2022 Kia Sorento PHEV driving modes
Justin Hart's picture

Testing Plugin Hybrid Drive Modes in 2022 Kia Sorento PHEV

I recently purchased a 2022 Kia Sorento PHEV and I find the Plug-in Hybrid Drive modes puzzling. I previously owned another PHEV, a 2017 Chevrolet Volt, and that may be why; its drive modes operated differently that the Kia’s. I am both embarrassed, because it seems too obvious, and a little frustrated because it also seems more complicated than it should be to get a definitive answer. What does the “Auto” mode really do?

According to the manual, the Auto mode will automatically select from either Electric (Charge Depleting) mode or Hybrid (Charge Sustaining) mode according to the driving conditions. This is wonderfully vague and doesn’t really answer the question, though clearly in this mode my Sorento PHEV will decide for me whether to run solely on the electric motor powered by the high voltage battery or in hybrid mode, using both the gasoline engine and the electric motor. But what I want to know is under what conditions does my Kia Sorento pick one mode or the other?

I have poked around on the internet, I have posted in Kia Sorento PHEV Facebook groups, I have scrolled through the manual and many pages of Kia’s American and European websites. I have even reached out directly to Kia America to try and get a more definitive answer. I am doing this not just to build my nerd cred with this technology, but to try and answer some of the genuine questions I see being asked over and over in Kia PHEV forums in multiple countries: What is the Auto mode exactly? How does it work? Will using it give me better results, efficiency wise, compared to manually toggling between EV and HEV modes? Is my PHEV smarter than me?

Let’s test things out a little and see what others are saying on forums for Kia’s PHEV models. The best explanation I could find was from a poster in Italy who said that in Auto mode the system selects between EV and HEV modes based on speed, power request for acceleration (or accelerator position) and the type of driving surface. Note this was regarding the Kia Exceed PHEV, a model we don’t have in the US, but it may be the same for all Kia PHEVs. But at what speed(s), what accelerator position(s), and what type of driving surface(s) are these decisions made? Is it speeds over 75 kph / 46.6 mph? Is it when the accelerator is pushed 70% down or more? Is it only on asphalt roads? Likely it would be some combination of these, sometimes, or maybe always in one of these cases, sometimes in the others. The lack of precision only encourages my nerdiness, and frustrates my desire to provide a simple explanation to the less nerdy drivers out there that just want to know if they’ll get about the same results in Auto as they would “worrying” about when to switch between HEV and EV modes themselves.

While I am waiting on an answer from Kia, let’s try to test this algorithm out in my Sorento PHEV. Here’s the parameters of the experiment: I will select a 10 mile course that will include 3 runs or loops. The first will be with the vehicle in HEV mode the whole way to warm up the engine - since that could impact the mpg figures in the other runs, attempting to stay at the speed limit throughout. For the second loop I will put the vehicle in Auto mode and will cover the same approximately 40% of the route on the freeway at 60 mph, and 60% of the distance on 25-35 mph side streets that include steep climbs and descents of a few hundred feet (steep enough to need all the electric motor can provide to maintain speed). For the third run I will manually put my Sorento PHEV into HEV mode as soon as I exceed 45 mph (which would be on the freeway on-ramp), and manually switch it back to EV mode whenever I am travelling under 45 mph (as I exit the freeway).

The conditions for my test were as follows: the streets were dry and the temperature outside was 58 degrees Fahrenheit. No breezes to speak of, and no sunshine either, just another gray but slightly warmer than normal Sunday in November in the Seattle area. For those who might care, the PSI in my tires was set to 38 all around and I didn’t use cabin heat (just heated seats and steering wheel).

For the first loop, I switched my Sorento into hybrid mode while I was backing out of the garage. The gas engine fired up immediately and I drove about .7 miles to the freeway on ramp. This was the section of the loop where I saw the highest “instant” fuel economy at 37.4 mpg (note, I live on top of a hill and the freeway is basically at the bottom). I drove 3.7 miles on the freeway, staying at 60 mph or slightly below the entire distance. Coming back, I followed a twisty side road through neighborhoods with multiple steep hills to go up and down. When I got back to my starting point, at home, this is what the trip display showed:

2022 Kia Sorento PHEV Hybrid Mode

This is more or less what I expected; the steep hills and the fact that the engine was cold initially, and the freeway section wasn’t particularly long, meant I wasn’t likely to see the EPA figures. Not much else to say about this first pass, it was unsurprising.

For the second loop, from the same starting point, I put my PHEV into Auto mode to let it choose whether to keep the car in EV mode (which it always starts in, by default) or to switch to HEV mode. The Sorento stayed in EV mode all the way to the freeway. As I sped up and began to merge, I expected it to switch to HEV mode. Note, I was accelerating normally up to speed (i.e. not flooring it, and not hypermiling either). And surprise, the car stayed in EV mode! I accelerated a little harder, up to 62 mph (I know, I know, living life on the edge) to pass a group of cars that couldn’t be bothered to go 50 (the speed limit was 60 and I was trying to stay right on it). Did I mention Seattle drivers are terrible, either driving like it’s their first time behind the wheel or like they are auditioning for the next Mad Max film? No middle ground. Anyway, the Sorento continued to stay in EV mode. Was it anticipating my departure from the freeway in a few miles? Was it waiting to see if I stayed on the freeway longer or sped up a little more?

A few miles later, I exited the freeway with the car still in EV mode. I wondered if it might stay there the whole trip. The first .5 mile of the side roads are very steep and required me to push the right side needle (which would otherwise be the tach, see below) a smidge into the “Power” band in order to hold 25 mph going uphill (which was the speed limit). The remainder of the route back to my starting point had more hills, ending with another very steep hill for the last mile. When I got home, here’s what the trip display showed:

2022 Kia Sorento PHEV Auto Mode

Thus, in Auto mode I was able to complete the entire 10 mile loop without using any gas at all. Apparently, Kia’s algorithm is more complex than I figured. I assumed it might default to HEV mode once I reached freeway speed, or if it could tap into the GPS when it realized I was on the freeway. I think we’re going to need a better test!

I almost called the test off after the second loop because I expected the vehicle to have switched to HEV mode at some point on the freeway and because that didn’t happen I felt like I didn’t design my test well enough. I went ahead with the third loop regardless to set a baseline and to see the difference between all HEV mode and about 60% in EV mode. Obviously, I’ll need a different test and I already have an extended route in mind that will also allow me to test if perhaps the reason I never got out of EV mode the second time through the loop was due to how far I depressed the accelerator (see the end of this piece).

After returning to my starting point at the end of the second loop, just as I had the first time, I turned off the Sorento PHEV and got out. This reset the drive info screen before starting out (and allowed me to check on some unexpected flowers in my front yard, in November, in Seattle...). By default the Sorento starts in EV mode so all I needed to do to begin the third run through the loop was to put it in reverse and back out of the driveway. About .7 miles later I entered the freeway and as soon as I hit 45 mph I tapped the HEV/EV button to put the car into HEV mode. The trip mpg display immediately began to drop from 999 mpg (which indicates fully electric mileage). By the time I approached a first gen Chevy Volt going about 55 mph, my mpg had dropped a little below 150 mpg and I proceeded to speed up and pass the Volt so I could maintain my 60 mph target speed. The Volt sped up just as I swung into the left lane (because of course it did). I dipped further into the throttle to pass the Volt at 65 mph, briefly, before dropping back into the right lane about a quarter mile later when I was sufficiently in front of the Volt. By the time I exited the freeway a couple miles later, my mpg was down to just under 50 mpg when I tapped the HEV/EV button again to return to EV mode for the remainder of the loop.

My mpg steadily rose from there, of course, and by the time I returned to my starting point, here’s what the display indicated:

2022 Kia Sorento PHEV EV Mode

137 mpg is not too shabby. Certainly more impressive than the 29.7 mpg I got when I made the same loop less than an hour before in HEV mode the whole way.

So what did I learn from this test (besides realizing I needed a better test)? Mainly I learned that Kia’s algorithm is probably not based solely on speed. Since I haven’t heard back from Kia yet, I intend to keep doing my own testing so I can get a better understanding of the logic used by the car in deciding how and when to switch between modes. As such, I am going to run another test as follows: two runs on a 23 mile course that is approximately 50% freeway (at either 60 or 70 mph speed limit) and 30% 40-50 mph two lane highway that goes up and over a steep hill between two small mountains, and the remainder on 25-35 mph neighborhood streets. One run will be in Auto mode, the second I will change modes manually just as I did in these first tests (as I enter and exit the freeway). The Run on Auto mode will happen first. As a bonus, the freeway section covers the same freeway section of my first test and I can retest the algorithm to see if the Sorento will switch to HEV mode at the same speed (60 mph) if I press the accelerator down harder to reach that speed. My intention with that change is to estimate how close to the floor/what % down the accelerator might be at when it switches modes, if it switches. Visit Torque News again soon for my next piece to find out what the second round of tests (or word from Kia America) reveals.

Image source: Justin Hart.

Justin Hart has owned and driven electric vehicles for over 14 years, including a first generation Nissan LEAF, second generation Chevy Volt, Tesla Model 3, an electric bicycle and most recently a Kia Sorento PHEV. He is also an avid SUP rider, poet, photographer and wine lover. He enjoys taking long EV and PHEV road trips to beautiful and serene places with the people he loves. Follow Justin on Twitter for daily KIA EV news coverage.

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How did you find your new Kia Sorrento PHEV? I just did a search on CarGurus and there are zero in stock nationwide!
Hi James! I am an avid reader of plug-in car news (of course). As soon as I read that the Sorento PHEV was coming to the US (August was the first confirmation I saw) I started contacting local dealers. They had no idea when it was coming. I told them to call me as soon as they knew anything. They told me on Sep 14th they would be getting one soon, and on Sep 21st I became the first owner of a 2022 Sorento PHEV in the state of WA (according to my dealer... take that with a grain of salt). Are you willing to drive/fly somewhere to get one? I have read about people going to neighboring states or cities to get one. In WA state people have gone from Seattle area (where I live) to cities in Eastern WA and to Idaho, for example. I assume pandemic related supply chain issues will keep them rare for now though. I also paid $8k over MSRP for mine because I figured it would be hard to get. Kia ships “batches” to the US and distributes them nationally... you might want to find a high volume dealer or three, put in requests with them, and maybe with a smaller volume dealer or two as well. I didn’t have to put any $ down until the dealer knew they had allocation.
There are 178 matches on cars dot com for Sorento PHEV. I wonder if Kia is using Audi's GPS map based system for their PHEV's?
This is a great article, thank you. I’ve had the Sorento PHEV for about 1-month now. One thing I’m confused about is when the gas tank is full and the electric is full at 32 miles, the total range of the car says three hundred and something miles. The advertisement for the car is 460 when both electric and gas are full. I’m a little concerned about that. Most of my trips are short and use EV mode only. However, when using cabin heat for these short trips it kills the mpg. Didn’t realize how much gas is used to run heat. I did a 15 mile round trip in 25 degree weather in HEV mode the entire time. It was 25% stop n go and 75% highway at 60 mph. I got about 28 mpg which I thought was low. This was also with a very light foot and no cabin heat on. Perhaps mpg will improve in warmer weather? Car is obviously also new and still breaking in. I have to say so far the car drives great and I enjoy it every time I drive. Just hoping for clarity on the full range and hoping mpg ticks up!
Thank you Brian, and you’re welcome! I just wrote a two part piece on winter driving range (and other topics) on a full tank + a full charge. In this case, winter in the Seattle area, which tends to be mild and was particularly so the day of my test (highest temp was 44F, lowest was 41F). The first part is published, and just waiting on the second piece to be released (see first URL at bottom of my response). But to address your questions as best I can: the range display on the Sorento PHEV, like any vehicle that displays such information, is just an estimate of range based on recent driving behavior and or conditions. We know colder weather, higher speeds, heavier loads, more aerodynamic and parasitic drag (cargo box on the roof/towing something, air pressure too low on the tires/chunkier snow tires with higher rolling resistance), negatively impacts range/efficiency. When I picked up my Sorento PHEV in September last year, and I drove it off the lot with a full tank (but an empty battery) my range showed in the low 400’s. This was due to the tank actually only being about 95% full and only driven at slow speeds in hybrid mode only. I drove it about 70% in EV mode for the following 3+ months and the day I set out on my trip, my range showed as 414 miles (on a “full” tank and full charge... again it was only 95% full). So, expect it to change when the weather warms up or when you do more 45-55 mph steady driving. I wouldn’t be too concerned otherwise, just know the only way you are likely to get about 460 miles of range is in ideal conditions (temperatures in the 65-70F range, no one else in the car, tires perfectly inflated, on flat ground, at speeds of 45-55mph max, windows up, and with no loads on top or behind, etc.). This is true for most cars, and is a result of the way the EPA tests vehicle efficiency/range. For reference, on my drive this weekend in the mild Seattle are winter, I estimate that I would have gotten about 410 miles on a full tank + full charge. If my tank had been totally full and the weather warmer, I suspect I could have gotten about 440 miles. So yes, mpg should improve noticeably in warmer weather. A tip for getting better mpg: instead of putting the Sorento in HEV mode, if all you want is some heat and otherwise still have charge in your battery, keep it in EV mode and just turn on the heat. It will idle the engine for heat only, I believe (as I saw in previous tests, see another article, below), and you may see better mpg than in HEV mode. However, I will note if it is bitterly cold out, that might not produce enough heat to keep you warm. Also note that Sport mode revs the engine at a higher RPM and changes the accelerator dynamics, so it can produce even more engine heat if you need “maximum” heat. https://www.torquenews.com/16317/testing-kia-sorento-phev-winter-driving-performance-road-trip-1st-leg *********. *********. https://www.torquenews.com/16317/testing-kia-sorento-phev-winter-driving-performance-slushing-down-range
Thank you for responding so quickly! Do you put regular or premium gas in the car? Thx!
You’re welcome Brian! The Sorento PHEV is designed to run on regular unleaded and should do so without issue. I do sometimes put a few gallons of premium in the tank though because it can take several months to go through a tank of fuel depending on how you drive it (I am only putting gas in a few times per year for example... and will likely get around 800-1,600 miles per tank typically, except for the occasional long trip that is over 300 miles in a day). Premium may “last” a little longer or otherwise prevent knocking if running on “stale” fuel. If you cycle through your full tank every month or three though, I see no reason to ever use premium.
Hopefully it's more clever than my 2019 Outlander PHEV. If you select EV mode and press hard on the freeway it fires up the engine. Fair enough, but don't show EV mode anymore then, and as I exit the freeway, don't use the engine anymore! When it happens I have to hope for a red light to power cycle the car... As for Sorrento PHEV availability, I contacted the dealer early. He called when 1 was on its way, but with the markup, total price was same as a Tesla Model Y (at that time)...so I kept my Tesla reservation
I suspect the Kia Sorento PHEV will operate similarly to the Outlander, in the ways you described (I noticed the gas engine fired up when I pressed down hard enough (70%?) on the accelerator when I was in Auto mode). I plan to test the accelerator in the EV mode to see if it comes on at the same point and my expectation is that it will. I will also look to see if, when the gas engine fires up, whether the EV mode light disappears. I will say... when I coasted for about .1 miles with my foot off the accelerator, when the Sorento PHEV was in Auto mode, that would shut engine off and keep it off for at least “gentle” presses on the accelerator (maybe 20% down). Beyond that, in Auto mode, the gas engine fired up again though (perhaps only at low idle, depending on speed/accelerator input). The markup on my Sorento put it almost in Model Y territory (Y was my second choice, but I already have a model 3 and I wanted a bigger SUV than the Y), and with the tax rebate on the Sorento, made it about $10k cheaper than the Y (was also available sooner). The Y might be what replaces my model 3 one day... that or an EV pickup of one flavor or another.
One more thing about PHEVs, or at least my Outlander: I need to charge it to 100% to get enough range for my daily commute, partially because I feel the overall range decreased over the 2 years I've had it. Is it because there's no clever Battery Management System, or because I'd charge it 100% pretty much every night? Not sure, but I'd recommend leasing a PHEV rather than buying: fewer concerns about battery degradation + more options for fully electric vehicles by the end of the lease. Back to Sorento vs Tesla Y: I extended my lease from 2 to 2.5 years and ordered a Model Y soon enough that delivery time should match. I also luckily avoided much of the recent price increases, and hope I'll get some federal rebates! I also hate markups... As for the size, yes the Y's roof slope isn't ideal to load a lot of stuff, but I think I'll buy a (hitch mounted) cargo carrier for those rare trips requiring extra gear. No rain here though... We'll see if I regret it. Glad to read your feedback on the Sorento
Ooof, that’s no good. I know that Mitsubishi and Nissan both have had some issues with longevity of their batteries (especially Nissan), and I would be suspicious about the battery thermal control systems in those brands (as a former LEAF owner who saw his battery degrade by about 25% from when it was new). Robust cooling, especially liquid cooling, makes a big difference I think. Cargo carriers are a good idea! I have one as well (for the roof), though it does reduce efficiency a bit, and I imagine your rear mounted hitch would mean less of hit on efficiency. :)
I also have a Sorento PHEV and was also perplexed by the vague description of auto mode. One thing I have thought about testing was if using the on-board navigation (not Waze/Google Maps) affects auto choice . . . It sure would be impressive if the algorithm looks at the anticipated route, live traffic and reserves EV foe the most high-yield portions. I do not believe this is what does but was thinking of trying out. If you're doing rigorous testing, would be great if you could see if engaging navigation makes a difference. Thanks!
I was wondering that too, and likely it isn’t the smart, but I’ll try and test it. I noticed in my last drive, where I was testing out how using cabin heat (which turns on the ga engine) affects mileage and or gas engine use, that I got much better mpg figures when just idling the gas engine a bit for cabling heat (105 mpg on a 15 mile trip, compared to upper 40’s mpg on a similar trip where I was driving with the car mostly in HEV mode). I suspect the algorithm is actually more complex than I initially thought it was... and it will take more testing to figure it out.
Hello, I am glad I found this, I have had my Sorento PHEV since October and have been a little obsessed with EV vs gas usage. I have no suggestions on your experiment but have noticed that it goes out of EV mode when stopped at lights. This seems strange but as this is my first EV experience I had no idea if this was normal or a reason for servicing. I wouldn't be concerned but I am going through about 1/4 tank of gas in 3 weeks, even with my obsession with keeping it charged. Another oddity is that I am the primary driver and when my husband tries driving, he gets an error saying he has not meet conditions to shift to reverse out of park. He seems to be doing the same think that I am with breaking. Has anyone come across a security setting that I am missing? I realize that you are not a Kia rep, but mine was the first leased by my local dealership and they seemed a bit perplexed by questions. I thought someone else driving one might know more. Thanks, Kate
Great questions! I wonder if the reason for shifting out of EV mode when stopped at lights might be one of the following: are you running the cabin heat? If so, if the engine isn’t warm enough to provide the requested heat, it may ideal to increase temperature in the cabin. Have you activated one of the other driving mode like Sport mode? It might idle the engine while stopped perhaps. In any case, I’ll be on the lookout for similar behavior and will try to test and research why it might be happening. As far as what happened to your husband, I also will keep an eye out. When I have seen a similar message in my Chevy Volt it was due to a short in the gear selector, but I am not saying that is the case for you. Perhaps he isn’t pressing firmly enough down on the brake when trying to shift gears? Or perhaps the parking assist settings are on and they “sense” some object close to the car and it is warning him? That would seem confusing if so... I would recommend checking the manual to see if there’s information about why that message would appear. I’ll see if I can find others reporting a similar issue too in user groups.