It's time to choose.
– Santa Barbara, California
Everyone wants to challenge the king. When Hyundai set out to create the Ioniq – a new model that would come with three vastly different powertrains, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and all-electric – the directive was to give it the world’s best fuel economy. This was, of course, years before anyone knew just how efficient the next-gen Toyota Prius would be. Well, it’s 2017 now and we’ve got the numbers. The most efficient new Prius gets 56 miles per gallon. The best Ioniq hybrid? 58. And what about MPGe, for the all-electric model? The previous efficiency champ was the BMW i3, which can get up to 124 MPGe. The Ioniq EV, though, trounces that with 136 MPGe. Hyundai doesn’t have EPA numbers for the PHEV just yet (it arrives in the fourth quarter), but you bet that the 133-MPGe Prius Prime is worrying.
But cars are more than their numbers. Green cars perhaps more so, since too many people see a high mpg rating or an electric range figure and think they know what that means. I'm here to tell you that unless you've driven a Tesla, a new Prius, or the Chevy Bolt, it's time to rethink what defines a green car. And the Ioniq is a great place to start.
That's because the Ioniq not only introduces something totally new (there are no other vehicles out there with these three powertrain options in one model), but because it does them all well. We'll get to what's different between the three versions in a moment, but for now let's just take a look at what's the same.
Hyundai engineers can spot the all-electric version in a fleet of hybrids thanks to its smooth "grille" plastic and unique, eco-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels. But most people will not be able to see a difference between the three Ioniqs. They all have the same practical-yet-not-boring body with its excellent 0.24 coefficient of drag. Hyundai says the the design was inspired by the way air moves over surfaces, and calls it "visual aero." I say it does what it has to do, while not looking like most other green car on the market (i.e., with a hey-look-at-me style). The five colors – basic variations on white, black, silver, grey, and blue – that are available on the Ioniq just further this unassuming quality, but the red-orange paint option available in Korea would be most welcome here.
Inside, all Ioniqs are similar, but the EV trades the gear shifter for a push-button shifter and offers you more room under the center dash to put a purse or bag. The interior is also secretly eco-friendly. It's not secret in the sense that Hyundai won't tell you all about it. It's secret because you can't tell just by touching that there's volcanic rock and sugar cane hidden inside some of the materials (in the natural plastic and the bio fabric, respectively). There's plenty of interior room, even in the back seats, thanks to the new dedicated platform. The "piano key" buttons used as audio and HVAC controls are a tactile pleasure to use, especially when compared to the touch-sensitive surfaces used in too many cars playing high-tech dress-up games. Of course, there's still an infotainment touchscreen in the dash (either seven or eight inches in size, depending on which trim level you choose). When you notice it is slightly canted towards the driver, that's when you realize that this eco-car is not meant to stand out in the parking lot, but on the road.
Driving the Ioniq Hybrid is a lot like any other decent gas-powered compact car you can mention. It's not thrilling, but you have to work hard to find something to seriously complain about.
Here's where I have to break out the three Ioniq models by powertrain, as they do have some differences. While I got to get behind the wheel of all three, I spent most of my test drive time in the Hybrid model, which makes sense since that one is available now, nationwide. The all-electric model will launch next (in April), in California and other ZEV states, but available for any Hyundai dealer in the U.S. to order. The PHEV is still in prototype form, and won't launch until the fourth quarter of 2017. Why the delay? Hyundai says the PHEV is mostly ready, but that certification takes its sweet time, and engineers still haven’t totally calibrated the steering. The goal is to keep tweaking it until it feels the same on the road as the EV and hybrid do, despite the extra weight of the battery (compared to the hybrid) and the presence of the gas powertrain bits (compared to the EV). Even if the steering feels the same, the Hybrid and EV versions drive quite differently, thanks to the never-boring instant torque of the all-electric's traction motor.
Let's first focus on the Hybrid. This is the Ioniq that most people will buy (Hyundai won't give out sales predictions, but logic tells me that a car easily available in all 50 states will outsell one that's only on dealer lots in a dozen or so), and it truly normalizes the hybrid vehicle. Non-flashy looks aside, driving the Ioniq Hybrid is a lot like any other decent gas-powered compact car you can mention. It's not thrilling, but you have to work hard to find something to seriously complain about.
The flat-bottom steering wheel provides not only more legroom when you get in but also implies right from the get-go that this isn't a boring hybrid. The wheel has nice styling touches, like the silver panels at the bottom, and the non-base trim wraps the whole thing in comfortable leather.
Most importantly, the results are impressive, at least in Sport mode. It wouldn't be right to say steering is pinpoint accurate, but you can trust it to transfer your motions and desires into quick reactions on the road. Thanks, in part, to a wider stance than a competitor like the Prius, the Ioniq Hybrid felt planted and comfortable going through curves. That’s despite the standard low-rolling-resistance Michelin tires, and the wet California roads I experienced on my test drive. In the base Hybrid trim, you will hear some low-end noise come up from the road, but the overall Ioniq experience is quiet, giving you plenty of space to enjoy music from your phone via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Both the Hybrid and PHEV models have ECO-DAS (Eco-Driving Assistant System) that uses navigation and elevation data to suggest times to lay off the gas pedal to improve fuel economy.
Engaging Sport mode is done with a simple pull of the drive selector towards you. You notice the change instantly, as the speedometer turns into a tachometer and your current speed takes over center of the circle (replacing the "distance to empty" number that's there at all other times, except in the base-model Hybrid where there's a physical speedometer). The engine also operates differently, staying on at all times unless you've come to a complete stop. The good news, for people who pay attention to this sort of thing, is that as you slow down, there's no obvious transition point when the regenerative braking using the electric motor gives way to the physical brakes.
One acceleration run is all it takes to prove that the EV can beat the pants off the Hybrid or PHEV from a red light. The Electric version is so much quicker, so much more alive.
If Sport mode wakes the Ioniq Hybrid up, then getting behind the wheel of the EV is a zero-emission alarm clock for the driver. In a just world, Hyundai wouldn't have had to make the hybrid or plug-in hybrid, because every driver would understand the performance benefits of an all-electric powertrain. Hyundai isn't giving out 0-60 times, but one acceleration run is all it takes to prove that the EV can beat the pants off the Hybrid or PHEV from a red light. The Electric version is so much quicker, so much more alive. By the numbers, the hybrid should win, as it has a total of 139 horsepower compared to the EV's 118, but in the real world, the EVs instant torque and single-speed reduction gear simply outperforms the two hybrids' six-speed dual clutch transmission.
There are other quirks and benefits to the EV as well. Two paddles on the back of the steering wheel adjust the level of regen the car will apply when you take your foot off the accelerator. When you're using Level 0 regen, coasting is a breeze, while the strongest setting, Level 3, will slow you down enough that it "approaches one-pedal operation," as Hyundai's Mike O'Brien put it. It's nowhere near as engaging or fun as the regen paddles in the Chevy Bolt EV, but any time an electric car lets the driver choose how the powertrain reacts, that's a good thing. I would have liked to see a sort of auto-adjust mode, too, where the regen level is high when I'm tooling around the city, but drops to near-zero when cruising on the highway.
There are three drive modes in the EV – Eco, Normal, and Sport – and what's cool is that they can be personalized to your preferences for not only the regen level, but also the climate control and maximum speed limit. The EV also has an electronic parking brake, which gives it the ability to offer stop-and-go cruise control (basically, the traffic jam setting). Since the hybrid and PHEV don't have the electronic brake, their adaptive cruise control will bring you to a stop, but not restart you back up when traffic starts to move again. The EV also comes with 100-kW SAE Combo charging standard and a whole suite of now-common EV tech, like the ability to set a charging timer and status updates on your smartphone. There's even more room in the center console in the EV, because there's no need to put any powertrain parts there.
Taken as a whole, the Ioniq triplets are an impressive bunch. You can see them as the result of one of two things: Either they're the company picking up the gauntlet thrown by various governments around the world saying that the OEMs need to build greener cars. Or they're a gauntlet being thrown by Hyundai to customers saying, "look, here's a great compact car, one that happens to get the best fuel economy. Do you want it?" I'm certain that many people, once they test drive their preferred model (pro tip: test the EV if you can), will say that they do, especially fresh ideas like an unlimited subscription to the Electric in California. Nonetheless, the Ioniq family is not guaranteed success.
Hyundai's strongest argument in this discussion is the price of the Ioniq Electric, which starts at an incredible $29,500 (or just $22,000 after the federal tax credit).
Let's do a quick thought experiment, comparing the Ioniq to the Bolt, the current gold standard of the non-Tesla EV world. Everyone who pays attention to electric car news knows that the Bolt has well over 200 miles of range. Hyundai has already started trying to get people to value efficiency over range, but that's going to be an uphill battle.
Hyundai's strongest argument in this discussion is the price of the Ioniq Electric, which starts at an incredible $29,500 (or just $22,000 after the federal tax credit). The base model is, of course, missing a lot of the features you want in a new car, but even if you spec the Ioniq all the way to the top of the line, you're at a price that is still under where the Bolt starts ($36,000 vs. $37,495). For the money, you get a nav system, lots of safety equipment, a sunroof, LED lights inside and out, and more – but you lose around 100 miles of range compared to the Bolt EV. Prius shoppers will (or should, at least), do similar comparisons with the Ioniq Hybird, which starts at $22,200. How people do all this math, applying the story problems involved to their personal life, is where we will finally get a response to the Ioniq gauntlet.
Photos: Hyundai USA