Payne: Hyundai Sonata Hybrid has OMG mpg and looks, ho-hum performance

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 18, 2020

The 2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid comes in three trims: Blue, SEL and Limited. The Limited, pictured here, gets 47 mpg, while the sippy Blue version tops out at 52 mpg.

They should have named the Hyundai Sonata the “Hyundai OMG.” The mid-size sedan is a non-stop wow emoji.

There was the February Super Bowl ad featuring Boston celebrity jaws dropping in unison as actor John Krasinski demonstrated the Sonata’s self-parking feature. “Smaht pahk!” We couldn’t get it out of our heads. OMG.

I couldn’t get the Sonata’s good looks out of my head the first time I saw it. It still turns my head — like the other day when an all-black Sonata rolled my way in Oakland County, its signature LED running lights giving it a sinister look. The black Audi A4 behind it looked … almost as good. OMG.

Now comes the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid boasting the best fuel economy in class: 52 mpg. OMG.

At least on paper. In practice the hybrid is the least OMG feature of the Sonatas I’ve tested. And it still leaves me thirsting for the Sonata N performance version that will couple the car’s tight handling with an alleged 295 horsepower. I tasted the N earlier this year on windy roads through Arizona and it was a treat.

Until its arrival, drivetrains aren’t the Sonata’s strong suit. And that’s not just because I’ve got a lead foot instead of a green thumb. Indeed, I’ve been impressed by the industry’s latest hybrids, particularly new value entries from compact SUVs like the Ford Escape, Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4, which have exhibited feisty character even as they sipped gas from the pump.

But the Sonata Hybrid was surprisingly tepid. Especially since it gains 12 more horsepower than the regular Sonata’s turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder. The regular Sonata’s 1.6-liter made me yearn for the Sonata N — and the Sonata Hybrid made me yearn for the 1.6-liter.

Where the Escape and CR-V hybrids use their electric motor for an electrifying kick off the line, the Sonata seems to maximize the battery for that OMG mpg. The Hybrid’s acceleration is sleepy. The hand-off from electric to gas is as smooth as a middle-school track relay, with the 2.0-liter engine shouting as if someone stepped on its foot.

But Payne, you say, no one buying a green car is going to drive it hard. And sure enough, the Sonata cruises effortlessly at speed, its electronics maximizing the drivetrain for 30% fewer shifts. Green fans will also geek out on the car’s active grill flaps, underbody cover and unique rear spoiler to achieve a remarkable 0.24 drag coefficient so the sedan cuts through the air like a knife.

But I’ve been spoiled, dear reader, by the Ford and Honda hybrids’ dexterity, and the Sonata is not in their league. What’s more, my week in the premium Hyundai Hybrid Limited returned just 35 mpg — a far cry from the advertised 47 mpg.

That 52 mpg I spoke of belongs to the starter Hyundai Hybrid Blue model, which retails for $28,725 — with a $30,875 SEL and Limited model clocking in at $36,275. The latter pair achieve 47 mpg.

Those prices are in contrast to, say, the Honda CRV Hybrid, which is a ridiculous bargain at just $27,000 with lots of pep, 38 mpg and all the inherent advantages of SUVs like hatchback storage, all-wheel-drive and rear-seat headroom.

So the Sonata Hybrid will have to sell itself on sex appeal. And in that area it is loaded.

Every time I got annoyed with the Hybrid’s awkward drivetrain, I would stand back and ogle its curves.

The heavily sculpted sides (with this much stamped sheet metal how does the standard Sonata start at just $23,000?) sweep rearward to a gorgeous tail-section, a Lincoln-like horizontal taillight graphic providing the perfect punctuation. There is exquisite detail — like the delicate winglets on the taillight to aid aerodynamic flow and the signature LED running lights that parallel the hood.

The standard Sonata grille is distinctive like the mouth of a carp. Too big. The hybrid tones it down with some elegant chrome piping and a sweeping lower chrome piece that echoes the rear taillight. But the Hybrid Limited exterior’s OMG feature is the solar roof. Yes, a solar roof.

Embedded in the black sweep of the coupe-like greenhouse you can make out subtle traces etched to and fro to catch the sun. Dramatic looking, though less dramatic in operation. Hyundai says the solar roof will gain the driver 2 miles on a tank of gas. Like the drivetrain, it’s not worth the premium price in my book … but it’s a talker.

The interior on my Limited model was even more stunning, the seats swathed in tanned leather, the instruments fully digital.

The dash reminds of a Mercedes, which indicates just how high this mainstream sedan has aimed. A fully digital cockpit and infotainment display flows across the horizontal dash. The Hyundai can’t match the Mercedes’ exquisite detail — what can? — but the graphics are engaging and Sonata Hybrid does it all for tens of thousands of dollars less. No other sedan in class can match it.

The console offers more luxury touches, including a so-called “trigger shifter” that I first encountered on the Acura NSX supercar, of all things. I fell in love with it on the Acura and find Hyundai’s version just as useful. It’s different without being annoying — while also saving console space for knick-knack and smartphone storage.

The infotainment system features are useful, particularly Apple CarPlay and Android Auto navigation that allow the sedan luxe-like navigation skills. Drill deeper and you’ll find — yes, another OMG moment.

While most drivers will be content to play their own music, streaming services or Sirius XM’s multiple channels, Hyundai offers another escape: Sounds of Nature.

There are the soothing sounds of Snowy Village and Warm Fireplace. And Open Air Cafe, Calm Sea Waves and Lively Forest. Mrs. Payne balked at Rainy Day because she found it dreary. But the sounds are a reminder of Hyundai’s determination to make the Sonata a unique experience.

Available with the nav package, the feature’s also available on other Sonatas — not just the hybrid. Which brings me back to the question of the hybrid’s value. Indeed, the hybrid is oddly missing the “Smaht pahk” feature that got everyone all worked up about the Sonata in the first place.

Sonata says it’s coming, which is good thing because when you’re paying 36 grand for a sedan you want all the OMG you can get.

2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan

Price: $28,725, including $975 destination charge ($36,275 Limited as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder mated to AC motor and lithium-ion battery

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Power: 192 horsepower (combined system output)

Weight: 3,530 pounds as tested

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.0 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 120 mph

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg: 50 city/54 highway/52 combined (Hybrid Blue); 45 city/51 highway/47 combined (Hybrid SEL and Limited)

Report card

Highs: 47-52 mpg; luxury-class interior

Lows: Granola performance; pricey compared to competitive SUV hybrids

Overall: ★★★

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