and it’s backed by a bigger 9.8-kWh battery pack to support the pure-electric function.

Batteries add up at the scales, so the PHEV outweighs the hybrid with its smaller 1.6-kWh pack by as much as 290 pounds, per Hyundai, depending on trim level. (On our scales, this PHEV weighed 190 pounds more than a 2016 Sonata hybrid that we tested.) The storage cells also intrude on the trunk space, which shrinks from 16 cubic feet in the standard Sonata and 13 in the hybrid to a mere 10 cubes in the PHEV. Between the gas-electric Sonatas, the edge in power-to-weight goes to the hybrid, and its EPA fuel-economy ratings—38 or 39 mpg city, depending on trim, 43 or 45 highway—are similar to those of the plug-in when the PHEV reverts to internal combustion.

Still, with a full charge (completely restoring depleted cells to full takes less than three hours with a 240-volt Level 2 charger, Hyundai says), the PHEV can sprint to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds and cover a quarter-mile in 16.0 seconds. That’s short of thrilling but only half a second slower to 60 mph and in the quarter-mile when compared with the 245-hp Sonata 2.0 turbo, the lineup’s hottest offering.

In any case, blazing acceleration clearly is not this Sonata’s compelling trait. Nor is there much of anything in its dynamic résumé that would endear it to a driver. The power steering is reasonably quick at 2.7 turns lock-to-lock and more tactile than many electrically assisted systems, and ride quality is quite comfortable and never jarring. But beyond that, the PHEV’s dynamics are competent but average.

Its virtues lie elsewhere. For example, the Sonata PHEV is exceptionally quiet at all speeds. You’d expect that to be the case in electric mode, of course, but there’s almost no noise increase when the engine kicks in. And the transition from electric motor to internal-combustion engine is otherwise invisible.

The only real indication of what’s going on with the propulsion—electric, gasoline, or a combo of the two—is the graphic display on the dashboard readout, with little arrows flowing back and forth. This is similar to other hybrids and plug-ins. It’s mildly entertaining to track system activity—it could even be perceived as an alternative element of behind-the-wheel fun. And it is useful for those who are serious about exploiting the Sonata’s ability to operate with minimal dependence on petroleum.

We didn’t do especially well in that regard, averaging 35 MPGe over 945 miles, consuming 25.4 gallons of regular fuel and using 63.3 kWh of electricity. We maybe could have plugged it in more often or settled for being last to arrive at our destinations as a matter of course, but life doesn’t always provide such conveniences. By contrast, the 2.0-liter turbocharged model returned 23 mpg over 775 miles of our testing.

Folks who step up to the price premium for the plug-in hybrid are likely to track energy usage more diligently, but for so long as gasoline prices remain low, the rewards are unlikely to match the investment. With only a couple of inexpensive options, our Limited test vehicle carried an as-tested price of $39,610. The base price for this top-of-the-line model—$39,435—is $8500 more than the base for a plugless hybrid Limited. With regular gasoline prices averaging well below $2.50 per gallon nationally, the extra cost for vehicles of this type doesn’t pencil very well, even factoring in the federal tax credit (about $5000) and various state tax breaks. Hybrids without a plug no longer qualify for most such incentives. Still, the arithmetic gets down to the question of how often the driver is able to exploit that 27-mile pure-electric range and what percentage of the total miles driven will be gasoline-free.

Plug-in hybrids are a compromise, an answer for those who want to limit what’s coming out of the tailpipe but own just one vehicle. Electrics still aren’t well suited to long-distance travel without an extended layover for charging. A car like the Sonata PHEV straddles that dilemma, letting you keep going until plugging in can be done at your own convenience.

The Sonata delivers on that specialized set of capabilities better than many, but its appeal is still restricted to those who can afford a steep upgrade price (the Sonata 2.0T we tested cost just under $30,0000) for little return beyond a reduced personal carbon footprint. Sales figures suggest that customers with those priorities are willing to sacrifice the rear-seat room and ease-of-entry advantages that this conventional four-door offers over dedicated plug-in hatchbacks such as the Volt and the Prius Prime. The longer all-electric range and greater overall efficiency of the hybrid-only models look more appealing for urban commuters who don’t have a regular need for the Sonata’s extra space.

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