What a concept: Driving an electric car without having to cast nervous glances at the battery level, or perform mental gymnastics to know if you can get where you want to go and back again. The Hyundai Kona Electric, with its EPA-affirmed 258 mile driving range, gives its owners a nice long leash—and a reasonably affordable auto loan. That 258-mile range is 20 more than the Chevrolet Bolt offers, a vast 107-mile edge over the Nissan Leaf, and essentially matches the 260 miles of the new “mid-range” Tesla Model 3.
While I was humming to and fro in the Kona last week, Hyundai announced a $37,495 base price for a model that goes on sale in California in January, followed shortly by its arrival in showrooms in Zero Emissions Vehicle-focused states along the West Coast and in the Northeast. (Customers in other states can still special-order their own Kona Electric.) Almost certainly uncoincidentally, $37,495 is exactly the starting price of the Chevy Bolt. As with the Chevy, this luxury-level tab becomes more palatable after a $7,500 federal tax credit, revealing a take-home price of $29,995 for the base model—though Hyundai hasn’t divulged what you’d pay for the top-rank Ultimate version I tested. Based on its equipment levels and Hyundai’s fealty to value, I’m guessing the loaded Ultimate will go for around $36,000, post-credit.
As it happens, I’d been driving a gasoline-powered Hyundai Kona just before switching into the Electric. That fossil-fueled Kona was powered by its optional 1.6-liter turbo four, mated to Hyundai’s mediocre, dual-clutch automated gearbox. And I’m happy to report that the Kona Electric is the more-compelling choice, as long as you’ve got a handy place (or places) to plug in.
The juiced version is quieter and far more energy-efficient, of course, at an EPA-rated 120 mpg-e combined and a respective 130 and 108 mpg-e in city and on the highway. That 120 mpg-e nips the Bolt by one mpg-e, and rips the mere 30 mpg of the most-frugal gasoline Konas. I saw closer to 110 mpg-e during my weeklong test, but that’s still outstanding mileage.
The electric version also feels zippier, with an electric equivalent of 201 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of peak torque, versus just 175 horses and 195 pound-feet for the turbocharged Kona. On paper, the 0-60 mph times—6.4 seconds for the Kona Electric, versus 6.7 seconds for the Kona turbo—don’t seem dramatically different. But on real roads, the Kona Electric’s instant-on torque and single-speed gearbox make it notably more responsive, especially in city and suburban driving.
The standard model’s only real advantage, aside from gas stations stretching as far as the eye can see, is the optional AWD that you can’t have in the front-driven EV version. And honestly, AWD is hardly a priority for nano-scale crossovers like this Kona, which stretches only 164.6 inches—about four inches longer than a Honda Fit hatchback.
The Kona is a reasonably cute little crossover, in that troll-doll way people tend to love or hate. Oddball bits include a four-eyed face with LED running lights stacked above conventional headlamps, though the Electric thankfully ditches the headlamp cladding that’s a literal black eye on the gas version. The EV’s mesh-patterned front fascia, in lieu of the gasoline model’s traditional radiator grille, conceals the charge port and its glowing state-of-charge indicator. My Kona featured snazzy teal paint and a cabin trimmed in EV-customary pale gray and blue, the cool tones implying a world in which planetary temperatures are in check and black coal is forever banished. Hey, an owner can dream...even as she carries a Magic Eraser to scrub any pesky scuff marks inside.
And unlike the Bolt and its cracker-box cabin, the Kona never suggests that its maker blew the development budget on a pricey EV battery and had nothing left for the interior. Push-button controls for the transmission replace the gasoline model’s console lever, though that's not entirely an improvement; the buttons, with their tiny lighted telltales, could be more assertive in showing exactly what gear you’re in. The flying-bridge console does its part to suggest modernity, with storage space below. An optional, 8.0-inch touchscreen navigation system perches over the dash, bookended with useful hard switches, and complemented by a 7.0-inch LCD driver’s gauge cluster.
A pop-up head-up display is one of several luxury touches on the Ultimate edition, including a 315-watt Infinity audio system, leather wrapped seats with heating and ventilation up front, and a heated steering wheel. And the premium infotainment system brings standard Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, Sirius XM radio and Hyundai’s latest Blue Link LTE connectivity. Hyundai’s “Smart Sense” safety suite is standard on all models, including forward-collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping and blind-spot assists, rear cross-traffic collision avoidance and automated high beams.
As a subcompact crossover, the Kona carves out just enough space to convince people it’s practical, including a modest 19.2 cubic feet of space behind its second row. Rear seats will accommodate six-footers, though with just enough head- and knee-room to stave off a mutiny in the back. Folding the 60/40 split back seats opened up useful cargo space on par with a VW Golf or other traditional hatchback. Just in time for Christmas, the Kona swallowed a 6.5-foot Frasier fir, its sawed-off trunk extending between the front seats.
The Hyundai’s 150-kW (a.k.a. 201-hp) AC electric motor drives the front wheels through a single-speed transmission. It’s fed by a 64-kWh lithium battery (versus the Bolt’s 60-kWh unit) that’s parked below the floor, where it doesn’t detract a whit from passenger or cargo space. (Unlike some retrofitted EV’s, the Kona was designed from the get-to as an electric vehicle). The battery system is liquid cooled, with a healthy energy density of 141.3 watt-hours per kilogram, and offers a lifetime warranty against total failure, but not for battery-life degradation over time.
The onboard 7.2-kW Level 2 charger will replenish a fully played-out battery in about 9.5 hours; I plugged the Kona into The Drive’s Level 2 dock with the battery about 70 percent full, and returned about three hours later to find the battery topped off. The Kona also comes standard with DC fast-charging capability through its SAE Combo plug, a feature that costs $750 extra on the Bolt. Figure 75 minutes for an 80-percent charge on a 50-kW charger, or 54 minutes at a 100-kW rate. Of course, those DC chargers remain rara avis in America, especially compared with Tesla’s vast Supercharger network.
I set off from Brooklyn to Babylon (the Long Island version), a one-way distance of nearly 60 miles. At very low speeds, the Kona emitted a synthesized sound that Brian Eno might appreciate—a robotic, rising-and-falling exhalation that's also broadcast outside the cabin to warn pedestrians of the Hyundai's otherwise-silent approach. The friendliness extends to performance, where the Kona feels peppy and perky, but not sporty in any traditional sense. This Kona’s 17-inch wheels, clad in fuel-efficient, low-rolling-resistance Nexen tires, sometimes struggled to apply that bountiful torque to the pavement without spinning.
Carrying a half-ton of battery below its floor—and as such a center of gravity 3.6 inches lower than the gasoline model—the Kona delivers the planted, slot-car sensation familiar to modern EVs. But the electric-assisted steering feels a bit rudderless, and a selectable Sport mode only adds some artificial resistance. (The Kona's steering, transmission, throttle and climate controls are twiddled over Normal, Sport, Eco and Eco + settings). And again, those wimpy, 255/55/17 tires prioritize energy savings over grip: When I tossed the Hyundai into curling freeway on-ramps, it was all too easy to overload the front tires. Add the Kona’s hefty curb weight—nearly 3,800 pounds, about 520 more than the gasoline model—and this crossover can't begin to challenge the Mazda CX-3 for class handling honors. Among like-priced EVs, I’d say that the Bolt still brings an edge in dynamic terms, with a bit more steering sensation and appetite for curves.
Regenerative braking can be adjusted over three levels—four if you count a maximum setting that's elicited by holding down the left-hand steering wheel paddle. The more-aggressive settings allow the one-pedal driving beloved by EV fans, though I found the Nissan Leaf’s outstanding “E-pedal” throttle, and its regenerative brake blending, to be more sensitive and sophisticated than the Hyundai’s system. The Kona could use a more-linear brake pedal, with better transitions between the motor’s energy-harvesting deceleration and the onset of mechanical friction brakes. In city traffic in particular, the Kona would segue from “no braking” to “too much braking!” in far too little pedal travel. But a few days of practice did train my foot in the Kona’s particular ways, and the brakes themselves produced commendably short stops.
Of course, what the Leaf won’t do is to let its owners pick a spot on the map that’s 100-plus miles distant and drive round-trip without range anxiety or charging detours. After stuffing the Kona’s battery, I drove it 120 miles to Long Island and back, then all over New York for the remainder of a week—without ever having to think about another charge. That ability, to drive an EV without having to think about driving an EV, makes the Kona one of the best mainstream electric cars yet. Does that mean Americans will line up to buy Kona Electrics, the way they’ve lined up—and waited, and waited some more—for the Tesla Model 3? We shall see.
Now, this little rant applies to every EV, not just the Kona. But Hyundai’s EV is only “better” than the gasoline model if you have someplace—or multiple “someplaces”—to charge it. Two of my Brooklyn neighbors are big EV fans, and they reliably enthused over the Kona. But like me, they don’t have garages and park their cars on the street. (My neighbor Steve, a contractor, mused about running a power line from his house to the utility pole and then down to the curbside. Illegal and impractical? Yes and yes.)
Many electric car reviews seem to assume a world in which everyone and everything—automakers, dealers, energy markets, policy makers—is working in lockstep to advance the cause of electric mobility. But we know that’s not the case. Let's even set aside the weak charging infrastructure. Two more elephants in the room that may continue to stomp EV sales: low gasoline prices and reactionary government policies, including the Trump administration's freeze on tougher emissions and fuel-economy standards that’s given automakers a (temporary) free pass on dramatically transforming their showrooms and technology portfolios. The Kona's ability to travel 258 miles on a charge, without using a drop of gasoline, is sure to attract a subset of buyers. But until Americans pay more for a gallon of gasoline than they do for a Big Mac, a subset is likely all it will be.
Lawrence Ulrich,The Autance’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at [email protected]