Korea’s attempt to out-Prius the Prius.
Hyundai doesn’t just want to be Toyota, it wants to break Toyota, in part by relentlessly copying the Big T’s jiujitsu. Toyota created the mass-market hybrid, and it’s pretty much had the corner on it, as others chipped futilely at Fortress Prius with unworthy competitors, including the failed Honda Insight, or shied away from hybrids altogether.
Yet, even as soft fuel prices have partially deflated the eco-car business over the past year, Hyundai sees opportunity, both in newfangled ride-sharing fleets where the break-even point on a hybrid is easily reached, and in up-and-coming millennials. They will represent 40 percent of new-car buy-ers by 2020. And as long as these young’uns stay the course with their values as they age (just like the baby boomers, cough), including a preference for urban living and smaller electrified vehicles, a parade of bearded and plaid-wearing buyers could march right into Hyundai’s open arms.
The Ioniq and its sister, the Kia Niro crossover, are just volleys one and two in a seven-vehicle broadside over the next year intended to bust the Prius’s lock on the average person’s mental image of a hybrid. Hyundai’s plan is to fight hard on pricing. The base $23,035 Ioniq Blue comes in $2535 under the base Prius Two, though you’ll have to compare the respective features lists closely to see which car has the stuff that matters to you. Would you rather have heated mirrors (Prius) or dual-zone climate control (Ioniq)? As you go up the Ioniq’s trim levels, from Blue to SEL to Limited, the Hyundai’s price advantage narrows but remains.
Hyundai plans to employ the same basic component set to yield not only the hybrid Ioniq, which in its most stripped-down Blue trim lays claim to a 58-mpg EPA average, but a plug-in hybrid and a full EV as well. It is also Hyundai’s first platform designed with autonomy in mind, the car said to be ready to add all-seeing, all-knowing hardware to its portfolio of optional driver’s aids when the tech becomes available.
There is opportunity here. If Toyota can be faulted for something besides refusing to make anything more than modest improvements to the Prius’s handling, it’s for not expanding the Prius sub-brand into body styles such as crossovers, which are the preferred choice of today’s buyers. Not everyone willing to pay extra for electrification wants a potato, and Hyundai doesn’t plan on making that same mistake.
However, first we get a Hyundai potato that looks a lot like a Toyota potato, and indeed like the Idaho russet that was the Honda Insight. And that’s not really anyone’s fault. If Mother Nature had simply taken a few classes at Art Center, we’d all be driving around in Ferrari 330 P4s. But her wind tunnel rewards a somewhat zaftig form with small wheels and a tall, billboard butt. Toyota wrestled with this conundrum on the current Prius by assigning the front and rear styling to Wavy Gravy. But Hyundai has decided to be practical and adorn the Ioniq with a more conventional suite of corporate brand motifs that meld into a pleasing expression of cultured grace.
If the Ioniq looks like an Elantra with a hatchback, that’s because it more or less is. The Ioniq’s 106.3-inch wheelbase is identical to the Elantra’s, and its strut front and multilink rear suspensions, while having more aluminum, owe much to Hyundai’s popular compact. Any driver of the current Elantra won’t even need to spend much time with the Ioniq’s owner’s manual, as the control placement, the classy “piano key” buttons, the technically grained plastics that effectively disguise the cheap bits, and the functions of the central touchscreen are so familiar. Both cars have great, Uber-iffic rear-seat room. Perhaps the best reason to choose the Ioniq over an Elantra is the healthy cargo capacity. Spreading the rear dampers far apart helped create a cavernous barn in back, especially once the rear seats are folded. And the hatch hole is wide and accommodating for large items.
The Ioniq’s other main engineering accomplishments include a relentless thrifting of the internal-combustion engine and incorporating a 12-volt lithium-ion battery into the same pack as the hybrid’s 240-volt, 1.6-kWh lithium-ion battery. Until now, non–plug-in hybrids have typically followed a more conventional route with cheaper, less power-dense (but less tempestuous) nickel-metal-hydride batteries and separate lead-acid 12-volt batteries. In the Ioniq, both the 12- and 240-volt batteries get crammed into a single box compact enough to fit under the rear bench with only a small ventilation grille to give it away. Hyundai also offers the industry’s first lifetime battery warranty, removing one fear that causes potential buyers to reject electrified cars.
Like the Prius, the Ioniq is built for and thrives in the kind of stop-go-stop commuting that helps keep Xanax in short supply. Hyundai sets no benchmarks with the steering feel, which is fairly lifeless, but it does spec expensive Michelin Primacy MXM4 tires with a 65,000-mile warranty on the optional 17-inch wheels (the base 15-inch wheels are shod with Michelin Energy Saver tires). And the Ioniq’s suspension, while a little on the firm side—especially with the tires inflated to the recommended 36 psi, a somewhat high number for a 3173-pound car—does a fine job keeping the rubber facedown, the body fairly upright in corners, and the driver feeling in control. It produced 0.86 g on the skidpad against 0.82 turned in by a 2016 test of the mid-level Prius Three.
The Ioniq runs in a somewhat lethargic Eco mode unless you slide the shifter left, which drops it into Sport mode and perks up the throttle considerably and can also activate a manual-shift mode if you push or pull the shifter and take control of the six-speed dual-clutch automatic. Sport mode also conjures up a tachometer in the digitized instrument cluster to reveal that, even at full tilt, the Ioniq’s gearbox routinely shifts before 5700 rpm, where the 1.6-liter inline-four makes its claimed peak 104 horsepower. Hyundai chose this transmission for its efficiency over a conventional automatic with a torque converter and planetary gearsets—and because it has no two-motor CVT akin to a Prius’s (and because only Honda has ever been allowed by the World Police to build a manual-transmission hybrid). Fully nailed, our Ioniq returned an 8.9-second trot to 60 mph, another drubbing of the 10.5-second Prius, which weighed only 3113 pounds.
Always driving in Sport mode defeats the Ioniq’s purpose as a mileage stretcher, though Eco mode produces only the faintest responses from the gas pedal. This is particularly apparent on the freeway if you’re trying to scurry around someone, especially on a grade. You really have to put the spurs to the Ioniq to tap its modest giddyup, and the rote engine thrum lets you know that this is not a machine built for thrills.
The powertrain switches from electric to gas to combined thrust mostly transparently, though the occasional driveline jerk slips through as the electric motor/generator and six-speed seem to fall out of sync. The car also takes its time shifting between drive and reverse, and unless you hold the brake, it may even roll downhill a bit while its computers do the math and move the levers. The regenerative braking is fairly mild and there’s no max-regen mode as in the plug-in Ioniq or Prius or Chevy Volt, probably because the Ioniq hybrid’s battery capacity is too small to really benefit from it. Thus, you can’t “one-pedal” the Ioniq.
You get limited data about mileage performance, including a percentage breakdown that classifies your driving as either “economical,” “normal,” or “aggressive.” When we calculated our 45-mpg test average, that display showed 49 percent, 42 percent, and 9 percent, respectively, a seemingly normal spread, lest you believe our usual lead feet are what caused the test average to fall well short of the 55-mpg EPA combined rating for our Limited-trim test car. We might have done better if the Ioniq rewarded its handlers for stingier driving through the display, as the Ford C-Max does with its ever-growing leafy vines. That kind of digital pellet-drop can get the mice working harder to excel in the experiment, but the Ioniq offers no such rewards.
Actually, real-world fuel economy in the mid-40s is par for this class. The Prius delivered 42 mpg and 44 mpg on its 54-city/50-highway rating in two separate tests. Hybrids in general shine especially brightly in the EPA’s tests, and the Ioniq appears to be no exception. Whether Hyundai’s hoped-for social changes mean it’ll shine in the showroom is another question, but ride-share drivers wanting only the lowest-priced and most efficient potato will surely come calling, and that’s a start.
Explained: The Finer Points of Gas-Engine Efficiency
Hybrid efficiency is far more complex than pairing an electric motor/generator with a gas engine. The Ioniq’s Atkinson-cycle 1.6-liter inline-four optimizes the miles from every gallon of gas thanks to efficiency-boosting measures such as its water-cooled exhaust-gas-recirculation system. With lower EGR temperatures, the Ioniq’s Kappa engine can fill each cylinder with as much as 20 percent exhaust gas during the intake stroke. The typical uncooled EGR system displaces only 10 percent of the fresh-air charge. Hyundai claims that this difference alone is good for a 3 percent fuel-economy benefit by reducing the engine’s pumping losses.
The engine cooling system uses a split-circuit design to modulate the temperatures of the head and block separately. The control logic opens the cylinder head thermostat at 190 degrees, while coolant starts flowing to the block at 221 degrees. The higher block temperature decreases the viscosity of the oil, reducing friction. Lower cylinder-head temperatures help prevent knock, allowing Hyundai to use a high 13.0:1 compression ratio and more-advanced ignition timing. The engine’s Atkinson-cycle operation further reduces pumping losses with an expansion stroke effectively longer than its compression stroke. The net result is a claimed 40 percent thermal efficiency for the internal-combustion side of Hyundai’s gasoline-electric powertrain.