Gas prices are anticipated to stay low for the next couple of years, so what’s with Hyundai launching a Toyota Prius fighter now? The reason the 2017 Hyundai Ioniq hybrid is here, according to Hyundai executives, is that they’re playing the long game that downplays regulatory landscapes and fuel prices. Toyota had the same faraway target when it started its hybrid development in a similar climate in the 1990s, and that approach has earned Hyundai a legitimate place at the table today.
Dr. Ki-Sang Lee, who has seen the project through nearly 12 years of development, from the formation of an eco-car powertrain division in 2005 to the first Ioniq deliveries to dealerships in the United States this year, said the goal from the outset has been to beat the Prius in fuel economy. And now Hyundai has a model that does exactly that, with an EPA combined rating of up to 58 mpg.
Of course, that number has to stand up in the real world, and it bears close scrutiny considering the company’s 2012 EPA-mileage scandal here in the U.S., where Hyundai was caught inflating its mpg estimates. But where Hyundai’s offerings once were heavier and thirstier than those from rivals Toyota or Honda, the company is now fully competitive. The Sonata hybrid has graduated from clumsy to contender, for example, stacking up well against hybrid versions of the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord.
Just as in the Sonata hybrid, the Ioniq has an electric motor/generator that’s fixed to the transmission’s input shaft; a multiplate clutch brings the engine into the mix whenever it’s needed. But pretty much everything else is different. The Ioniq deploys the full arsenal: a 104-hp Atkinson-cycle 1.6-liter gasoline engine with a claimed 40 percent thermal efficiency (a figure that’s still relatively rare outside of diesels); a dual-clutch automatic transmission chosen for its lightness and low friction losses; a lightweight 1.6-kWh lithium-ion battery pack; an aluminum hood, liftgate, and suspension components; a platform (shared with the Kia Niro) that’s ready for autonomous technology; and an exterior that has been finessed to achieve an astonishingly low 0.24 coefficient of drag.
Despite the Ioniq’s wind-cheating Kamm-back profile, the styling is far more conservative than that of the polarizing Prius. The Ioniq hybrid is similarly straightforward inside, with a horizontally oriented dashboard, a sprinkling of bright trim, and plenty of soft-touch materials (in this case derived from sugarcane). The shift lever is a traditional PRND affair rather than something like the Prius’s oddball stalk, and the instrument cluster has a simple analog look, with a round speedometer flanked by an eco-driving gauge on the left and a battery state-of-charge meter on the right. You can call up a small power-source graphic and a few other efficiency tallies on the touchscreen, but you won’t need Starfleet Academy accreditation to operate anything.
How Goes It
With the transmission in drive and a light foot on the gas, the Ioniq takes off gently from a standing start propelled by electric power alone—the inline-four engine generally won’t start pitching in until about 20 or 25 mph. You hear shifts from the six-speed automatic but don’t necessarily feel them, as the motor system has a damping effect. In drive, upshifts happen quite early and any quick prod of the accelerator is met with a momentary delay before the additional thrust arrives. Sliding the shift lever to the left engages Sport mode, which makes throttle tip-in far more aggressive, changes the shift points, and lets the engine rev a lot higher in general. Sport mode quickens the response of the accelerator, but it keeps the gasoline engine on nearly all the time, at the expense of fuel economy.
The Ioniq’s hybrid powertrain suffers a few drivability quirks. Under very light throttle—when parking, for instance—there’s an uncomfortably long pause before power arrives, and on an incline the Ioniq will sometimes roll backward in the meantime. But we couldn’t replicate the low-speed bucking and rolling-stop uncertainties we noticed in the closely related Niro—perhaps an indication that Hyundai has further refined this system.
The biggest drivability disappointment with the Ioniq hybrid is a complete lack of regenerative braking when coasting. There is little or no engine braking, and the Hyundai doesn’t have anything like the Prius’s selectable B (braking) mode. Manually downshifting to the lowest available gear in the Sport gate only revs the engine higher without providing regenerative braking. Riding the brake pedal and setting a low cruise-control speed were the only work-arounds we could find.
On the other hand, we’re impressed at how unobtrusively the gasoline engine goes in and out of the mix. We saw the engine turn off for the better part of a minute while going more than 70 mph on a long, gentle downhill grade, then rejoin the effort with no perceptible vibration when the road leveled. The powertrain is set up for coasting, and the Ioniq’s navigation system even includes a feature incorporating GPS data, advising the driver when to lift off the accelerator for freeway off-ramps, for instance.
Achieving the Ioniq’s goal to also beat the Prius dynamically would have been a cinch against the previous, third-generation Toyota model. However, the redesigned suspension in the current fourth-generation version of the Prius makes it somewhat more athletic when the road twists and turns. The Ioniq plays on the same field, though, meaning it doesn’t necessarily make any wrong moves but isn’t all that inspiring. Shifting to Sport mode also changes the steering parameters slightly, adding more off-center effort.
One key difference in the Ioniq’s favor: the sounds that emanate from the engine compartment. Open the windows under full-throttle acceleration and the Ioniq, well, it may not sound like a sports car, but it doesn’t sound like a Prius either.
From the front seat, you could be driving a nicely trimmed Elantra—the Ioniq has a very typical compact-sedan driving position. Hyundai officials told us that they benchmarked the Prius seats—probably not the best choice, as the previous-generation Toyota was no shining beacon of comfort. Hyundai claims more interior volume than both the Prius and the Niro, although anyone more than six-feet tall is going to find rear headroom lacking; with the available sunroof, the Ioniq’s front-seat headroom also feels less generous than that of the Prius. The Hyundai hatchback’s cargo hold is especially deep, though, and there’s a lot of flexibility and practicality baked into this type of car design. Outward visibility is hit and miss; on the one hand, there are big door-mounted side mirrors, yet the rear pillars make parking maneuvers a challenge.
The idea of what it means to be green appears to be changing in real time. In a bid to hit that moving target, Hyundai is fielding a whole family of Ioniq models. In addition to this conventional hybrid, a fully electric Ioniq with no internal-combustion engine arrives at dealerships in April, and the Ioniq plug-in hybrid arrives this fall with an EPA-rated 27 miles of electric-only driving.
Hyundai has undercut the Prius on pricing, and it’s worth noting that if you want the most fuel-efficient Ioniq it’s also the most affordable one—the $23,025 Ioniq Blue, which includes a good set of standard features but does skimp on some sound insulation and trim. We spent our driving time in a gussied-up Ioniq Limited with the Ultimate package, which includes swiveling headlamps, adaptive cruise control, and Infinity premium audio, among other goodies. That version is rated at 55 mpg city, 54 highway.
Does fuel efficiency matter anymore? Well, the Toyota Prius rose to sales success at a time when gas was relatively cheap, a feat that made its initial surge as a volume seller such a coup. The Ioniq passes muster as a normal car, which is Hyundai’s own coup in the segment. Now we wait to see how it fares in a not-so-welcoming hybrid market.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback
BASE PRICES: Blue, $23,035;
ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve Atkinson-cycle 1.6-liter inline-4, 104 hp, 109 lb-ft; permanent-magnet synchronous AC motor/generator, 43 hp, 125 lb-ft; combined output, 139 hp, 195 lb-ft; 1.6-kWh lithium-ion battery pack
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Length: 176.0 in
Width: 71.7 in Height: 56.9 in
Passenger volume: 96 cu ft
Cargo volume: 27 cu ft
Curb weight (C/D est): 3100 lb
PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 10.5 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 32.0 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 17.9 sec
Top speed: 115 mph
EPA combined/city/highway driving: 55–58/55–57/54–59 mpg