Ever wonder what the motoring world will be like when electric cars are mainstream, rather than novelties or fashion statements? While we’re not completely stoked on that future, an answer exists today in the form of the Hyundai Kona Electric. This may well be the EV of the future—a totally mainstream, completely ordinary, and easy to live with compact SUV that just happens to run on batteries.
But before we talk about how ordinary the Kona Electric is, we must discuss the two things that make it extraordinary: Range and price. The Kona is rated by the EPA to travel 258 miles on a single charge and it is priced at $37,495—or $29,995 once you factor in the $7,500 federal tax credit. We’ll remind you that this sort of long-range, affordable EV is what Tesla has been promising for two years, what its customers literally lined up to buy, and what it has yet to deliver in the form of its Model 3 sedan. (In our opinion, anyone still waiting for a cheap Model 3 instead of buying a Chevrolet Bolt or one of these Kona Electrics doesn’t really want an EV, they want a status symbol.)
Although this author has long been of the opinion that “range anxiety” is largely a psychosomatic disease—with home charging every night, 100 miles per juice-up is plenty for the vast majority of commuters—258 miles really does free the mind. Most gasoline-powered cars deliver a range of 350 miles or so, and we’ve driven performance cars that only managed 200 on a tank. Given the fact that we rarely drive until the tank is on fumes, 250 miles is about how far we’re typically willing to go between full-ups.
My weekend with the Kona started at our El Segundo, California, office, where the battery was at two-thirds capacity and the range indicator showed 197 miles remaining. I drove home and did all of my weekend running-around without even thinking about recharging. After driving 100 miles—during which, according to the Kona’s dash display, I had only used 88 miles’ worth of range thanks to the car’s regenerative capabilities—I finally connected to a public charger near my home. It unfortunately refused to even think about charging the Kona, but I still arrived at work the next morning with 109 miles of range left—enough for me to make the trip four times and still have range to spare. Once I was able to fully charge the Kona later, and rather than the EPA-estimated 258 miles, the Hyundai said it could go 280.
So that’s the extraordinary bit; in most other ways, the Kona Electric is the automotive equivalent of a non-event. Styling-wise, only the filled-in grille, special wheels, decluttered front bumper, and the word “electric” on the rump separate it visually from gas-powered Konas. Inside, the control layout differs slightly, including a push-button shifter with silver plastic that one of our staffers described as resembling a cheap 1990s home stereo. Okay.
Back-seat and luggage space are tight, but no tighter than they are in the gas-fired Kona or any of its subcompact-SUV competitors. Power is plentiful, and the 201-hp, 291-lb-ft Kona Electric feels sprightlier than its gasoline sibling, with a healthy supply of low-end urge that makes the gasser’s minor case of turbo lag look like an epidemic. And while driving excitement is not exactly a cornerstone of the Kona, the electric version’s lower center of gravity keeps it nicely balanced and stable in corners, at least until the low-rolling-resistance tires begin to give up their grip. The ride is comfortable, steady, and relatively quiet, and the overall driving experience pleasant.
But lest you think that Hyundai simply dropped an electric powertrain into the Kona and called it good, there are additional well-thought-out touches.
One is the way in which the Kona Electric handles the regenerative braking function that sees EV electric motors act as a generator, charging the battery and creating resistance that slows the car. Most EVs support one-pedal driving, in which lifting off the accelerator pedal activates the regenerative system, but this is usually an all-or-nothing premise—and it can be difficult to drive the car smoothly until you get the hang of it. The Kona Electric offers three levels of regeneration that are selected via the paddles on the steering wheel. Level 1 feels like the coast-down you experience in an conventionally powered car, level 3 pulls the Kona down from speed rather rapidly, and Level 2 provides a nice balance, braking aggressively but making it easy to drive smoothly. (You can also switch off the function completely, but using the brake pedal automatically mixes regen and friction brakes.) We found ourselves switching modes on the fly as conditions demanded. In addition, When the Kona Electric is in Eco mode, it shows how much range the regenerative brake generates with each stop. Did you know you can pick up more than a third of a mile of range when stopping from 40 mph? Neither did we.
Another nifty idea: The charge port is in the nose, behind a section of the faux grille. While the Nissan Leaf has done this for years now, many more EVs launched have their charge ports on their body sides—some because they’re converted from gas models and that is where the fuel filler lives—a setup that can require creative parking and/or cord-stretching if you can’t position the car so that the charge port is next to the charger. Putting the plug up front makes for easier connections whether the charger is in front of or next to the parking spot.
Faults? Like other electric cars, the Kona generates a sound at low speeds so that visually impaired pedestrians can hear them coming. The Kona’s noise is not very musical, but it is rather loud, especially inside the cabin—and it doesn’t stop when the car is stationary. You’ll hear it any time the car is in gear, up to about 15 mph, and in stop-and-go traffic it’s your constant companion. Our suggestion to Hyundai: Damp out the sound from inside the cabin and mute it when the car is stationary, like Toyota does with their plug-in cars. In addition, the regenerative brake shuts off at very low speed, so even with Level 3 selected, you still need the hit the brake pedal to stop the car. One could argue that this isn’t true one-pedal driving as found in, say, the Chevrolet Bolt, which allows you to come to a complete stop using only the regenerative function.
As you can tell, we’re greatly impressed by the Kona Electric—and not because it’s extraordinary, but rather because it isn’t extraordinary at all. Plenty of people buy electric cars to make some sort of a statement. If you want an electric car simply because you want an electric car, the Hyundai Kona Electric is a great way to fade into the background.
2019 Hyundai Kona Electric Ultimate Specifications
|ON SALE||Early 2019|
|ENGINE||Permanent-magnet synchronous AC motor, 201 hp, 290 lb-ft|
|BATTERY||64.0-kWh lithium-ion polymer|
|TRANSMISSION||Single-speed reduction gear|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine FWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||132/108 MPGe (city/hwy)|
|EPA RANGE||258 miles|
|L x W x H||164.6 x 70.9 x 61.2 in|
|WEIGHT||3,700 lb (est)|
|TOP SPEED||104 mph|