An In-Depth Look at the 2017 Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid, Plug-in, and Electric Car

How is Hyundai going to sell a hatchback people don’t want or need?

You have to convince yourself that the all-new 2017 Hyundai Ioniq isn't a waste of time. Humans enjoy taking half-steps to save our planet; we recycle when it's convenient, buy food from sustainable farms if it looks tasty, and drive low-emission, alternative-powertrain vehicles when it makes sense -- for us. When gas is cheap, like it is today, alternative-powertrain vehicles simply don't make sense. So staring at hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and all-electric variants of the Hyundai Ioniq at the 2016 New York auto show, you wonder if this hatchback -- a dedicated alt-power car that'll never have a conventional powertrain -- has a place in the world, hoping it does.

Building on the foundation established by the holy Prius, mass-market alternative-powertrain vehicles have begun to crop up all over, from Chevy's redesigned plug-in Volt and all-new Bolt EV to Ford's all-electric Focus and its C-Max hybrid and PHEV. The automotive marketplace is slowly creeping toward green cars, and Hyundai hopes to help pioneer and push forward the automotive frontier with its first dedicated hybrid/electric model. We sat down with both John Shon, Hyundai Motor America's manager of product planning for Ioniq, and Michael O'Brien, vice president of product and corporate planning for Hyundai Motor America, to hear more about Ioniq's beginnings -- and to get an idea of how this model, this idea, will grow.

"The hybrid has the most sales potential in terms of volume … but we're bullish on the plug-in hybrid and the electric vehicle as well," says Shon. The hybrid and plug-in Ioniqs use fundamentally the same hybrid powertrain we've known from the Sonata Hybrid -- a single electric motor housed between the gasoline engine and transmission -- but these Ioniq models use a dual, dry-clutch automatic transmission. Jerkiness at startup is a major complaint about dual-clutch transmissions, but the hybrid system's electric motor helps buffer out that shuddering when accelerating from a stop.

Says O'Brien, "We give customers that 'fun to drive' feel and engineers have the potential to choose the right ratios and maintain the most appropriate and efficient operating range. [The Ioniq's] highway [fuel economy] number will be better than our competitors."

The all-electric version of the vehicle required a fair amount of rejiggering due to its bespoke powertrain. Whereas the hybrid and plug-in hybrid use a multilink rear suspension, the all-electric model uses a torsion-beam rear end so that its larger 20-kW battery pack can be stored under the rear passenger seats. What happens to the battery pack when it eventually degrades or depletes? We don't know; while both hybrid and plug-in Ioniqs benefit from Hyundai's lifetime warranty, Hyundai is mum about how it's handling the EV's warranty, though O'Brien says a lifetime warranty is under consideration for the EV as well. What's going to be the most successful model in the marketplace? Logic says the hybrid; Hyundai says it's up to the customer to decide which powertrain is most successful and is marketing the Ioniq as such. The Ioniqs won't be advertised as three separate cars but rather as one car with three distinct variants.

The Ioniq looks a lot like an Elantra: plain and boring. Why doesn't it look funky, futuristic, and forward thinking, like the all-new Toyota Prius does? "We wanted it to be a no compromise car," says Shon. "To not let the appearance of the vehicle be a rejection reason. Sometimes there's a negative connotation that comes with looking too 'green.' A dedicated green car offers so much more than design that we didn't want design to be so polarizing that people wouldn't look at it."

Hyundai thinks Ioniq buyers will be educated and affluent customers who conduct research before they enter a dealership. "The buyer actually knows more about the car than the dealer, for the most part," says Shon. That's why Hyundai says it will establish a training program to certify salespeople to push eco-friendly models off its lots. The automaker is also trying to make buying incentives -- tax breaks -- more transparent and easier for customers to collect, such as starting balloon payments. "We're trying to eliminate all the barriers the customer may have," says O'Brien.

Ioniq could potentially transform into a sub-brand, much like Prius has, but Hyundai isn't sure about that just yet. Right now, it's "an initiative for greater sustainable mobility." The automaker wants it to have a reputation like Prius, though, and says it definitely wants to have these powertrains playing in the hot CUV segment, although it won't reveal any details of forthcoming cars. Will that supposed vehicle be an Ioniq XL, not unlike the Prius V? Don't know.

The hybrid Ioniq will be sold at dealerships throughout all 50 states, while the plug-in hybrid and all-electric Ioniqs will be stocked in the 10 ZHEV states and available nationwide by special order. Hyundai has not announced pricing, but Ioniq models will be priced competitively with the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf.

The hybrid and electric Ioniqs will be available to buy before the end of this year, and the plug-in version will go on sale around April 2017. How many buyers are out there? Again, don't know.

"[The market for these types of vehicles] is kind of niche," O'Brien says. "We have to do better than that. The way we do that is that the engineering approach of this car was intended to make a statement that you could drive an Elantra and you could drive this and there's absolutely no expression of apology. It has all the goodness of a gasoline car with none of the drawbacks. We're going to eliminate that reason for not choosing this car."

O'Brien's biggest fear? Cheap gas.