An efficient hybrid powertrain improves one of our favorite sedans.
The last time we drove a 2020 Hyundai Sonata, we came away duly impressed with its style and long list of standard safety and convenience features. Keen to see if the value-and-design recipe would withstand a measure of gas-electric propulsion, we ordered up a 2020 Sonata Hybrid Limited for a week of testing.
Our tester, wearing a muted Hampton Gray with a black interior, may as well have been the polar opposite of the most recent (Glowing Yellow) SEL Plus we drove. Gone was the turbocharged 1.6-liter engine, replaced with a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder mill mated to a 1.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery and permanent magnet synchronous electric motor. And perhaps not surprisingly, the Hyundai wrestled its way into our hearts by consistently offering a pleasant – if not really scintillating – driving experience.
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On first (and second and third) glance, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid resembles a catfish from the front, with a big, downturned grille that looks perfect for bottom-feeding. That characterization notwithstanding, we actually really like the Sonata’s looks. The Hybrid makes use of the same front bumper as the base, non-hybrid SE, giving it a more cohesive appearance than high-trim gas Sonatas, thanks to a smoother grille texture and chrome bumper garnish.
What’s more, the Limited model comes standard with a massive solar panel on the roof, which Hyundai claims can add about 2 miles of electric-only driving range per day. That seems plausible – parked in direct sunlight for two hours, the solar roof recharged the hybrid battery by an indicated 25 percent or so. For those who don’t have covered parking, it’s a nice little perk, but it’s probably not worth the extra strain on the HVAC system or wear and tear on your car to park outside if there’s a perfectly good garage space available).
Contributing to the entire Sonata lineup’s sleek styling is a front end that falls off gracefully, with no awkward panel gap between the grille and the leading edge of the hood. Just about everything on the Hybrid is standard Sonata fare – a fastback silhouette, unusual LED-to-chrome hood trim, fluted taillights, and triangular bodyside surfacing – helping the midsize sedan stand out from the pack.
The interior is likewise distinctive, featuring a freestanding infotainment display, a pushbutton gear selector, a steering wheel that looks like it has eaten an airplane yoke, and on our Limited tester, a 12.3-inch reconfigurable digital instrument cluster. Interior quality ain’t great, with hard plastic on frequent touchpoints like the upper door panel and center console. It may be average for the class – the slightly tacky Toyota Camry and dated Ford Fusion come to mind – but the interior’s easy-on-the-eyes design made promises that the materials couldn’t keep.
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A long Sunday morning drive to Big Bear Lake, California, gave us a great sense of how pleasant the Sonata Hybrid is on the open road. Wind noise and other sonic intrusions get hushed quite nicely, drowned out by an excellent Bose audio system. Comfort over broken pavement is impressive, thanks in part to the Sonata Hybrid Limited’s smallish, eco-minded 17-inch wheels.
Up front, there’s ample room for both the driver and front passenger. The regular Sonata’s panoramic moonroof isn’t even an option on the gas-electric, which trades natural light for improved headroom. Heated and ventilated seats were perfect for our trip to Big Bear, giving us a toasty place to cocoon from the high-altitude morning chill, then cooling us off after a mid-afternoon hike.
Although its exterior is in lock-step with other midsize sedans, the Sonata feels a bit tighter in back, an impression borne out by the tape measure. With 34.8 inches of rear legroom, the Sonata Hybrid trails its hybridized competitors by at least three inches. The Sonata Hybrid’s rear seat is an adequate place to spend time, but the Honda Accord makes better use of its airy interior.
The Sonata Hybrid’s trunk can hold 16.0 cubic feet, more than all but the Honda Accord, which holds 16.7 cubes. And the Hyundai positively sneers at the Ford Fusion, which can only take 12.0 cubic feet of stuff along.
Hyundai is making a real effort to make its cars stand out, technologically speaking. To a long list of active safety technology that includes adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality, Limited models like our tester get Highway Driving Assist, which helps keep the car centered in its lane.
Inside, the Hybrid Limited gets a 10.3-inch infotainment display and the aforementioned 12.3-inch reconfigurable instrument cluster, making it easy to monitor hybrid system operation and manage audio and navigation with minimal distraction. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are predictably standard, though not wireless. Speaking of, a Qi inductive charging pad is standard on the Hybrid SEL and Limited, but not available on the base Hybrid Blue. Exclusive to the Limited is a Bose 12-speaker audio system that is very good, especially relative to the Hyundai’s competitors.
Offering a combined 192 horsepower from its 2.0-liter inline-four and 1.6-kilowatt-hour battery/electric motor, the Sonata Hybrid isn’t much of a sports sedan, but it is more powerful than either of its sibling’s gas-only powertrains. The Hybrid’s gas powerplant produces a smallish 139 pound-feet, but that twist is augmented by the electric motor’s 151 torques, which are available from zero rpm – combined torque output isn’t available, but there’s enough scoot off the line for safe freeway merging.
While power output is near the back of the midsize hybrid class, the Hyundai routes its power to the front wheels via a conventional six-speed automatic gearbox, which delivers power much more enjoyably than the continuously variable transmissions found in the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid, as well as the novel, transmissionless Accord. As such, the Sonata feels much more willing to play than its competitors, offering a conventional and pleasant driving experience. On a twisty canyon road, the Hyundai held its own, even if it wasn’t a fire-breathing corner carver.
Where many cars deliver driving enjoyment via high lateral loads and fast acceleration, the Sonata Hybrid "game-ifies" fuel economy with digital readouts and a schoolmarm-like efficiency minder. However, unlike many electrified cars, the Sonata doesn’t require Player 1 to drive like a 98-year-old monk to deliver swift, smooth EV acceleration and exemplary fuel economy. Regenerative braking is likewise easy to modulate, and with a good amount of energy recaptured from the Sonata’s momentum. Maximizing efficiency is downright fun for the gamer behind the wheel and, best of all, unobtrusive to surrounding traffic.
Active safety is a standard feature on most midsize sedans these days, so it’s not surprising the Sonata Hybrid offers automatic emergency braking, lane departure prevention, blind spot monitoring, and adaptive cruise control. The Sonata Hybrid Limited also scores points with its crisp, bright LED headlamps and a perfect crash test record from the IIHS, helping it cinch a Top Safety Pick+ award from the agency.
Since most of its competitors use CVT gearboxes to maximize efficiency, we’re surprised to see the Sonata Hybrid and its conventional six-speed auto do so well in EPA testing. Credit for its 45 miles per gallon city, 51 highway, and 47 combined rating goes to its efficient and intelligent powertrain management, as well as a slippery drag coefficient of 0.24. Only the Honda Accord Hybrid is thriftier, with a 48-mpg combined rating. Meanwhile, the electrified Toyota Camry pegs 46 mpg, while Fusion ‘brid gets 42 mpg.
It also should be noted that the Sonata Hybrid Limited achieves much better highway efficiency than similarly equipped competitors, and those who value frugality over features and amenities can buy the Sonata Hybrid Blue, which is rated at a best-in-class 50 mpg city, 54 highway, and 52 combined.
With a base price of $35,300, the Sonata Hybrid Limited isn’t necessarily cheap. It does offer a long list of technology and safety features, as well as stellar fuel economy. Hyundai doesn’t usually offer much in the way of optional extras, and our ride was no exception – only the destination charge inflated the price to an as-tested $36,275 (it also had $155 carpeted floor mats that we don’t factor into pricing since they are a dealer-installed accessory).
Weighed against the hybridized Honda Accord Touring and Ford Fusion Titanium, the Sonata is competitively priced and equipped. The Camry XLE Hybrid is a couple grand cheaper to start and a couple grand more expensive when equipped comparably. Some of those competitors offer more rear seat room and maybe a bit more power, on paper at least. Working in Hyundai’s favor is a long warranty, no-cost maintenance, an expressive design that we think looks wonderful, and borderline-fun driving dynamics that don’t sacrifice efficiency. For many people, the 2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid could be the perfect daily driver.
Gallery: 2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited Review
2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited