Originally published June 2, 2015

Fuel-efficient cars sell well when gas is expensive, but not when it’s cheap. That’s basic economics, and something that can’t always be predicted; tie that in with long auto industry development cycles and you sometimes wind up with a car that reaches the market at exactly the wrong time.

These days it’s never really the wrong time to bring out a plug-in hybrid model, but there could certainly be a better time than right now, when gas isn’t much more than a buck a litre, and hybrids and electric vehicles make up less than one percent of Canadian new vehicle sales – and that’s down from 1.2 percent in 2014.

Nonetheless, here’s Hyundai’s first plug-in model, one of two versions of its new, second-generation Sonata Hybrid, the other a straight-up hybrid model.

Based on the latest Sonata, introduced last year as a 2015 model, the new hybrid follows the same formula as the car it replaces: it shares the basic look of the gas-only Sonata but is set apart by unique styling touches and functional improvements that Hyundai says put this car at the head of its class aerodynamically, making it as good at cheating the wind as a Tesla Model S.

There are significant mechanical changes that go deeper than the addition of a plug-in option. The gas engine is smaller than before, down to 2.0L from 2.4, and adds direct fuel injection, an electric water pump, and friction-reducing pistons, bolstered by a stronger electric motor juiced by a higher-capacity battery. The aim was better fuel economy that further improves with the plug-in model’s 32-km electric-only range on a fully-charged battery. Other mechanical updates include revised brakes engineered to rely more on regenerative braking to recover more energy when stopping.

Total power output is 202 hp in the plug-in model, and 193 in the regular Sonata Hybrid, the difference being down to the plug-in model’s stronger electric motor. The gas engine is capable of 154 hp and 140 lb-ft of torque on its own; Hyundai says the electric motor makes 111 lb-ft of torque but doesn’t publish a combined torque figure. For the record, the old Sonata Hybrid was rated at 199 hp and 235 lb-ft.

Interesting news on the packaging front includes a redesigned lithium-ion polymer battery pack that fits under the trunk floor. That eliminates the spare tire (replaced by a tire sealant kit) and makes the Sonata Hybrid the first gas-electric sedan with a full-size trunk and proper folding seatbacks. The more space-friendly battery can hold more energy and produce more power, both a bit more efficiently.

That doesn’t carry through to the plug-in model, whose larger battery won’t all fit under the floor and so also occupies the space behind the back seat.

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