2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid Review: Be Mindful
Hyundai’s Plug-In Sonata doesn’t just cure range anxiety.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrid (starting MSRP $35,435) sedan features the most innovative, cost-effective fuel saving strategy I’ve ever seen: Good, old-fashioned mindfulness.
Sure, it’s got lithium polymer batteries that promise a 27 mile all-electric range, a rating of 40 MPG from the gas engine alone, and a hyper-aerodynamic exterior that cuts through the wind. But, the most useful innovation in the Sonata Plug-In is a tiny screen that shames drivers into efficiency. It might have even made me a better person.
When a Diamond White Sonata Plug-In Hybrid arrived at my door, its dashboard display had fortuitously been set to Driving Style. It divides the sum total of your driving into three styles: Economical, Normal, and Aggressive. Floor the throttle or slam on the brakes, and your Aggressive percentage will go up. Feather the gas to keep it mostly in EV mode, and the Economical number will rise. Keep up with traffic, and that counts for Normal.
The approach makes sense, as the EPA estimates that driving style can affect fuel economy by up to 33 percent. Automakers have long tried to change driver behavior in the past. Most force drivers to turn on a “Sport” mode for spirited, less-efficient driving. Infiniti has a gas pedal that pushes back if you’re being wasteful, and Ford’s hybrids draw leaves on their dashboards to encourage “green” driving.
But word choice is what makes Hyundai’s approach particularly brilliant. When you’re wasting fuel in the Sonata, you’re not Normal. Even worse, you’re Aggressive, with a capital A—a violator of the social norm. Nobody wants to be aggressive, and the Hyundai’s dashboard display is like a constant audit from an anger management specialist.
At least that’s how I felt during the week I spent with the Sonata Plug-In. That little screen not only got me to lay off the gas pedal—it also taught me to relax.
When I first got the car, more than half of my driving fell into the Aggressive category. That’s not surprising, since driving in Boston sometimes feels like a contact sport. I resigned myself to returning the car with a half a tank of gas, no new dents, and a new record set for aggressive driving. (If only I could put my initials next to my high score.)
Over the next few days, though, something changed in my own mind: I slowly became more aware of my actions behind the wheel—and not just when it came to fuel economy.
Yes, I started accelerating gradually when the light turned green, but I also stopped honking at wayward Uber drivers who blocked traffic to let out passengers. I glided to stop signs, used the Sonata’s automatic cruise control in heavy traffic, and stuck with my choice of lane instead of cutting off other drivers to move ahead one car.
After a week, my Aggressive rating dropped from 51 percent to just seven percent. Even some of my everyday hangups melted away: I ate yogurt a full 24 hours after its sell-by date, I stopped worrying if I’d left the iron on when I wasn’t at home, and I got to the airport just an hour before my flight departed. With Hyundai’s help, I’d reached a level of calm that no self-help book, meditation seminar, or legion of therapists could induce.
As it turns out, despite all the chemists and physicists who worked behind the scenes on the Sonata, it's psychologists who ended up squeezing another few miles per gallon out of an already-efficient sedan. A bit of negative reinforcement from a dashboard display was all it took to improve my fuel economy by nearly a third.
Sure, the concept of mindfulness may be associated more with wheatgrass than gasoline. But, as technology increasingly insulates car owners from the harsh realities of the road, it’s a soft-science concept that helps to occasionally force drivers into moments of clarity and consciousness.
A blind-spot warning alarm, for instance, doesn’t just tell you there’s a car on your left—it reminds you that despite all the airbags and conveniences surrounding you, you’re a fragile human being who is hurtling down the highway at 70 mph, inches away from other two-ton metal boxes—so it’s probably a good idea to get off Instagram and concentrate.
Mindfulness is especially important when it comes to fuel economy, as the obvious economic benefits of green cars have faded as of late. For instance, the Plug-In Sonata has some big arguments against it: Its price premium is as much as $6500 over a comparable gas-only Sonata, the back seats don’t fold down, and the trunk is 3.4 cu. ft. smaller than the standard Sonata’s. With gas at $1.79 a gallon, it just doesn’t make economic sense.
It’s unlikely that Hyundai will move a lot of Plug-In Sonatas. But if the company added Driving Style displays to more cars, a lot more drivers would be reminded that there are other costs to wasting fuel—ones that aren’t paid at the pump.
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