A consumer heavyweight squares off against a fresh-faced rival, each in their top-shelf Accord Touring and Sonata Limited trim levels
There are more exciting cars than these, but that doesn't mean they're not worth getting excited about. While Ferraris and other exotica are what stirs and captivates the soul, it's mainstream sedans such as these that arguably more people get excited for because of how tangible and popular they are. And with gas prices rising back towards $4.00 here in California, excellent gas mileage is an objective getting excited over. Gone are the days where hybrids were, well, terrible, and terribly slow. Those times have changed, for while I didn't like any hybrids before (hybrid supercars excluded), I do now; that's how far the technology has come in the past decade, and the sales figures have shown, with Honda hybrid sales nearly doubling in the past couple years alone. What we have then is the established stalwart from Honda against Hyundai's new Sonata, both aided by electrons. So which is best?
Performance is not the reason you buy a hybrid, unless that hybrid is a Ferrari SF90 or McLaren Artura. Yet, you also don't want something that is incapable of getting out of its own way. For example, the original Prius struggled to reach over 70 MPH unless you were going downhill or drove off a tall cliff. Fear not, as both these new-generation hybrids are more than able to move at a modern pace. However, it's the Accord Hybrid that deals first blood with 212 horsepower and 232 pounds of torque compared to the Sonata's 192 horsepower and 210 torques. Not only is the Accord Hybrid faster at 7.1 seconds to 60 MPH vs the Sonata Hybrid's 8 seconds, but the powertrain is noticeably more responsive to your inputs. The combination of i-VTEC engine and CVT (continuously variable transmission) reacts with an apparent quickness to inputs and a lack of inertia. Downsides are a slightly wheezing engine noise under heavier throttle and the annoyance of the CVT constantly changing engine speed (RPM), though.
The Sonata has more relaxed nature to it, with the power unit and transmission trying its best to function like a normal, non-hybrid car. In fact, the transmission is a normal six-speed automatic and not a CVT. While fine on its own and certainly pleasant, it's also lazier. Driving the Accord Hybrid afterwards reveals how much more potential there is to make a more responsive and lively hybrid system. I did run into trouble several times with the Sonata Hybrid when pulling away from a stop on a hill, noticing a shudder throughout the car when the gas engine restarts once you're rolling. It's more apparent the more it happens and even occurs during a 'California roll,' that is, slowing down to one or two miles per hour at a stop sign. The Accord remained smooth in transitions at all times.
Things take a turn when you start comparing the interiors between the two rivals and shows the age differences, too. With their new Sonata, Hyundai wipes the floor. The layout is extravagant in comparison and the materials another step above. Even when looking at parts they both share, such as push buttons for PRND, the Sonata might as well be an executive German saloon. And that's not to say the Accord isn't a nice car, especially in the top-spec Touring trim, but once you experience the Sonata in Limited mode, it's almost not even a fair fight. It must be said that while the overall components inside lack the luxury quality of the Sonata, the Honda has amazing fit and finish with zero creaks or rattles heard anywhere.
Some obvious differences are the infotainment displays in the middle of the dash, with the Sonata's being significantly larger. It's actually harder to use, but the graphics are crisp and the screen serves as a nice focal point next to the Accord's small offering that's crowded by buttons both around the screen and digital ones. It's easy to use at least. Also of note are the rougher and coarse textures of the various padding materials that make up the top of the door panels and the dash itself on the Accord. Those parts also had a shine to them which renders them cheaper in appearance, too. Both are comfortable driving longer distances, but the Accord definitely has extra lateral support in the driver's seat and a better driving position itself (the Sonata sits a little too high). The Sonata has an age advantage being a brand new, redesigned model, and they bought all the punches in creating an actually luxurious environment for the price point.
As far as technology goes, both offer many of the same modern niceties that we have come to enjoy and demand. Each have a full set of active safety systems in the form of blind spot monitoring and collision warnings, ditto for bluetooth connectivity with available Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. They both boast active cruise control systems, though the Sonata exhibited inconsistent behavior at times on the freeway using the radar cruise. There are differences, though. The Sonata, for example, has a sweet 360-degree camera view for parking maneuvers, while the Honda has a head-up display. You can also command a Sonata to pull up and reverse using your key, though this is more a show-off feature than anything. They might also each have heated and cooled front seats, but the Honda has heated rear seats as well.
This is easily the most subjective category and one I'll give as a draw. I like both offerings' shapes, with each have their own take on an understated language. Some will be put off by the grille of the Sonata, but I find its rather color dependent on the surround bodywork to making it look good. The Shimmering Silver painted example I tested is my favorite color I've seen yet on a new Sonata, and the metal-like appearance does all the chrome trim favors. The Accord has more of an English look to it, and I feel like if Rolls Royce were to make a car for less than $40,000, the basic shape would be similar to this; simple and clean. It has a nice forward-poised stance, too. The Radiant red paint is also suitably named on this example. New for 2021 on the Accord is a slightly wider grille for a more aggressive look and new all-LED lights with beautiful detailing. Hyundai's Sonata only came out last year and has not received any noticeable changes, but the same LED running lights that run along the hood outline still captures attention, same with the solar roof even if it does mean there's no sunroof.
Other noteworthy mentions are the attractive 19" alloy wheels that are standard on the Accord Touring, while the Sonata has diminutive 17" wheels. Despite the larger wheels, the Accord still manages a comfier and better controlled ride quality.
This is the big one and the reason why most anyone is even considering a hybrid, and where the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid wins big. The Accord Hybrid managed a respectable 38 MPG overall in my hands and a also good 43 on the highway. Sure, that might sound all fine and dandy, but it's not once you hear the outrageous numbers of the Sonata. Ya'll ready for this? Overall, I saw a staggering 45 MPG and 50 on the highway. There's simply no other way to say it than if you want to maximize your savings at the pump, the Sonata is the clear winner. It does make me wonder how much those pretty 19" wheels on the Honda hurt its economy, too.
On the Road
The Sonata Hybrid is a compliant and pleasant experience behind the wheel. Easy was something I kept calling it, thanks to the sumptuous interior along with the light and breezy driving characteristics. Honda's Accord, even as a hybrid, could be mistaken for a sports car on the other hand. The steering could very well be actually taken from a sports car, with a quicker ratio and more accurate and linear response than my own Nissan 370Z even. The weighting is basically perfect, being heftier than the Sonata, but not hefty on its own still, striking a natural and organic balance in effort. When the road starts twisting and winding, such as Highway 50 to South Lake Tahoe, the Accord instills a level of confidence that few other mid-size sedans in this price bracket do (apart from Mazda's superlative 6).
Handling-wise, the Accord has a decisive front axle with enough grip to break speed limits around just about any corner. The balance is a treat, as the nose rarely devolves into wooden understeer and when you do push the tires past their limit, a small lift of the throttle will snap the front back in line with a tiny bit of lift-off oversteer. Ride quality is also beautifully judged and approaches perfection in the balance between comfort and control. The Sonata in this case can be harsher at certain speeds and lacks damping control on larger bumps, and while objectively nice to drive in day to day driving, it's also kind of boring and fails to match the Honda dynamically when you've had a Red Bull in your system. If taking one of these to the canyons, just on handling and driving experience alone, I'd reach for the Accord's keys every single time.
Picking a winner is harder than I thought it would be, but it all depends on priority. If buying for the best in real-world economy, the Sonata Hybrid is a no-brainer, plus the interior easily outclasses most all rivals. And being hybrids, that's perhaps the most important aspect for prospective buyers. With that said, yes, the Sonata Hybrid should be the winner in this comparo because of its triumphs in the categories that matter for the average consumer. However, some might be put off by the looks, and others might want a more engaging car to drive. With that, the performance characteristics of the Accord Hybrid are what separates it from the South Korean rival. I think when Honda brings out an all-new Accord in the next year or two, if they can address the interior shortcomings and eke out a few more MPG, it will be a tour de force for consumers.
For now though, Honda's Accord itself remains the best selling car in America of any car made within the past 50 years, with just under 14 million sold during its existence. Wow. To cap that off, Honda says Accord buyers have an 80% loyalty retention rate. For existing Accord buyers, the choice is easy then as the Accord has been refined to being the most fuel efficient one ever and their best performing hybrid model ever. So is one better than the other? For new buyers, it'll be a question of whether you value performance over luxury and your opinion on the styling when picking between the Sonata and Accord hybrids.
2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited
As-tested price: $36,464
Road Beat Rating: 4/5
Pros: Lovely interior and amazing economy
Cons: Lacks performance from engine and chassis
2021 Honda Accord Hybrid Touring
As-tested price: $37,830
Road Beat Rating: 4/5
Pros: Great performance and a well-rounded package
Cons: economy falls behind rivals; cheaper interior