2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Sep 07, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Hyundai deals!

Last year, Hyundai redesigned its midsize family car, the Sonata. Dramatic doesn’t begin to describe the styling, which is daring and distinctive even if opinions of it are divergent. But that’s what Hyundai wanted for its latest Sonata, which it says is inspired by the revolutionary 2011 model that was equally polarizing in terms of its looks.

At first, the new Sonata came only with traditional 4-cylinder engines, one turbocharged, one not. Then Hyundai rolled out the Sonata Hybrid, rated to get 47 mpg in combined driving. And soon, a performance-tuned N Line version of the car arrives.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited Red Front Quarter View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

When the new Sonata went on sale, we had a chance to review both the 2020 Hyundai Sonata Limited and a development mule of the Sonata N Line on the city streets and desert highways of Phoenix. Now, for this review, J.D. Power evaluated a 2021 Sonata Hybrid Limited equipped with carpeted floor mats. The price came to $36,450, including the $995 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Hyundai deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2021 Sonata Hybrid, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize car, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 65% of Hyundai Sonata owners are male (vs. 60% for the segment), and the median age of a Sonata owner is 61 years (vs. 55).

Owners say their favorite things about the Sonata are (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving feel, feeling of safety, interior design, and setting up and starting. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank highest in comparison to the midsize car segment:

  • Exterior styling
  • Operating vehicle remotely
  • Vehicle protection
  • Vehicle feel when started up
  • Smoothness of engine/motor

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Sonata are (in descending order) the fuel economy, powertrain, infotainment system, driving comfort, and getting in and out. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank lowest in comparison to the midsize car segment:

  • Rear seat comfort
  • Ability to carry everything (in a tie)
  • Ease of loading/unloading (in a tie)
  • Ability to hold personal items
  • Quietness of cabin while driving

In the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Sonata ranked 1st out of 10 midsize cars.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best Hyundai deals!

In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2021 Hyundai Sonata measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

Sonata owners love the way their cars look, and this certainly is an appealing midsize sedan. The front styling represents an acquired taste, especially in terms of the running lights that bleed into the hood. But otherwise, Hyundai really nailed the look.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited Red Rear Quarter

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

In Hybrid form, the Sonata boasts a slippery 0.24 coefficient of drag, and with SEL and Limited trim the 17-inch aluminum wheels feature an aerodynamic design that isn’t off-putting whatsoever. Choose the Limited, and you’ll get a solar glass roof panel that adds a claimed two miles of range every day you drive it. Now that’s compelling.

Interior

Personally, I prefer the inside of this car to the outside. The interior is modern and stylish, and the Camel (tan) seats, armrests, and portions of the dashboard sharply contrast with the black carpets and other dark-colored cabin elements. Furthermore, the door handles and armrest storage compartments are deftly integrated into the door panel designs, and the steering wheel takes an usually artful turn.

2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

With that said, the storage bin wrapped around the transmission controls looks unfinished and has a rubber surface that will likely collect a bunch of grit and dust over time. This really needs a cover, but the pod containing the transmission controls appears to prevent that.

A 12.3-inch digital instrumentation panel combines with a 10.25-inch infotainment display to create a high-tech look and feel. Clutter is minimal, and the controls are easy to find and use, though a tuning knob for the stereo would be nice. Hyundai used to get this detail right but omits it from the Sonata.

Getting In and Out

When Hyundai redesigned the Sonata, it lowered the car closer to the ground. This helped to improve aerodynamics for greater efficiency, and to lower the center of gravity for improved handling.

As a result, the Sonata is harder to get into and out of than it used to be. At least the driver gets a seat height adjuster that can make this task easier. The front passenger is out of luck. The same is true of the rear seat, which is comfortable if not the easiest to enter and exit.

Strangely, for 2021, the non-hybrid versions of the Sonata Limited do have a new 6-way power front passenger’s seat with height adjustment, resolving this complaint. But the Sonata Hybrid Limited does not get this upgrade for the new model year, which is disappointing.

Hyundai’s hands-free Smart Trunk is standard, though, and when the lid opens a 16 cubic-foot area provides plenty of luggage space. However, there is no interior handle to use to swing the lid shut, so you’ll get your hands dirty when you close it.

Setting Up and Starting

Though the Sonata Hybrid Limited is very high-tech for the midsize car segment, offering a seemingly endless list of features to configure to your personal preferences, this is not a daunting prospect. If you’re familiar with modern smartphone and tablet technologies, using this technology is a no-brainer. And, of particular note, there is a star button near the infotainment screen that you can program to perform a specific task that you regularly require access to.

Hyundai Digital Key is also available for the Sonata Hybrid SEL and Limited. It works only with Android smartphones, and essentially turns your phone into the vehicle’s key, allowing you to unlock the doors, start the powertrain, and drive.

Speaking of starting the vehicle, there’s no sound because it operates on battery power until the gas engine is needed. But the instrumentation comes to life to let you know you’re ready to go.

Infotainment System

Comprehensive infotainment features are standard with the Sonata Hybrid. With base SE and mid-grade SEL trim, an 8-inch touchscreen display provides access to Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring, HD Radio and satellite radio, and Blue Link connected services with a free 3-year trial plan. With SEL trim, wireless smartphone charging is also a part of the deal.

With Limited trim, the car is equipped with a 10.25-inch touchscreen, a navigation system, a surround-view camera, and a rather mediocre Bose premium sound system lacking in terms of depth and clarity. With nearly all kinds of music, the sound quality features brassy and almost distorted highs while the bass seems flat and empty, lacking resonance.

There is a volume knob and multiple buttons that serve as shortcuts to different primary infotainment menus, but Hyundai does not provide a tuning knob. Due to the curvature of the display, when I reached to use the volume knob my knuckles frequently contacted the virtual stereo pre-set buttons and inadvertently changed stations. 

As far as the voice recognition technology goes, it passed most of my tests, but not all of them. Also, the standard dual-zone automatic climate control system is not tied in with the system. 

A color head-up display is standard with Limited trim and is especially impressive with regard to the amount of data it provides, right down to blind-spot warnings. It fades when you’re wearing polarized sunglasses, but not completely.

Keeping You Safe

In addition to impressive infotainment technology, the Sonata Hybrid is equipped with standard Smart Sense, which is the name Hyundai gives to its collection of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS).

In this car, those elements include adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go technology; forward collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking; lane departure warning with lane-keeping assist and lane-centering assist; an active blind-spot warning and active rear cross-traffic warning system; automatic high-beam headlights; and a driver monitoring system.

Limited trim adds to this list with a parking collision avoidance assistance system, front and rear parking sensors, and Highway Drive Assist (HDA), which is a semi-autonomous technology that helps to maintain speed and following distance while keeping the car centered in its lane. It is designed to work with the driver’s hands on the steering wheel.

Highway Driving Assist is quite sophisticated. It handled a difficult construction zone with flying colors, issuing no false alerts and making no wrong moves. You can sense the steering making small corrections, but instead of feeling like its fighting against you, it feels like its cooperating with you. 

When responding to changing traffic situations ahead, the adaptive cruise operates smoothly. In situations where traffic is clearing, there is a bit of a delay in terms of resuming speed, but when it does respond the transmission kicks down a gear and the car accelerates decently. Overall, HDA is a great system.

Additionally, the Sonata Hybrid has a standard Rear Occupant Alert, which uses an ultrasonic sensor to determine of a child or a pet is trapped in the car, and then sends the owner a text-message alert. Blind-View Assist is also available for the Sonata Hybrid, showing the driver a video view of what’s on either side of the car when changing lanes. It supplements and does not replace the traditional blind-spot warning system.

Unlike the standard Sonata, the Sonata Hybrid does not offer Remote Smart Parking Assist. This semi-autonomous technology can move the car forward and back without the driver inside. Instead, the driver stands outside of the vehicle and uses the remote keyfob to control the car. Hyundai says this feature is useful when parking in tight spaces or in cramped garages.

As far as safety ratings go, the Sonata earns a 5-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as well as a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Powertrain

Making a combined 192 horsepower, the Sonata Hybrid is equipped with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine paired with a 39-kW electric motor drawing energy from a 270-volt lithium-ion battery pack. The electric motor provides 151 lb.-ft. of instant torque from 0 to 1,800 rpm.

A 6-speed automatic transmission powers the front wheels, instead of a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is typical for this kind of vehicle. Driving modes include Eco, Smart, Sport, and Custom. As you might expect, Sport mode produces the most satisfying responsiveness, but it does add too much weight to the steering. I preferred Custom, which allows you to mix, match, and save favorite individual settings.

This traditional automatic is a refreshing treat, because instead of the droning that can be common with a CVT, the automatic makes the Sonata Hybrid feel and sound like a normal car. It even has paddle shifters for when you’re inspired to drive with enthusiasm. And, on occasion, you just might.

Another thing to consider with any Hyundai is the free scheduled maintenance plan for the first three years or 36,000 miles, plus the industry-leading warranty that stretches out for 10 years or 100,000 miles for the powertrain, including the Sonata Hybrid’s battery.

Fuel Economy

According to the EPA, the Sonata Hybrid should get 47 mph in combined driving. On the testing loop, it returned 42.8 mpg. However, the drive included cycling between Eco, Smart, Sport, and Custom driving modes, and the loop is mountainous. That the car effortlessly returned that kind of mileage is impressive.

Driving Comfort

On the road, the Sonata Hybrid is remarkably quiet thanks to its aerodynamic design and its standard acoustic laminated windshield and front side window glass. You can hear a little bit of whoosh emanating from the top of the roof where it meets the rear window, and that’s about it.

Every Sonata Hybrid includes a driver’s seat-height adjuster, and in SEL and Limited trim both 8-way power adjustment and front seat heating are standard. Furthermore, the Limited includes ventilated front seats and a heated steering wheel.

All of this is great, but a critical comfort enhancer is missing: a front passenger’s seat-height adjuster. Weirdly, the smaller and cheaper 2020 Hyundai Elantra includes one on every version of that car (it also has a handle inside the trunk lid to make it easier to close it). Not only that, but Hyundai has added a 6-way power front-passenger’s seat to the non-hybrid Sonata for 2021.

On a warm summer day, the air conditioning proved effective, even when the gas engine was shut down and the car idled or coasted on battery power. Hyundai includes rear air conditioning vents for the back seat, too, and the test car also had manual rear side window shades.

Rear seat comfort is decent, but hard plastic front seatbacks will be unkind to the knees of taller people if folks sitting up front prefer a more reclined travel position.

Driving Feel

With its electric motor and battery weight residing low in a chassis that’s already optimized for a reduced center of gravity, the Sonata Hybrid feels athletic when the road ahead turns twisty.

Steering weight is a little heavy for my preferences, but responsiveness is satisfying. The regenerative brakes, which capture energy when the car is slowing down and feeds it to the battery pack, do exhibit a typical grabby feeling, and especially in stop-and-go traffic situations. Still, the sensation is muted enough that many people may not notice it. Much.

In terms of ride quality, you can sense the car’s added weight, but the Sonata Hybrid’s suspension does a good job of masking unintended effects. The car feels a little firm over smaller road irregularities and can feel a little soft over larger undulations in the pavement, but it soaks up minor potholes like a champ. 

The weak link here is the set of P215/55R17 tires. They squeal and relinquish grip early, so an enthusiastic driver cannot take advantage of the low center of gravity and fundamentally sound handling characteristics.

Final Impressions - Find the best Hyundai deals!

Overall, the 2021 Hyundai Sonata is an excellent example of a hybrid family sedan. Effortlessly efficient, undeniably stylish, technologically advanced, and impressively safe, it requires little in the way of improvement. If you like the way it looks, you’re going to like almost everything about this car.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2020 J.D. Power

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