Affordable midsize sedans choices are shrinking as the American brands abandon this segment. Despite declining sales in the US, Asian brands have continued to update their midsize entries. Hyundai's new Sonata and the closely related Kia K5 are further indications that the Koreans intend to remain in the market.
Hyundai produces three variants of the third-generation Sonata Hybrid: Blue ($27,750), SEL ($29,900) and Limited ($35,300). We tested the Limited with just one option: floor mats ($155). The total price including the $975 freight and handling fee was $36,430. Significant standard equipment includes: solar panel roof, 17-in. dia. alloy wheels, leather seats, smart cruise control, power front seats (heated & ventilated), 12-speaker Bose audio system, 12.3-in. dash cluster LCD display, 10.25 in. infotainment display, navigation, Apple CarPlay(TM) and Android Auto(TM). Standard safety technologies such as front, blind spot and rear collision avoidance assist, head-up display, and around view monitor aid driver awareness.
Non-hybrid Sonatas are powered by either a 191-hp 2.5L inline-4 (SE, SEL) or a 180-hp 1.6L turbo four (SEL Plus, Limited). Sonata Hybrids get an all-aluminum 2.0L with dual overhead-cams and direct-injection; rated power is 150-hp @ 6,000 RPM and 139 lb.-ft. @ 5,000 RPM. The permanent magnet electric motor adds 39 kW (51-hp) @ 1,800-2,300 RPM and 151 lb.-ft @ 0-1,800 RPM. Total system peak power is 192-hp. The lithium-ion polymer battery powering the electric motor is rated at 56kW; storage capacity is 1.62 kWh. A six-speed automatic is coupled to the hybrid powertrain and drives the front wheels through a 3.510:1 final drive; gear ratios are closely spaced and only sixth gear is an overdrive ratio (0.772:1). Curb weight for the Sonata Limited ranges from 3,505-3,530 lbs. The SEL & Limited achieve an EPA fuel consumption rating of 45/51 MPG (city/hwy.). The Sonata Blue is significantly more fuel efficient with a 50/54 MPG (city/hwy.) rating. We averaged 42-44 MPG in mixed urban and highway driving, so the EPA city rating is probably more realistic for most drivers.
The Sonata's suspension design offers no surprises. In front are MacPherson struts and a stabilizer bar; a multi-link layout with coils springs, dampers and stabilizer bar is at the rear axle. Hybrid SEL and Limited models roll on 215/55R17 Michelin Primacy A/S all-season tires mounted on 17-in. dia. alloy wheels. The base Sonata Blue gets smaller 16-in. alloy wheels wrapped in narrower 205/65R16 tires. A temporary spare is standard for the SEL and Limited, but the Blue just has a tire repair kit. Brakes are all-disc: 12.0-in. dia. rotors in front and 11.2-in. dia. rotors on the rear axle. The rack-and-pinion steering system is motor-assisted with 2.6 turns lock-to-lock.
Hyundai's interior design is fairly conventional but with a few unusual elements. Medium gray interior panels and light gray seats are broken up by the gloss black center console and polished aluminum trim on the dash and doors. A 4-spoke steering wheel trimmed in leather and matte aluminum includes integrated audio, phone, cruise and vehicle status controls. A 12.3 in. digital gauge cluster consists of a speedometer, powertrain mode indicator, plus fuel level and coolant temperature. The infotainment display uses the touchscreen for most settings except for a power/volume knob. A separate climate control panel also has settings for the heated steering wheel and the heated/ventilated front seats. A Qi charging pad on the center console enables wireless recharging of mobile phones. Violet accent lighting on the front doors and dash add unexpected interior ambiance after dark. Instead of a transmission shift lever, the Sonata Hybrid uses pushbuttons to change transmission drive modes. Glancing at the gauge cluster to verify the transmission mode was easier than looking for a backlit "P" or "D" button on the center console.
Both the SEL and Limited are equipped with standard power front seats. The driver's 8-way power seat also includes power lumbar support, but the front passenger only gets 4-way power adjustments. The seats are moderately bolstered and offer decent lateral support. Front headroom is surprisingly tight due to the arc of the A-pillar; occupants around 6 ft. tall will likely find their heads brushing the headliner. The rear seats have decent support and adequate legroom, along with more apparent headroom than the front (although Hyundai's specifications show 40.0 in. front headroom vs 37.8 in. rear headroom). As is common, the center seat position is only tolerable for short trips due to the rigid seatback. Rear passengers also benefit from a USB power port and dual vents behind the center console. Retractable sunshades on the side windows aid passenger comfort in hot weather.
The Sonata rides reasonably comfortably over most roads in decent condition. However, over the patched roads common in Michigan, the suspension is excessively jittery without much ride compliance. Hyundai's chassis engineers calibrated the suspension for moderate understeer and body roll; steering turn-in response is acceptable, but the chassis is tuned for the sedate pace that typical customers expect. At low speeds, the Sonata's imperfect regenerative braking system integration with the conventional disc brakes results in jerky brake response. In contrast, when shedding velocity on the highway, the brakes exhibit progressive pedal actuation and linear response.
Since the main goal of a hybrid is low fuel consumption, Hyundai optimized the powertrain for maximum efficiency. The 2.0L inline-4 and electric motor combination delivers excellent low speed and midrange acceleration due to the instant torque from the electric motor. Despite all the available torque sent to the front wheels, torque steer is unnoticeable. Unlike the CVTs (continuously variable transmission) in most other hybrids, the Sonata uses a 6-speed automatic; steering wheel paddle shifters respond quickly to shift commands. At highway speeds, the 150-hp available from the 2.0L only deliver leisurely acceleration past 80 MPH. Observing the energy flow graphics on the instrument cluster, it appears that the electric motor does not deliver significant power at highway cruising speeds. Despite its relatively unimpressive power output, the 2.0L is exceptionally quiet and vibration-free; combined with its minimal wind and tire noise, the Sonata Hybrid is a relaxing highway cruiser.
The Sonata Hybrid faces tough competition from the hybrid versions of the Accord and Camry, which are both priced comparably and deliver similar fuel consumption. Also, the Sonata's hybrid powertrain integration needs further development to be competitive with its Japanese competition. Of the three Sonata Hybrid models, the SEL the probably the best value since it includes most of the important comfort and technology features of the Limited for $5K less. Ultimately, the Sonata Hybrid is not especially compelling from a cost or fuel efficiency perspective. We suggest that potential customers consider the non-hybrid Sonata as a superior alternative for the money.