I like the Toyota Prius. If you ignore the undeserved stereotype of smug Prius drivers who get high on their own farts, the Prius has been the king of hybrid cars for nearly two decades now. Automakers have tried to challenge the Prius but have failed, mostly because their hybrid systems are inferior. Except for Hyundai. Hyundai has a Prius rival that arguably might be a better car, yet we never talk about it, and I almost never see them on roads. Why aren’t people buying the Hyundai Ioniq?
I had given up on finding a four-wheel-drive beater to roll back to Ohio and decided to treat my Denver trip as an exploratory adventure. My awful Mitsubishi Mirage rental via Fox Rent-A-Car had expired, but I still was in Denver for a few more days. I rebooked another economy car at Ace Rent-A-Car and was upgraded to the smallest thing they had on the lot, a brand-new Hyundai Ioniq with Colorado temporary tags.
The Hyundai Ioniq was launched in 2016, a year after the Prius’s radically homely (but charming, in my opinion), redesign. It promised Prius-matching or bettering fuel economy in a hatchback shape that wasn’t so hard to look at.
Driving the Ioniq was a great experience, and I averaged more than 53 mpg racing around the Denver and Boulder areas paying no attention to driving style. The Ioniq’s steering was reasonably sharp and communicative, even with the Michelin Energy low rolling resistance tires mounted on all four corners. The car took corners with aplomb, despite its soft ride and bias towards comfort, and the Ioniq drove sportier than I thought it would overall.
All Hyundai hybrids use real fixed-ratio transmissions, which imbues a more normal driving experience compared to hybrids from other brands. Toyota hybrids use a power-split device (eCVT). It’s efficient, but the driving experience is soupy and lumpy, like that time you tried to make gumbo but didn’t keep stirring the roux. Now you’ve got chunks of flour floating next to the shrimp and andouille sausage, and nothing tastes or feels quite right. Those bits of flour aren’t discouraging buyers, though, in 2021 alone, the Prius currently outsells the Ioniq at nearly a 4 to 1 ratio.
Hyundai’s sister brand and competitor Kia launched its own hybrid using the same basic mechanicals. The Ioniq is strictly a five-door aerodynamic hatchback whereas Kia’s is more boxy and upright. Somehow, that boxier body fooled everyone into thinking it was a crossover, and crossovers are all the rage. The Kia Niro is noticeably worse on gas and is only slightly roomier than the Ioniq that has the same wheelbase, yet, thus far, Kia’s sold 60% more Niros over its lifespan compared to the Ioniq.
Why are we ignoring the Ioniq? It is efficient and offers a full EV and plug-in hybrid versions, and I found the regular Ioniq to be a perfectly agreeable hybrid hatchback. Using real-world fuel economy data, I think the Prius may edge out the Ioniq while being a bit bigger inside, but, the Ioniq drives like a car without all the complexity. It never felt slow or overburdened with a too-busy powertrain that you’d find in a Prius.
As an enthusiast who primarily drives gas-powered cars with manual transmissions, I was a little embarrassed to admit how much I liked the Ioniq. The Prius is a known quantity, great for the mostly circumspect buyer who has been buying whatever Toyota hybrid for the past few years out of sheer momentum. The Hyundai Ioniq hybrid is an underrated, overlooked car that deserves way more attention and sales than it has been getting.