Hyundai’s recent rise to ubiquity on British roads has been so dramatic that it might surprise you to learn the marque’s first foray over here was all the way back in 1982.
That incipient offering was a cheap four-door with a sloping hatch and rear-wheel drive, yours for a mere £3075. Not that many people bought a Pony, mind; and between 1982 and 2004, Hyundai sold the Brits only 400,000 mainly uninspiring cars.
It’s only since then that the brand’s popularity has exploded with a blend of outstanding warranty-backed reliability, tantalising value and much improved aesthetic appeal.
Today, Hyundai competes strongly in every segment that really matters for a mainstream manufacturer, and even makes a hot hatch so rewarding to drive that it starred in last year’s Britain’s Best Driver’s Car shootout alongside McLaren, Porsche and Mercedes-AMG.
The point is that back in 1982, any notion that Hyundai might significantly alter the automotive marketplace in this country was incomprehensible; and yet, in 2018, it just might. The subject of this week’s road test looks like a landmark in the development of the electric car.
The Kona Electric offers the most compelling blend of usability and affordability yet seen in an EV. We’ll come onto the exact figures in due course, but the claims are for a Tesla-baiting 300 miles of range with an asking price closer to a Nissan Leaf’s.
To anyone feeling ready to wean themselves off fossil fuels, those facts alone should grab the attention. That the Kona Electric can also be considered discreetly attractive, and as a compact crossover also promises to be conveniently spacious, should hold that attention rock-steady.
And the big question whether its real-world abilities are a match for its considerable on-paper appeal? You’re about to find out.
Design & Styling
Similar to Jaguar’s I-Pace and every car built by Tesla to date, the Kona’s architecture is based around a ‘skateboard’ lithium ion battery pack spread across a Volkswagen Golf-sized floorpan.
The pack comes in two sizes – 64kWh, with a WLTP-certified range of 300 miles, and 39kWh for those who can cope with a ‘mere’ 194 (we’re testing the former). Crucially, this platform was originally designed with electric propulsion in mind, which sets the Kona Electric apart from Hyundai’s very first electric car, the Ioniq. The new car differs further in that its battery is cooled by water rather than air.
When it comes to replenishing that battery, the car uses a 7.2kW on-board charger and the same CCS Type 2 charging connector favoured by manufacturers Mercedes, BMW, Ford and Volkswagen. The time taken for an 80% charge ranges from 54 minutes from a 100kW public DC rapid charger to 31 hours from a domestic 240V AC three-pin outlet, with a typical home-installed 7kW wallbox charger doing the job in less than ten hours.
The Hyundai’s motor itself is impressively potent, and capable of putting 201bhp and 291lb ft through the front tyres. That torque figure is not only eye-openingly stout but also developed almost instantaneously, and therefore promises to give the most avant-garde Kona in the range a rude turn of pace.
The car’s suspension is a blend of what you would find elsewhere in the Kona range. Here you have the MacPherson struts at the front but, rather than a good old-fashioned torsion beam, there’s a multi-link design at the rear – until now reserved for the more powerful four-wheel-drive variants. The steering is electromechanical and reasonably direct, at 2.5 turns lock to lock, though despite the absence of a sizeable internal combustion engine, the car’s turning circle remains unchanged, at 10.6 metres.
For a car whose main draw might still prove to be its usability, there’s good news and bad to report about the Kona Electric’s cabin. The car is, as Hyundai claims, every bit as practical as a conventionally powered Kona. More’s the pity, however, that the fact hasn’t made this a particularly spacious car.
By the fairly modest standards of small crossovers, the Kona Electric offers pretty average passenger accommodation: just about enough space for two larger adults to sit in the back seats, or three young children. It’s certainly more accommodating and convenient than a Renault Zoe, but wouldn’t beat a Nissan Leaf or VW e-Golf, at least to any meaningful extent. And up front, the tallest drivers might find themselves to be slightly limited in outright head and leg room.
At a smidge over 330 litres, the car’s boot is somewhere between that of a typical supermini and a full-sized family hatchback for carrying space. Unless you take out the underfloor polystyrene storage trays for the car’s tyre inflation pump and charging cables, the boot’s lower split-level floor setting isn’t usable.
There is a choice of black or blue/ grey dashboard colour themes. Our test car had a black fascia with black leather seats and, despite all that new silver and light grey trim on the transmission tunnel, its interior gave the impression of being quite plain, and a little dark and uninviting.
Perceived cabin quality isn’t up to the standard you expect in a car that tops £30,000, either, with a few too many hard mouldings and cheap plastic fittings in evidence. Hyundai’s 7.0in digital ‘supervision’ instrument cluster falls short of the configurability of others out there, but it’s clear and it gives you all the information you need to manage the car’s electric powertrain to best advantage.
To the driver’s left, meanwhile, the Kona Electric has its own centre console design with ‘by-wire’ button controls for the transmission and electronic handbrake, as well as some useful additional storage space that you won’t find in the regular Kona.
Go for the cheapest, 39kWh Kona Electric SE and you’ll get a 7.0in touchscreen intotainment system that, despite offering smartphone mirroring, doesn’t have a fitted navigation system. For some, without an easy way to locate and navigate to a nearby charging station, that probably wouldn’t be an EV in which to take on a long journey.
Our top-spec 64kWh Premium SE test car had Hyundai’s 8.0in system, as well as a nine-speaker Krell premium audio system, a DAB radio, a Qi wireless smartphone charging pad and a factory navigation system – all as standard.
The system is a bit unresponsive but still easy to use, with navigation mapping rendered with good detail and decent clarity. It’s a connected system that provides live traffic, weather and other information, but it relies on your phone’s data connection – and the detail it gives you on nearby charging stations could be better. The audio system sounds fairly strong, but we’ve heard plenty better for similar money.
The Kona Electric has more oomph than it really needs; quite a lot more. It picks off 60mph from rest in just 6.7sec, almost a second more quickly than its maker estimates. Whisking from 30-70mph in 5.8sec again puts it almost a second ahead, on real-world roll-on overtaking acceleration, of the BMW i3s Range Extender we tested earlier this year. In that latter discipline, it’s also only a tenth behind the latest Ford Fiesta ST.
The powertrain comes with Hyundai’s curious ‘Virtual Engine Sound System’, which broadcasts imitation engine noise at nearby cars and pedestrians at low speeds as a safety feature; it’s easy to turn off, though needs turning off every time you start the car. The car’s actual motor noise somehow seems a better match for your expectations of what an electric car ought to sound like than a Nissan Leaf or a Renault Zoe. It’s almost silent under light loads, but has more of the whistle-cum-whine of a giant-sized, radio-controlled toy when working really hard.
What will impress more experienced EV owners about this powertrain isn’t necessarily its potency, its responsiveness or its pleasingly cheeky 356V accent, however. That will be the heightened level of control the car gives you over its electric motor ‘regen’ behaviour – both through its steering wheel paddles and its brake pedal – and therefore how well you can adapt the car to suit the journey you’re on, or the style of progress you prefer.
Most EVs will switch straight into a battery energy regeneration mode as soon as you lift off the accelerator, as if engine braking under a high compression ratio. Some allow you to choose between more or less aggressive modes of regen, but often not as precisely as you’d like. One or two, like the Kona Electric, allow you to cycle through several regen presets between maximum kinetic energy capture and none at all (totally unresisted coasting) using ‘shift’ paddles behind the steering wheel. But the Hyundai goes further still.
The car’s ‘auto recuperation’ software uses the radar cruise transceiver to constantly judge the distance to the vehicle in front, allowing you to effectively leave the car in efficiency-optimised ‘maximum coast’ mode until traffic conditions dictate that you must slow it down – at which point, it will blend in the motor regen automatically. It’s quite a neat trick and works well most of the time.
You can also switch from minimum to maximum regen instantly, and without using the brake pedal at all (so you can be sure you’re not losing energy to the friction brakes): simply hold down the left-hand paddle.
Finally, the Kona Electric also allows you to remove the influence of electric motor regen completely from the action of the brake pedal: a driving feature the road test jury liked about the car more than almost any other. The car’s brake pedal feel ranges from unhelpfully poor in Eco driving mode, through to quite respectable in Normal and Sport. Turn off the car’s stability and traction control systems, however, and the brake pedal is left simply to control the car’s actual brakes. Not a revelation of an idea, you might think – but it certainly feels like progress for the zero-emissions breed where driver satisfaction is concerned.
Ride & Handling
By adding performance and range to an EV over and above the market’s going rate, you inevitably add weight to it. And by taking away enough rolling resistance to make the most of that range, you take away mechanical grip. This has been every electric car maker’s catch-22 for the past decade, of course; but neither compromise was likely to be good news for the Kona Electric’s rolling refinement or handling dynamism.
The car’s suspension certainly has the anti-roll bars necessary to keep its body quite flat even when cornering at a reasonable lick, but the Kona’s ride has that familiar noisy, slightly wooden quality of a car running on hard-compound economy tyres. It deals somewhat fussily and ineffectively with even medium-sized lumps and bumps taken above 50mph. When the car’s mass is disturbed vertically or enticed to pitch, its dampers often need two or three attempts to rein it back in.
Suffice it to say, it isn’t for the want of power that this Hyundai ultimately fails to convince as a driver’s car, having started with real promise. And to be fair, the Kona Electric conducts itself adequately at the sort of unhurried cruising speeds at which you’re most likely to drive it – with one eye, perhaps, on completing that fourth return office commute of the week on a single charge, or when bidding to make it all the way home from visiting extended family without stopping to plug in.
But on those short-range hops when you’re unconcerned with how many kilowatts per mile you’re getting through, it’s certainly a shame that the Kona Electric’s limitations become quite so plain, so quickly.
Subtle, fast-acting electronic traction and stability controls are the Kona Electric’s saving graces when it comes to driving it at or near the limit of grip. Leave them on and, though you’re aware that this is not nearly as alike to a true driver’s car when cornering as it is when accelerating, you won’t be that aware of how modest and easily disturbed is its hold on dry Tarmac. Lateral body control is respectable; damping is questionable, particularly when bigger inputs disturb the car’s equilibrium.
Turn the electronics off and you’ll become aware just how much they were doing to prevent the car’s electric motor from giving its front tyres too much to do. The EV will spin up its driving wheels from low speed with a readiness that you don’t find in a 300-horsepower hot hatch. Driving out of tighter corners quickly and tidily means either doing it under traction control, or being patient and restrained with the accelerator.
Rarely do you see such a broad spread of individual section scores in an Autocar road test as the Kona Electric has attracted. The car’s powertrain is a revelation, partly for its potency and partly for how finely you can control it – but mostly for the unrivalled cruise range it offers.
For an EV priced like this, 200 miles of genuine and usable range would have been class-leading (for the record, we’d wager it’s exactly what Hyundai’s cheaper Kona Electric should offer). But 300 miles (more, at times) should make this a credible ownership proposition for many who have overlooked electric cars thus far.
How frustrating it is, then, that it falls notably short of the handling sophistication, practicality and perceived quality we’ve a right to expect in any £30,000 car.
If the Kona is the only EV at once in your price bracket and likely to meet your transport needs, it may well be in a league of one; and its weaknesses might therefore seem unimportant. We don’t have such freedom to overlook them, though, and must conclude that the market’s most usable, affordable EV isn’t quite its best.