Car Reviews First Tests

2017 Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid and EV First Test

America’s new most efficient car, is much more than the anti-Prius

America’s new most efficient car, is much more than the anti-Prius

Probably the worst decision I’ve ever made in reviewing cars was a comparison test about eight years ago. We paired a Toyota Prius against the then-new second-generation Honda Insight, and I was tied in knots struggling to rationalize which to pick. Finally, the lizard-eyed managing editor demanded the copy, so I put my fingers on the keyboard and started typing. Something. Anything. I panicked. It turned out to be the stupidest conclusion of my entire life:

“(The Insight) is the first hybrid that’s simultaneously within the reach of just about every pocketbook and also a solid business proposition for its builder … delivering nearly identical mileage as the current Prius at about 85 percent of the price. … It’s a milestone that can’t go unnoticed.”

Well, actually it went spectacularly unnoticed.

After reading my copy, Art St. Antoine (not the lizard-eyed editor) advised me, in the apoplectic staccato he reserved for office idiots, that I was freaking nuts. He even wrote a rebuttal. Anybody with a pea brain, he sputtered, would spend the money to get the clearly better Prius. He was right; the Insight was an inert device. I’d gotten lost on an M.C. Escher staircase of logical, economic reasoning, forgetting to stop climbing and just realize that most people don’t want utterly logical cars that make sense. Before long, the Insight blew away like a dried automotive tumbleweed.

I was wincing with flashbacks as Hyundai began its presentation of the new Ioniq. The mics were queued. And soon the monitors were flipping through infographics that were quickly zeroing in on—as they so often do these days—those all-important millennials. (Are they too college-debt-ridden to buy cars anymore? What will we do?)

But right at the brink of full on channeling the 2009 Insight, they quickly backpedaled away. At current gas prices, Hyundai’s way too smart to pitch any of the Ioniq’s three drivetrain variants—hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and BEV—based purely on their spectacular efficiencies.
2017 Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid front three quarter in motion 07

Which are pretty spectacular, by the way. The Hybrid version can produce a nose-bleed 58 mpg combined (for the Blue edition; the other trims register 55), express-elevating it right past the Prius to the pinnacle of the high-mileage Himalayas. And remarkably (or maybe it’s to avoid the indignity of licensing Toyota technology) it nabs the trophy via a completely different engineering recipe.

Whereas the Toyota whirs via its mysterious and magical planetary CVT, the Ioniq’s wizardry (shared with its platform partner, the Kia Niro) appears to be fairly unremarkable: a 104-hp 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine coupled to a six-speed dual-clutch transmission with an electric motor in there somewhere. Where does 58 mpg come from? Here, put on these X-ray glasses.

Blink a few times to get used to them. Ah, you see, the engine has an unusually long stroke (a 1.35 stroke/bore ratio). And there are these sodium-filled exhaust valves to help deny detonation, and across the cylinder head from them are these late-closing intake valves that simulate the short compression/long expansion of an Atkinson cycle. Add in this high-pressure (200-bar) direct-injection here, and you’ve got a package that can sometimes spike the engine’s efficiency as high as 40 percent (a feat only Toyota matches).

Sometimes, the Ioniq Hybrid moves solely by the 43-hp electric motor on the nose of its six-speed DCT as the decoupled engine awaits summoning (which is longer than you’d expect because its 1.6-kW-hr lithium-ion battery, nestled next to the fuel tank under the rear seat, is twice the size of the Prius’ li-ion pack). If your right foot requests more, a starter fires the engine, swelling its rpm to seamlessly match the e-motor’s spin to which it seamlessly clutch-couples. The acceleration experience here is entirely different than a Prius’—and there are plusses and minuses. Although the Toyota’s CVT solution is more fluid and graceful, the Ioniq’s six stepped gears make it react quicker and evades the CVT’s notorious disconnect between throttle motions and engine noise (plus allows the electric motor to be smaller). It certainly feels more conventional. Only once, during a long, multisecond throttle-foot stomp, did a harsh gearshift appear, raising an eyebrow. Otherwise, during normal driving, Hyundai’s software seems spectacularly adept at choreographing the otherwise unruly ballet of automated clutching and rev-matching.

So let’s say that accounts for something like 52 of those 58 mpg. Where does the rest come from? Painstakingly burnishing the details: the striking 95.7 percent torque-transfer efficiency of the transmission and the body shell’s 0.24 Cd (abetted by automatic, three-stage shutters in the grill). There are subtler contributors, too, such as a release spring to retract the brake pads more quickly after stopping and software support such as topographical data along your nav route to intelligently time the battery’s depletions and replenishments. As an aside, here’s a very cool detail, too. Have you ever wondered why the heck a hybrid (with a charged lithium-ion battery) can wind up dead because its conventional lead-acid starter battery went flat? Yeah, that’s, like, dumb. The Ioniq deletes that 26-pound lead-acid sea anchor for a 12-volt source integrated right into the hybrid’s pack; if it somehow dies, there’s a button to essentially jump-start the engine from the big guy.
2017 Hyundai Ioniq Plug In front three quarter 03

All this becomes the scaffolding for two big additions that remodel the Ioniq Hybrid into its even more efficient plug-in version: a 39 percent bump in electric motor power and the battery’s inflation to 8.9 kW-hrs. After 2.25 hours suckling (at conventional 3.3-kW rate) from a Level 2 source, the plug-in can travel more than 27 EV miles (pipping the Prius Prime’s 25) before the system lapses back into what’s basically a slightly heavier version of the base Hybrid.

Remarkably, for the Ioniq’s EV version, Hyundai takes all this extraordinary engineering and tosses it aside. Replacing it is the almost stick-figure simplicity of an even bigger 118-hp electric motor (with only one gear reduction and zero clutches) plus a 28-kW-hr battery that physically swells back into the bottom of the cargo bay. Range?

(Hyundai) “Hey, let’s talk efficiency, shall we?” OK, we’ll talk about efficiency.

Here the Ioniq EV does it again, bettering every battery-electric car out there with a combined 136 mpg-e, edging its nearest challenger, the BMW i3’s 124. (Both the Bolt and VW e-Golf ring in at 119. Check the chart below for Real MPG results) Smoothing the way to that number is a gleaming black aerodynamic prow replacing the shuttered, air-admitting grill, further reducing drag (and refining the heck out of the EV’s looks, too). But, umm, what about the range?

(Hyundai) “Hey, did you notice its four levels of regen, selectable by these paddles behind the steering wheel spokes?” That’s cool, but it’d be even cooler if it brought the car to a complete halt as the Bolt’s can. But about that range … “The EV version also gets its own button-activated shifter…” OK, stop, what’s the range!

“124 miles”

That would have been a banner number six months ago, right? But as we all know—and Hyundai knows intimately—the Bolt’s 238-mile range has turned the business on its ear, virtually obsoleting anything with less. (A bigger-battery Hyundai that’s not the Ioniq will be coming later.) Rather than being sheepish, though, Hyundai countered by putting the financial consequences of a 238-mile battery into some practical perspective. For instance, the Bolt’s additional 32 kW-hrs costs the equivalent of trading up from a Hyundai Elantra to a Sonata.

I drew a little star in my notebook and then crossed it out upon a statement I regard as, well, deceptive: 98 percent of U.S. new-vehicle buyers do not intend to drive more than 100 miles on a daily basis. Maybe they don’t, but the difference between not intending and occasionally needing is the difference between 98 percent of the public considering an EV and their 0.48 percent market share last year. Another wincer is that plugging in simply transfers emissions to smoke stacks somewhere you don’t see. Although Hyundai’s infographic posited that 67 percent of America’s electricity is still generated from fossil fuels, the cleanliness of your particular electricity wildly depends on where you’ve plugged in. It’s like saying that, on average, the Earth is submerged by seawater. However, the presentation made a fortunate U-turn at the last second when Hyundai described the Ioniq’s eco-friendly interior materials. Such as 25 percent of its soft-touch surfaces sourced from sugar cane, and the weight of the harder plastic drops by 20 percent due to mixed-in powdered wood and volcanic rock. Really.

But if millennials are unmoved by hyper-high mileage these days, maybe they’ll be lured by the Ioniq’s affordability and low operating costs. And maybe skip Uber?

Believe it or not, right now as I’m typing this—and it’s 8:56 p.m.—I’ve get a text from my buddy Larry who’s a millennial himself and is offering his unsolicited opinion of the Ioniq. I’m not kidding. “It really does look like a hybrid” he begins.

Curious why he says that, I text back: “Is it the car’s profile that suggests ‘hybrid’?”

Larry: “Yup, definitely. To be exact, the last-gen Prius look.” He doesn’t sound sold.

Me: “OK, so what if I told you that the average new car costs $2.24 to drive 25 miles, but in the Ioniq Hybrid would cost you $1.00. Would that persuade you?”

Larry: “Me as me or the price-sensitive general public?”

Me: “You as a millennial who is facing classic millennial challenges.” A few minutes pass.

I sense he’s still edgy about it being too Prius-like. Larry texts: “Hmm, I’m very biased because I love cars and enjoy driving…”

2017 Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid Blue front three quarter in motion 03
Check out the Real MPG and test results for an Ioniq hybrid and Ioniq EV in the chart below.

And that’s exactly how guys like Larry just might be enticed by the Ioniq. What he doesn’t know is that on the road, it’s way nimbler and more entertaining than I was prepared for. With a proper independent rear suspension supporting the sterns of the hybrid and plug-in (and the EV’s sheer low center of gravity), their electric motors’ instant torque, their brake pedals’ better-than-most regen predictability, and their steering’s surprisingly accuracy, the Ioniq’s driving dynamics can’t be contained by the usual connotations of ultra-efficient driving. Moreover, Larry could add extra athleticism by selecting Sport mode, which keeps the engine always on, quickens the clutching, and firms the steering while the instrument display shifts to a more intense palette. Plus, there’s plenty of cool millennial tech features, such as being able to tell Amazon’s Alexa to “charge my Ioniq” via Hyundai’s Blue Link app.

Meanwhile, his millennial-stretched finances would welcome the Hybrid’s MSRP, which ranges from $23,035 for the Blue to $31,335 for the Limited’s Ultimate package—with almost all trims undercutting the Prius. (The plug-in will arrive in the fourth quarter.) If he goes EV, the battery version starts at $30,335 ($22,835 after the federal tax credit and declining further to $20,335 including California’s clean vehicle rebate). The deal’s sweetened by the EV being prepped for (standard) 100-kW fast charging, a lifetime warranty on the hybrid and EV’s battery (against complete failure; it’s transferability is still being debated), and a 36-month, zero-down (after the $2,500 rebate) subscription model that covers the EV’s title, license, dealer fees, and regular maintenance and even compensates for EV charging costs. All of which should get Larry’s attention as he hunts for a job with his new economics degree.

So is the Ioniq the Insight revisited? Hyundai is obviously playing it safe with the Ioniq’s styling—a good or bad thing, depending on how your eyes react to the Prius. And maybe they’ve been a little too careful with its interior, which is basically indistinguishable from a conventionally powered Hyundai’s. Dimensionally it’s Prius-like, too. It’s 2.7 inches shorter and 2.4 inches wider and has a bit more passenger and cargo space. And most obviously, it’s clearly hell-bent on beating the Prius’s mileage numbers—to such a degree that the racket from the Ioniq’s low rolling resistance tires was a noticeable issue. But unlike the Honda Insight, which was blind-focused on a strategy of being not quite a Prius at not quite the cost, Hyundai is asking us to see the Ioniq as a very good car that just happens to be a deal, delivers ridiculous mileage, and is fun to drive. If you compare it to a Prius, well, that’s good, too. And when we do, I suspect Art St. Antoine won’t be calling me to complain.

2017 Hyundai Ioniq EV Limited 2017 Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid Limited
BASE PRICE $33,335 $28,335
PRICE AS TESTED $36,835 $31,560
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-motor, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback
MOTOR Interior-permanent magnet synchronous motor/118 hp/210-lb-ft 1.6L/104 hp/109 lb-ft Atkinson-cycle DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus 43-hp/125-lb-ft electric motor; 139 hp comb
TRANSMISSION 1-speed automatic 6-speed twin-clutch auto.
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,266 lb (50/50%) 3,159 lb (60/40%)
WHEELBASE 106.3 in 106.3 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 176.0 x 71.7 x 57.1 in 176.0 x 71.7 x 56.9 in
0-60 MPH 8.1 sec 9.4 sec
QUARTER MILE 16.3 sec @ 84.0 mph 17.1 sec @ 80.8 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 124 ft 124 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.81 g (avg) 0.87 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.0 sec @ 0.59 g (avg) 27.5 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)
REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB 159.8/143.1/151.8 mpg-e 57.3/46.3/51.8 mpg
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 150/122/136 mpg 55/54/55 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 22/28 kW-hrs/100 miles 61/62 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB  0.00 lb/mile 0.36 lb/mile