Hyundai’s new Ioniq set to be first real competitor to the Toyota Prius

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Hyundai’s new Ioniq set to be first real competitor to the Toyota Prius
Image Credit: Dreamstime
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Various car manufacturers have tried to build a worthy competitor to the Toyota Prius. Honda tried with its second generation Insight and the results were less than satisfactory on many levels. Despite incorporating the now iconic turtle shape that the Prius has used since the 2004 model year, Honda came up short and the Insight was canceled, leaving the Prius with essentially no competition.

Hyundai aims to change that and the company is going about its Prius attack in a very bold way. Whereas the Prius is available in both hybrid and plug-in hybrid varieties, Hyundai is going one step further by offering a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid and an all-electric version of its new Ioniq. It looks like the Prius has its first really serious competition with a car that Hyundai has named its “First Dedicated Green Vehicle.”

How well does if compare? By all appearances, very well. Here’s the scoop on each of the three flavors of Ioniq.

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New Hyundai Ioniq: What to expect

The Ioniq Hybrid

This model is the primary Prius competitor and it’s a solid effort. Yes, it lacks some of the spaceship-style looks that make the Prius oddly compelling, but with it’s more conservative styling and conventional dashboard — rather than the center-mounted gauge cluster in the Prius — the Ioniq will have strong appeal for buyers who aren’t looking for “quirky.”

The Ioniq further differentiates itself from the Prius by using a 6-speed hybrid dual clutch transmission, as opposed to the CVT that the Prius uses. This transmission incorporates the electric drivetrain and provides quick and smooth shifts, an approach that pays off handsomely in driveability. While not exactly sporting in nature, it is engaging to drive and arguably more fun than the Prius.

That transmission is attached to a 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine that Hyundai claims has the industry’s highest thermal efficiency. Like most hybrids, this engine also uses an Atkinson Cycle, which allows for almost imperceptible changes between gasoline and electric propulsion.

One feature that Hyundai has built into the Ioniq is truly brilliant. They’ve incorporated the 12-volt battery that’s used to start the car into the hybrid battery system. Because there’s always a charge in the hybrid battery, Hyundai engineers built a system in which the hybrid battery is capable of providing a jump start to the 12-volt battery with the push of a button on the dash. Anyone who’s owned an early production Prius and left it sitting at the airport for a couple of weeks only to return to a dead battery will understand just how wonderful this simple system is.

The Ioniq Hybrid comes in two flavors: the Ioniq and the Ioniq Blue. The Ionic Blue is tuned to be as efficient as possible and built to compete directly with the Prius Eco. At 58 MPG, it’s the most efficient non plug-in car available, and beats the Eco’s 56 MPG rating. Additionally, the standard Ioniq Hybrid in SEL and Limited trim levels are both rated at 55 MPG which beats the 52 MPG rating of the standard Prius.

In the pricing department, the Hybrid does a pretty good job of undercutting the competition, with the Blue starting at $22,200, the SEL at $23,950, and the Limited at $27,500.

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The Ioniq Plug-In

While they’re not quite ready for market yet, Hyundai did provide prototypes of the Ioniq Plug-In and they’re the same as the Hybrid in almost every way. The main difference is the included 8.9-kWh battery that allows the Plug-In to drive a good distance on battery alone. While Hyundai isn’t officially saying at this point, it was hinted that they’re hoping for 27 miles. They’re not quoting pricing yet, either, but the premium over the Hybrid shouldn’t be more than a couple of thousand dollars and, because of the battery size, the cars will qualify for a $4500 Federal tax credit. This should be every bit as big a bargain as the Toyota Prius Prime.

The Ioniq Electric

This version is really impressive. Coming into a market with only a few competitors, like the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, Kia Soul EV and Volkswagen e-Golf, the Ioniq Electric has an EPA rating of 110 miles on a single charge. If driven carefully in urban situations, though, it should be easy to beat that number.

In terms of differences from its siblings, the Electric has a smoother front end design because of the lack of a grill, which really isn’t needed if there isn’t a heat generating internal combustion engine under the hood that needs to be cooled.

The interior is pretty much the same as the other versions, except the floor mounted shifter has been replaced by a push-button array. The design seems simple enough. It shouldn’t take terribly long for a regular driver to become familiar with its operation and it does free up enough space in the console for a slot big enough to store a tablet computer.

A 28-kWh battery and a 6.6-kWh onboard charger place the Ioniq Electric right in line with the competition. For comparison, the Leaf has a 30 kWh battery with an EPA-estimated range of 107 miles and the Ford Focus Electric comes with a 33.5-kWh battery and an EPA-estimated range of 100 miles.

Recapturing energy that is lost through braking in a regular car is handled through regenerative braking in all three varieties of the Ioniq. The Electric is different from the other two in that it has three different settings that can be controlled through paddles on the steering column. It’s a very well-thought-out system and in the strongest regenerative setting, it’s possible to drive the car without having to use the brake pedal at all. Tip of the hat to Hyundai engineers for making one-pedal driving a reality on the Ioniq.

In the electric world, charging time is really important and the Ioniq can be fully charged on a 240-volt charger in around 4 1/2 hours. However, it offers CCS DC fast-charging as standard equipment, which means it’s possible to charge the battery to 80% in about half an hour. Additionally, the Ioniq helps drivers locate chargers though the dash-mounted touchscreen.

Pricing for the Electric comes starts at $29,500 and rises to $32,500 for the Limited. However, with a $7500 Federal tax credit available, this version becomes a serious bargain — even more so in states that offer their own tax credits. Those in the market for an EV should take a long look at the Ioniq Electric.

The driving experience

Simply put, all three versions I sampled drove really well and offer an impressive array of safety equipment like lane departure warning, blind spot protection, and automatic emergency braking. The handling on all three models is taught and responsive.

The interior is quiet, especially on the Electric. Even the Hybrid only lets through muted engine noise. The interior is a nice place to be, with quality materials, well-designed controls that fall readily to hand, and enough room for four to travel in comfort — and room for a fifth passenger, if needed.

When can you buy an Ioniq?

The Ioniq Hybrid is offered in all 50 states and should be on dealer lots as you read this. The Ioniq Plug-in is not expected to be on the market until the 4th quarter of 2017 and the Ioniq Electric is being sold in California first, starting in April. It will be slowly released to the states that have adopted California’s air quality standards after that. However, if you must have the Electric, Hyundai will allow any dealer to order it, as long as that dealer has trained staff to service the car.

Hyundai has clearly put lots of thought into the design of the Ioniq and it shows. Having three distinct drivetrains available on one platform is a first for any manufacturer. They may very well sell every single unit they can produce.

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David Lardner About the author: David Lardner
David Lardner is a volunteer at Team Clark Howard's Consumer Action Center. He is also an active board member of the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association.
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