2020 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid: Should Cars Have Solar Panels?

Alexander George
·3 min read
Photo credit: Hyundai
Photo credit: Hyundai

From Popular Mechanics

🛠 Specs: Base Price: $27,750 | Price (Hybrid Limited, with panels): $35,300 | Miles Per Gallon (Hybrid Limited): 47 | Solar panel range (est.): 2 miles per 6 hours of charge

Putting solar panels on a car sounds reasonable. And some manufacturers have tried. Panels were an option on the 2015 Toyota Prius, and standard on the Fisker Karma in 2012. The Tesla Cybertuck will have it as an option. But if the math of weight and wattage showed that panels are a good idea, everyone would do it. Right?

If you're buying a new Hyundai Sonata, you can pay extra for the Hybrid Limited model, which comes with a solar panel roof. I tested one for a week in late spring, while working from home. Except for a ten-mile drive to the grocery store and back, the Sonata sat in the driveway, its 205-watt system earning free, clean miles.

Photo credit: Drew Philips / Hyundai
Photo credit: Drew Philips / Hyundai

Hyundai engineers estimate that a day with least six hours of good sun will gain roughly two miles of range. But those figures are for a car parked in Los Angeles, which gets more sun than I was seeing in the northeast in April. During my week with the Sonata, if the panels were working, I couldn’t really tell. The range calculator in the dashboard (which read an impressive 552 miles with a nearly full tank of gas) was the same at dawn as it was at dinner time.

Maybe the panels were gathering energy to run the air conditioning and radio, which wouldn’t be obvious to me. But either way, this wasn't the free mileage dream I was hoping for. It made me remember what Telsa CEO Elon Musk said a few years ago, before the Cybertruck: “The least efficient place to put solar is on the car.”

But even if the panels didn’t translate to free miles, it was hard to not like having them. While I was hunched over my laptop, the roof was at work, turning the sunlight into a trickle charge that, at the very least, helps keep the batteries healthy. It’s what I imagine people who have GPUs mining bitcoin feel.

And maybe the fact that you can’t drive on your car on solar power is a good lesson. Now that leaving our houses means inviting a small risk of painful death, everything that seemed like a necessity—next-day shipping, fully stocked grocery stores, visiting friends in person—is becoming a luxury. It makes me think about how much drilling, coal fire, and sunlight is required to fuel a simple office commute.

Photo credit: Drew Philips / Hyundai
Photo credit: Drew Philips / Hyundai

The panels give you this challenge to hold out and see how long you can go without driving, and how deliberate you can be. By having to plan your route, you behave better. It sounds masochistic compared to the freedom you get from a normal gas car. But this aversion to waste is an element of hybrid and electric vehicle ownership that I completely get.

Hyundai is a big business that makes excellent cars. Their engineers and accountants wouldn’t waste effort on something unnecessary. According to the marketing literature, the panels are a “unique design cue,” “delivers differentiation.” It made me groan, too, but it’s not wrong. It doesn’t matter to me that the panels didn’t meet my fantasy of a self-contained solar car. They did their job reminding me that driving isn’t free, and that we should behave accordingly.

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