By Jeff Nisewanger

With the dawn of 2017, South Korea's Hyundai Motors has begun rolling out an ambitious new mainstream line of Ioniq liftback sedans in the U.S. market that goes directly against Japan's venerated Toyota Prius, king of the hybrids.

It's a battle for efficiency and consumer value between a well-established stalwart and a hungry and ambitious upstart. Hyundai is bringing hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrain options but also one-ups Toyota with an all-electric variant of this new model.

Ioniq for the win?

In order to learn more, we attended a media first drive event last week along California's sunny and scenic Santa Barbara coast.

The Ioniq Hybrid

The Ioniq model trio starts off with a basic hybrid using Hyundai's new 1.6 liter Atkinson cycle "Kappa" gasoline engine that matches the 40-percent thermal efficiency of Toyota's latest Prius engine as well as Honda's Earth Dreams engine used in its Accord Hybrid.

The Hyundai engine alone can generate up to 104 horsepower (78 kilowatts) and 109 pounds-feet of torque. It is mated with a 6-speed automatic dual clutch transmission (DCT). Sandwiched between them is a thin 43-horsepower (32-kilowatt) electric motor that provides up to 125 pounds-feet of torque on its own. A clutch allows for the gas engine to be disengaged when it isn't needed such as when launching from a stop or during low speed driving for short distances. Combined with the gas engine, the total peak system output is rated as 139 horsepower.

At up to 58 mpg combined city and highway for the base Blue trim, the Ioniq just beats out the Prius Eco model's 56 mpg EPA rating. The regular Ioniq scores a combined EPA estimate of 55 mpg to the regular Prius rating of 52 mpg. These numbers are outstanding. Ford's C-Max hybrid only manages 40 mpg.

What all this means is that the Ioniq drives like a conventional car with an automatic step transmission. The vast majority of drivers today are familiar and comfortable with Hyundai's type of arrangement that directly matches engine rpm and vehicle speed. The DCT shifts quickly and competently. The downside is the usual hunting between gears while driving uphill or under hard acceleration. Some other hybrids like the Prius use an electric continuously variable transmission that doesn't abruptly shift between separate fixed gears.

The engine starts instantly when needed but imperceptibly turns itself off at other times. An available computer graphic illustration shows the power flow through the vehicle's drivetrain between engine, motor, and wheels but doesn't show absolute power levels. It can be difficult to predict when the engine starts up or shuts down. The Prius shows more advanced gauges that allow for more confident driver control of engine use for those who care to hypermile.

A unique feature in the Ioniq hybrid is its 12-volt battery. Rather than a traditional lead acid standalone unit, Hyundai uses a lithium-ion design that is electrically separate from – but co-packaged with – a 1.56 kilowatt-hour high voltage hybrid battery under the rear seats. Both batteries are covered under a lifetime failure warranty for original owners.

If the 12-volt battery should ever be temporarily run down too low to start the car it can be revived by the large hybrid battery by pressing a button inside the car. If that fails for some reason the car can still be traditionally jump started.

Another uncommon feature is the ability of the navigation system to guide efficient driving using its knowledge of upcoming elevation changes on the road ahead.

An available sport mode optimizes for quicker reaction to accelerator changes by keeping the engine running and dipping deeper into the battery for assistance.

The Ioniq Plug-in Hybrid

The plug-in hybrid model swaps in a bigger 8.9 kilowatt-hour high voltage battery and the electric motor is boosted to 60 horsepower (44.5 kilowatts) from 43 horsepower (32 kilowatts).

Hyundai says the plug-in model is expected to provide at least 27 miles of EV driving range although official EPA estimates are not yet available. A standard J1772 AC charging inlet takes in 3.3 kilowatts during recharging or you can use the provided 120-volt charge cord. The faster rate fully charges in just over two hours at public charging stations or at home while the regular charge cord can take as many as eight hours.

Even though its battery is slightly larger than the 8.8 kilowatt-hour pack in the Toyota Prius Prime, Toyota's plug-in hybrid, the Ioniq is limited by its smaller motor. The Prime has two motors which it can combine together to put out the power of 91 horses, or about 50 percent more than the Ioniq. This allows the Prime to accelerate up to 84 mph without needing to start the gas engine while driving on only battery power. The Ioniq is more likely to tip the gas engine into play during normal driving. Even the basic Ioniq Hybrid can theoretically drive electric-only at speeds up to 75 mph (for a short time) so the plug-in hybrid with a much bigger battery should do at least that well.

The Toyota comes with a heat pump that efficiently heats the cabin by acting as a reverse air conditioner even in cold outdoor winter temperatures. The Ioniq, however, has no electric heating and must start the gas engine to generate waste heat that can be routed to the cabin. Someone fixated on keeping the gas engine turned off during all-electric daily commuting but with extended range via a gasoline engine on the weekend may be better suited to the Prime.

The Ford C-Max Energi and Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrids come with electric resistive heating which is less efficient than a heat pump. They can also keep the engine off while driving solely on battery power. The Volt provides by far the strongest electric-only acceleration and twice the electric range but also comes with a bit higher price tag. It's possible to drive the Ioniq without starting the gas engine if you drive mildly and disable any heating but it requires effort.

The Ioniq Electric

Alright, enough about gasoline engines! The all-electric Ioniq charts its own course and starts off fresh with a completely different package under the hood.

A 28 kilowatt-hour battery pack with cells from LG Chem extends from under the rear seats and into the lower part of the liftback storage space. A fan is used to actively cool the pack with cabin air since it likes the same temperatures that people prefer.

The pack provides enough to fully power the 88 kilowatt (118 horsepower) motor at up to 218 pounds-feet of torque. The EPA rated driving range of 124 miles at 136 MPGe gives the Ioniq top marks out of all electric cars with a range of less than 200 miles. Hyundai has disclosed plans for a future 200+ mile electric vehicle but it will be a CUV rather than an Ioniq model.

Recharging the battery using the standard J1772 inlet supports twice the charging rate as the Ioniq Plug-in Hybrid and so can take in up to 6.6 kilowatts and fully charge in 4 hours. Unlike the plug-in hybrid which locates the charge port on the left front fender, the electric model moves it to the left rear fender.

The electric Ioniq also comes with a standard DC charging inlet with faster than usual charging rates. There are two DC charging standards competing in the marketplace today. Japanese brands support CHAdeMO but as a practical matter that mostly means Nissan. Hyundai's sister brand Kia has a compact Soul EV that comes with a CHAdeMO socket. The Ioniq Electric supports the other standard which is called CCS and Kia is adopting this also in the future. CCS is supported by all of the U.S. and European car brands.

Using today's base of installed CCS-capable 50 kW stations the car can fill up to 80-percent full in 30 minutes. Using a new generation of stations coming out later this year it can take the same charge in as little as 23 minutes at a peak charge rate reportedly near 70 kW. That's apparently even faster than the new Chevrolet Bolt EV can add miles of range for every minute of charge time.

Acceleration from a stoplight or when merging onto the freeway feels competent -- think 0-60 mph in about 10 seconds.

Unlike the hybrid Ioniq variants, the electric Ioniq uses a heat pump to warm the cabin. While this is becoming more common, some cars including those from Tesla and the Chevrolet Bolt EV are still using less efficient resistive electric heating.

Regenerative braking is an area where carmakers are innovating with new ideas. The Ioniq Electric has a small paddle switch on each side of the steering wheel. Toggle the left paddle and it increases the strength of regenerative braking. Do the same on the right side and it bumps down the strength. A small graphic indicates on the driver's screen the regeneration strength level.

The amount of electric drag runs from a no-braking pure glide up through three levels of progressively stronger peak electrical braking drag. The actual amount of regeneration under that peak level is controlled by how the driver presses on the "go" pedal. Press down to accelerate and lift off to control the amount of regenerative braking.

The actual brake pedal works well and was free of the kind of squishiness and awkward transition when blending from regenerative to friction brakes that used to plague early hybrid cars.

The Ioniq Electric has good EV range for the price and is very competitive but it has only about half the range of the new 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV. The Bolt has much stronger acceleration. The Ioniq's dynamically selectable regenerative braking levels are a nice touch but, again, are no match for the Bolt EV's elegantly implemented strong regenerative braking that can often smoothly bring the car to a complete stop without any use of the traditional brake pedal. The Bolt EV also has a starting price that is $7,000 higher.

Other key competitors with 100 to 125 miles of electric range include the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV, VW Golf EV, and BMW i3 BEV with MPGe ratings that mostly range from 112 to 119.

Shared Features

All three Ioniq models use modern light-weighting techniques like aluminum hoods and hatches and varying grades of high strength steel along with advanced structural adhesives to reduce unnecessary weight and increase rigidity to improve the ride.

Careful attention to aerodynamic design resulted in an excellent coefficient of drag of just 0.24, on par with some of slipperiest mainstream sedans.

The exterior and interior design is uncontroversial and mainstream. The usual physical buttons and knobs are provided along with a now-typical 7-inch LCD center infotainment display screen. Hyundai supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto so smartphones are seamlessly integrated. An upgraded 8-inch display is available.

The general dimensions of the Ioniq are typical of its key competitors. The EPA labels the Ioniq as a "large" car based on its interior passenger and rear storage areas. Although headroom is adequate in the rear it does quickly taper downwards right where the headrest is positioned so the fully reclined head of passengers may brush the headliner above.

Advanced safety features like front collision detection, lane departure warning, automated emergency braking, blind spot and rear cross-traffic alert, and Smart Cruise Control are available. The Ioniq has received 5 star "best in class" crash test results in European testing and Hyundai says they are expecting similar results from future US testing.

Hyundai's Blue Link telematic system is available on the hybrid models and is standard on the electric. It provides remote information and services like door unlocking, remote climate control, and vehicle recharging control via a dedicated smartphone app.

The hybrid and plug-in hybrid models have tanks that can hold almost 12 gallons of gasoline and thus provide over 600 miles of driving range.


Hyundai's new line of electrified Ioniq sedans narrowly capture the prize from
Toyota's Prius for efficiency while providing excellent value for your money.


Ioniq Pricing

The so-called Blue basic hybrid model starts at about $23,000 including mandatory delivery charges. A slightly fancier SEL trim starts at about $24,800. The upscale Limited edition starts at just over $28,300. Hybrid sales have already begun.

Note, that Toyota now includes their equivalent of the hybrid SEL Tech Package in the price of every Prius so someone wanting advanced camera and radar-based safety features would actually pay slightly more for the Ioniq than a Prius II.

The plug-in hybrid model's pricing is not yet available since it does not arrive in the U.S. market until late this year.

The all-electric Ioniq arrives in April with distribution in California although it can be special ordered by any Hyundai dealer in all 50 states. It has a base model price of about $30,300. The Limited edition goes for just over $33,300 and with the Ultimate package it surpasses $36,000.

An innovative new subscription leasing program for the electric model that includes unlimited miles may also help affordability although the final details have not yet been announced.

Up to $7,500 in federal tax credits are available for the electric and about $4,500 on the plug-in hybrid. Some states may have additional incentives such as California which rebates $2,500 for the electric and $1,500 for the plug-in models.