Four months ago, Seth got a chance to try out the 2017 Hyundai IONIQ Electric at a Hyundai media day, and came away impressed. The IONIQ is Hyundai’s new three-powertrains-on-one-platform model, with a hybrid released and a plug-in hybrid planned, alongside the pure EV model we reviewed. Seth’s takeaway was that the IONIQ compares very favorably to the Prius, the car which it seems aimed to compete against.

Last week, I was given the chance to take a week long test drive of the IONIQ Electric, to go into a deeper dive of how the car works, more than our short test drive could give us (though do have a look at Seth’s review for a lot of the spec details). What I found is that the IONIQ is a lot of car for the money, and a complete game-changer in the “entry-level” EV market.

Interior controls/comfort/cargo

Right out of the gate, the driver of the Hyundai IONIQ is confronted with buttons, buttons and some more buttons. There are buttons that do the same thing as other buttons which do the same thing as a submenu on the touchscreen and then there’s a knob somewhere else for good measure.

There was a time in my life where I would have loved this sort of thing. When I was a child, my number one priority for my future car was for it to have a lot of buttons, knobs and dials in it. And cupholders, don’t forget the cupholders.

Had I seen the IONIQ, at the time, I’d have fallen in love. But in this day and age, with the car that’s changing the world having basically no buttons in it beyond what’s legally required, the IONIQ’s button-heavy interface does seem dated. Even the gear shifter is made of buttons!

But despite my growing out of my buttons phase (as the manufacturers ought to start doing), those buttons do their job fine. It took a little trial and error learning (lots of buttons leads to lots of manual pages which lots of reviewers don’t bother to read), but the interface ended up being usable if not particularly elegant.  The steering wheel gives access to lots of controls, including voice controls – either Hyundai’s voice controls or Siri/Android Auto.

There’s good interior storage with lots of cup and bottle holders and door pockets, an average-sized glovebox and a center console with a USB port inside it (along with the USB port on the dash for plugging into CarPlay/Android Auto).  There’s also plenty of cargo space which I didn’t make use of.  It would be nice if the car had a small “frunk” instead of an ugly, conventional-looking arrangement of tubes and shrouds (and a lead-acid battery, absent from the hybrid version, inexplicably included in the electric version), but unfortunately any possibility of a frunk must have been sacrificed to the god of “multiple-powertrains-in-one-vehicle-platform.”

Can we please stop it with the lead acid already?

The seats are comfortable if not luxurious, no complaints there.  My “Limited” trim (+$3,000) review model had leather seats, though the base model has cloth. The legroom and headroom don’t feel cramped. The rear seat fits two adult passengers just fine, though when I had “two medium and one large” adults in the back (their description), they felt like there wasn’t enough room for more than a short drive across town. Rear air conditioning comes with the Limited trim model.  The climate control system does a great job, though I did notice something weird where it would occasionally, and seemingly randomly, blow cold for a minute or two even when AC was turned off.

Performance/Drive experience

The car drives fine. It drives like a car. It’s got a certain…car…ness…to it. You press the pedal and it goes, you press the other pedal and it stops, and you turn the wheel and it turns.  There’s pretty good visibility all around, the rear window is a little bit tight, but the glass on the top of the trunk does help with visibility through the rear-view mirror, albeit with the effect of having a bar across the center of your view:

The acceleration is mildly peppy, the brakes stop the car about as fast as you’d want them to, and the steering is a bit of a bright point with a pretty good feel to it.  There’s nothing wrong with any of this but also nothing too exceptional about any of it.  It’s more fun than driving an econobox ICE car by virtue of it being an EV, but there are other more fun EVs than this.

To be clear, this car is obviously not meant to be a performance car. It is an efficiency champion, the most efficient car ever sold in the US. It does have three separate drive modes – ECO, normal and sport – though if you want to drive in sport mode you’ll have to manually select it each time you start up. The drive modes do change the motor power available to the driver, and even do so tangibly – if you hold your foot in the same position on the pedal and switch drive modes while driving, the car gives a noticeable difference in power in each mode.

But it does suffer from the flaw of having the battery in the rear and having a light-but-torquey-ish electric drive motor, attached to high-efficiency low-rolling-resistance wheels, in the front. This means the wheels will have a hard time finding purchase when accelerating (and makes me wonder, as I often do, why there are so few rear-wheel drive EVs, or at least EVs where the drive wheels are under the heavier axle for better traction). So even in “sport” mode you’ll have a tough time getting anywhere too quickly from 0mph, since the drive wheels are fairly prone to losing grip.

I found myself breaking the drive wheels loose with moderate acceleration even at 20-25mph, especially if the steering wheel was turned even a little. This is not a safety issue to worry about, as the car obviously has traction control and it is front-wheel drive so it is unlikely to suffer from oversteer, but it can be annoying to chirp the wheels and sound like you’re driving like a madman when you aren’t even doing anything particularly “sporty,” and it’s certainly a bit disappointing compared to the performance of other EVs I’ve driven (including the non-Teslas).

The IONIQ will not win this race.

Three regenerative braking levels are selectable from the paddles on the back of the steering wheel, and different defaults can be set for each drive mode – strong regen in ECO mode and weak regen in normal mode, for example (I set all three modes to strong regen). The regen is reasonably strong but you’ll need to use the brake pedal to come to a complete stop – which is somewhat of a weird experience, as the car uses some sort of blended/electronic braking where at very low speeds the braking isn’t tied directly to the pedal and it seems to have a mind of its own. This occurs only at very low speeds when you were coming to a complete stop anyway, but it was slightly unsettling.

Again, though, these performance-related issues aren’t much of a complaint, because it’s not the point of the car. The point is efficiency.  Which it does a tremendous job at.

Efficiency & Charging

This car is insanely efficient.  And even more impressively, it does so without looking like it. Compare to the Volkswagen XL1, VW’s ridiculous hybrid concept car which spent more than a decade in development and looks like the very definition of a “weirdmobile,” with a drag coefficient of .19, only two seats (in a staggered side-by-side arrangement) and even worse performance than the IONIQ – or just about anything else, for that matter.  That car, a plug-in hybrid diesel, manages to get 50km/31mi on NEDC testing out of a 5.5kWh battery, for 5.63mi/kWh or 177Wh/mi.

Meanwhile, the Hyundai IONIQ EV, a normal, even nice-looking car (I got a fair amount of compliments), which seats 4 adults comfortably and a fifth with a bit of squeezing, with all the normal amenities you would expect out of a modern car and a reasonably comfortable interior if nothing particularly luxurious (and plenty of cupholders), gets 250km/160mi on the same NEDC test. From a 28 kWh battery, that translates to 5.71 mi/kWh or 175 Wh/mi.  (*on the EPA test, the IONIQ gets 124 miles, but I used NEDC to compare against the XL1, which was never sold in the US)

Yes, the Hyundai IONIQ EV is more efficient than that weird €111,000 pod car which is destined to only ever be seen in public as a piece in the musem of “failed car concepts from companies that were just trying to cover up the fact that their diesel engines were causing the deaths of thousands.”

While NEDC/EPA numbers are great, many drivers find it difficult to attain these numbers in practical driving circumstances. I, for one, do not – I typically have an easy time beating EPA efficiency numbers for driving, though I understand that others may encounter different driving conditions than I.  As my “range test” of the vehicle I took a few drives on Southern California freeways in typical freeway driving conditions to see how it would fare.

One, in particular, was an 80-mile roundtrip drive on the famously-busy 405 freeway to go to a meetup with some local EV owners. On the way up, I was in typical Southern California traffic – no carpool sticker for me today in my review car, I’d have to brave the wild west of normal multi-lane traffic.  And worse, it was a hot day, which means I would have to use that bane of EV range…CLIMATE CONTROL!

(Incidentally, the car does one really neat thing: as you change the temperature or strength of the climate control system, the range estimator updates live to tell you how your climate control is likely to affect your estimated range remaining, which is also based on your recent driving patterns)

So, surely being stuck in slow traffic, stopping and going, with the air conditioning blowing all along and draining my battery would offer a challenge to this poor car’s meager 28 kWh worth of energy storage?

The Model S is a better car, but will cost you three times as much.

Not so at all. On my drive, with the conditions stated above, I managed a fantastic 5.6mi/kWh according to the in-car “trip summary.” On the way home, driving higher average speeds but with AC turned off, my efficiency was similar but slightly lower. Overall, I managed to drive 80 miles and still had nearly half of the battery left when I got home – 47%.  So much for that “range test.” Guess I should have turned around and done the drive twice instead.

Without really thinking about efficient driving, I could have taken this car well over 150 miles, quite a bit more than the 124 mile EPA range. It’s no 670 miles, but for a reasonably-priced, well-appointed car with a 28kWh battery driving in normal conditions, this is insanely impressive. Hyundai even did it without looking like a weirdmobile. Even the semi-aerodynamic rims look fine – with a little help from plastic wheel cover inserts, similar to those on the Model 3.

And along with its great efficiency, it also has future-proofed quick charging with a standard onboard 100kW CCS plug. Should 100kW chargers ever become commonly available, the IONIQ will be able to charge from 0% to 80% in 23 minutes (side note: PlugShare should let users sort chargers by charge rate, there are 24kW chargers listed as “high power stations” on the app, which is a bit of a stretch of the term “high power” I would say).

All of this efficiency inspired me to take the IONIQ to a nice nature drive nearby. It was quiet. I could hear the birds. I could also hear the alien-like buzzing sound which Hyundai added at low speeds, in advance of the NHTSA’s required-noisemaker rule which keeps getting pushed back. It wasn’t that intrusive from inside the car, honestly, but I still think we can come up with a better solution for pedestrians than a cacophony of different noises for each different car model.  We should be making the world quieter, not noisier.

I cannot say it enough. When it comes to battery capacity (given the price range) and efficiency, Hyundai knocked it completely out of the park. The charging capability is great too, though the lack of a charging network is a drawback. Other automakers do need to learn from Tesla and support more high-wattage quick charger installations, and on inter-city routes, not just haphazard intra-city locations which don’t meaningfully add to the utility of the car.

Tech Gizmos

My review unit had all the options – the “Limited” trim level (+$3,000, leather, memory power driver seat, rear AC, auto-dimming rearview mirror, blind spot detection, folding side mirrors, LED headlights and more) and the Ultimate Package (+$3,500, sunroof, emergency braking, smart cruise control, lane departure warning, turning headlights, upgraded speakers, and more). At least fully-equipped, the IONIQ quite a nice suite of modern add-on features, and they do work quite well, but these options bring the total cost of the review unit to $36,885 including destination charges, which is getting quite far from the car’s $29,500 base price and into Model 3 and Bolt EV territory.

The base model has CarPlay and Android Auto which work as expected, backup camera, heated mirrors and cloth front seats, and Hyundai’s “Blue Link” system which allows remote access to the car through a smartphone app with 3 years of included service with the car.  I was unable to test the Blue Link feature, but I did download the app and try to use it in “demo mode,” although the list of demo cars does not include any of the IONIQ models. Someone should tell Hyundai’s app team that this car exists, please.

The built-in touchscreen interface gives access to a good amount of the settings that you might want access to, but the interface is very laggy and not necessarily well-organized. Hyundai’s nav system takes voice commands, but in a fairly unnatural way – you need to say the state, then the address, then select from a list of addresses the car thinks is the right address, and you need to wait between each of these steps while it figures everything out.  You can’t just say “take me to 123 destination boulevard” and have the car figure it out in one go. I found myself using CarPlay instead most of the time, despite my desire to test the built-in system. I suspect that most drivers will end up doing the same.

My traffic test also afforded me the chance to use Hyundai’s “Smart Cruise Control” system, a sort of proto-autopilot system which will follow the car in front of you in traffic, at a distance you set, but will not steer for you (*on the 2018 IONIQ, Hyundai has added Lane Keep Assist which will help you stay in your lane).  These systems are becoming more common in new cars these days. I’m pleased to say it worked quite well. My only quibble is that the system was designed for a gas car, so would apply friction brakes perhaps a little too early, wasting energy which could have been saved by regenerative braking. This is an insignificant complaint, though, as I still had a very efficient drive in traffic, as stated above, even using Smart Cruise Control.

Other driver safety aids are also less active than autopilot, but still well-implemented. The lane departure warning system sounds an alert if you leave your lane without having a blinker on, and the alert only plays from the speakers on the side of the car on which you are departing your lane. Nice touch.  There were a few false positives and a few false negatives, and the system (along with blind spot alert) can be toggled with one of the myriad buttons in the cockpit if you find it annoying.

As long as we’re talking about high-tech features, here’s a persistent quibble with all EVs but Tesla: The IONIQ’s key is one of those “you don’t have to put it in the ignition but you do have to press some superfluous buttons to get the car going” types which shows that legacy manufacturers are still missing a lot of the little details that Tesla gets right. This key does have a proximity sensor so you can press a button on the door handle to unlock the car and then operate the handle normally to get into the car – so you don’t have to take the key out of your pocket or purse. Great so far.

But then you sit down in the car and have to press a button to start the car.  I found myself in the situation more than once where I had to press the power button multiple times because I couldn’t figure out if the car was “running,” or in accessory mode, or off.  I also found myself leaving the car “on” and being greeted with an annoying buzz when I left the car, more than once. I’m sure this would happen less often with practice or had I read the 500+ page manual, but why is this button even necessary?

When you sit down in the car, everyone knows the car is going somewhere, and if it isn’t, and it’s an EV, then who cares whether it’s turned on or off. It’s not like “idling” an EV is wasting any significant energy, burning gas, causing wear and tear on the engine, or filling your garage with carbon monoxide as it might do on an ICE car.  There’s no reason to need to press the start button.  The car should know.

This attention to detail is the difference between a car built as an EV from the ground up and a car built as a retrofit.  Hyundai has done an admirable job, but the small details like this one need work from all legacy manufacturers.  Tesla does this right.  Other manufacturers do it wrong.  Get on Tesla’s level.

Availability

As of now, the IONIQ Electric is only available in California in the US and a few other markets.  And when I say “available,” I mean “sold out because they made a really great car at a great price and then didn’t order enough batteries to make enough of them, and when they noticed demand was overshooting estimates by at least 2x, they increased production by 50% which is still obviously not enough, so get with it Hyundai and make a lot more of this great car.”

There’s a facebook group with several posts from new owners who have just taken delivery of their cars, often met with comments from envious prospective owners who are eagerly awaiting their backordered car.  This is nothing new in the “early adopter of a new EV model” scene, but Hyundai’s miscalculation seems palpable here.  On specs alone this car shatters the entire entry-level EV market, and when looks and practicality and completeness of the package, along with Hyundai’s innovative financing model, are taken into account, it seems a no-brainer that this car would sell more than 6-7k units, even just in California.

So I am loathe to use the “C” word to describe this great little car, but with low numbers and only California availability currently (at least in the US), Hyundai might be thinking that the EV version of this model will be sold for compliance (*gasp*) whereas their main focus for nation- and worldwide rollout would be the hybrid version. I do hope that this is not their intent, as this car is a great value and I believe offering it only in certain markets/small numbers would be a mistake. But my local dealerships are stocked to the gills with hybrid IONIQs with nary an all-electric version in sight, or even on the radar. “You can leave your name and we can call you when one comes in, but they’re usually already spoken for once they get here” said the dealership just miles away from Hyundai USA headquarters (paraphrased).

Value

On the higher end of the price range, with all options included (as was the case for the car I tested), the IONIQ does bump up against the base-model Bolt EV, at $36,885.   This is before the federal $7,500 tax credit and any state and local rebates or credits you might also qualify for (CA gives $2,500-$4,000 rebate depending on income, some regions/utilities in CA give their own rebates as well).

At that price, I’m partial to the Bolt EV, because you get much more performance for the money in a more dedicated EV package, though with fewer features since we’re comparing a base model Bolt with a fully-loaded IONIQ. That is, unless you can get discounts, which are certainly available on the Bolt.  But at anything other than fully-equipped, the IONIQ has a price/practicality value which can’t be matched by anything.  And at all option levels the IONIQ does still beat the Bolt in some realms, like efficiency and charging capabilities.  The Bolt doesn’t even come standard with DC charging capability, that’s a $750 option and even when equipped, the Bolt’s 54kW charger is slower than the IONIQ’s 100kW port.

Hyundai’s financing scheme is quite interesting too.  The car is available with a $275/month, zero-down (after CA state rebates) “subscription” model, which differs from a lease in that it has no mileage restrictions and includes just about every cost you can imagine associated with car ownership – including tires and even the cost of charging. Leases are popular with EVs because the lessor takes the credit and rolls it into reduced lease payments for the car, so you don’t have to worry about your current tax liability. This is especially important for people buying a more entry-level car like the IONIQ, who might not have $7,500 in federal tax liability in any given year, as the credit is non-refundable and cannot be rolled forward into future tax years (it’s “use it or lose it”).

Nissan is coming out with an updated LEAF soon, and other manufacturers promise various cars to compete in the same price and feature range. But there are also rumors that Hyundai will update the IONIQ soon, so if it does fall behind in the value race then it might not be long before it leapfrogs back to the front.

I can only write for right now, though, and as of now, the IONIQ occupies a unique space in the lower-cost-but-still-practical EV market. I will even go so far as to claim that this car’s feature package for the price effectively makes obsolete all pure EVs other than the Model 3 and Bolt EV (at least at new car MSRP basis – lease deals are available on some models, like the Fiat 500e, which can still make it attractive, and used cars can be had for much lower price of course).

There simply is no other car that offers anywhere near the feature package at the price at which Hyundai has offered the IONIQ – at least for the base model.  If you’re looking for an EV and you don’t want to spend as much as you would on a Bolt or Model 3, and you live in California, get the IONIQ EV. If you can find one.