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Hybrid or Downsize: 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid vs. Kia Optima 1.6T

Fuel may be sinking below $2 a gallon where you live, but the quest to improve efficiency continues. Here are two examples of the routes automakers are taking on that mission: downsized engines and hybrid powertrains.

While they look different and are tuned and built by two different companies, the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima share many parts. Yet they’re both seriously efficient vehicles for their size and for their prices in the mid-$20,000s. Crucially, both are midsize sedans aimed squarely at the likes of Toyota Camry and Honda Accord and attempting to steal some sales in a market shifting to crossovers.

2016 Kia Optima (CARFAX, Inc.)
2016 Kia Optima (CARFAX, Inc.)

The 2016 Kia Optima LX 1.6T I tested uses a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with 178 horsepower (instead of the standard 2.4-liter with roughly the same power). A lighter, smaller engine with a turbocharger nets better fuel economy here. It’s also available in the Hyundai Sonata Eco. In the Optima, the turbo’s point of entry is $2,000 higher than the base LX’s, but includes a few extra features such as push-button start.  With a $2,600 Technology Package (navigation, blind-spot monitoring and a rearview camera), the Optima came to a total of just over $27,000. Had the Sonata Hybrid I drove been equipped accordingly, it would’ve been about the same price.

The 2016 Sonata Hybrid, meanwhile, gets a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine coupled to an electric motor for a combined output of 193 horsepower, which is paired with a six-speed automatic. It’s a slick setup that only sacrifices the spare tire for all of the extra hardware associated with a hybrid (the Sonata’s commodious trunk is unaffected by it). A plug-in hybrid is also available in some markets. When the 2017 Kia Optima Hybrid goes on sale, it will share the Sonata’s hybrid system.

2016 Kia Optima (CARFAX, Inc.)
2016 Kia Optima (CARFAX, Inc.)

The Optima 1.6T’s fuel economy is pegged at 28/39 mpg city/highway by the EPA, while the Sonata Hybrid gets an estimated at up to 40/44 mpg. In reality, the disparity wasn’t nearly as great. Fuel economy is very different, at least on paper.

In practice, though, they’re not so far apart. The Optima suffers in city driving, where it’s easy to sink your foot into the turbo’s broad power band. But on an open highway run I did nearly 40 mpg, impressive for even this class of car. The Sonata, however, wouldn’t do more than 41 mpg under the best conditions I threw at it. In mixed driving, it averaged nearly 36 mpg. That’s still impressive, and better than the Optima’s combined mpg of around 31.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (CARFAX, Inc.)
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (CARFAX, Inc.)

But I couldn’t live with the Sonata Hybrid’s lumpy power delivery compared with the faster-than-you’d-expect Optima 1.6T. Both of these cars can be shuffled between Normal, Eco and Sport modes, but the Sonata defaults to Eco every time you start the car. And in Eco, it’s painfully slow to your inputs. Even at highway speeds, it’s hesitant to provide the motivation needed for quick passing, despite the powertrain being strong enough for that kind of impulse power.

The Sonata also isn’t tuned nearly as well as the Optima. You have little sense of what the steering wheel is actually doing to the front wheels, which is disconcerting at higher speeds. And at those high speeds, the ride feels especially buoyant. This is not the way even the comfort-oriented Camry performs, and it’s way off the standard of the best midsize sedans for the same money.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (CARFAX, Inc.)
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (CARFAX, Inc.)

There’s enough to like about the Sonata Hybrid. You’ll be attracted by the price that’s a minimal increase over its gas-only counterpart. It’s also aggressively targeted at the 2016 Toyota Prius, which lacks the same passenger space. Controls are relatively simple to use and there is an enormous back seat.

The Optima LX 1.6T, however, is the better choice among family sedans. It doesn’t major in either dynamics or comfort, but offers a stellar combination of both. Best of all is the level of equipment and efficiency you get for you money. Those who do a lot of highway miles will benefit from the turbo’s frugality, but everyone can appreciate that it doesn’t sacrifice much, if any, in drivability and performance. Hybrids may still be a byword for efficiency, but the Optima’s small turbo is the proof you can have your economy cake and eat it too.

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