2019 Hyundai Kona Electric first drive review: A fun EV with competitive numbers
The traffic in Beverly Hills is thick and slow-moving as I creep my way back toward my hotel. Where all the cars around me are wasting hydrocarbons as we idle at each red light, though, my car is producing no local emissions at all. I'm at the wheel of the 2019 Hyundai Kona Electric, the plug-in version of the automaker's funky new subcompact crossover. It's far from the only new electric car to launch this year, but the Kona should make a big splash in the non-luxury end of the battery-car segment.
The most important things for electric-car shoppers are two numbers: range and starting price. On the first question, the Kona Electric performs very well, with its 64-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion polymer battery pack delivering 258 miles per charge. Those figures make this the longest-range non-luxury EV, beating the likes of the Chevrolet Bolt EV (238 miles) and Nissan Leaf (151 miles) -- and even Hyundai's own Ioniq Electric (124 miles).
Unfortunately, as of writing Hyundai hasn't confirmed the Kona Electric's starting price. However, the automaker promises it will be competitive and affordable. Most likely that means we'll see a base price somewhere between a Bolt at $37,495 and the Leaf at $30,885 (all numbers include destination but exclude any applicable tax incentives). We'll update this story as soon as we've got full pricing details.
Of course, solid figures on paper are nothing to get excited about if driving the Kona Electric is a bore. Fortunately, that's not the case.
The Kona Electric's fun-to-drive nature starts with punchy acceleration. The car's permanent-magnet synchronous motor produces 201 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque. That's more power and much more torque than is offered by the regular Kona's optional turbo engine, though the EV version is heavier -- roughly 370 pounds portlier than the heaviest gas-powered Kona. Nonetheless, Hyundai claims a brisk 0-60-mph dash of 7.6 seconds and a limited top speed of 104 miles per hour.
As with any electric car, the Kona Electric is quick and eager because its motor offers up all that torque instantly, no downshifts required. The low-rolling-resistance tires will fight against the traction control away from stops and even at highway speeds, neck-jolting acceleration is available on command.
Above all, the car is calm and quiet thanks to the lack of any internal-combustion noises. At low speeds, a new federally required noise plays to alert pedestrians and other drivers. It reminds of the futuristic humming and whirring that cars made in older sci-fi movies. On the highway, there's little sound in the cabin aside from wind noise.
When it comes to ride and handling, the Kona Electric feels pretty similar to its gas-powered progenitor: good, if not exceptional. The steering and brakes feel pretty decent for an electric car, and while the added weight of the battery pack is noticeable, the Electric still traces curves competently and smooths out most road imperfections.
Battery and charging details
The battery pack is a flat design mounted in the floor of the Kona Electric, a layout that's becoming commonplace among new EVs. The battery is liquid-cooled, which Hyundai says helps keep charging times and performance more consistent in extreme cold or hot weather. And it is surrounded by specially reinforced rails to keep the pack protected in the event of a crash. The pack's 64-kilowatt-hour battery just trumps the size of the one in the Chevy Bolt EV (60 kWh) and is much bigger than the Nissan Leaf's (40 kWh), though Nissan is planning to launch a longer-range Leaf soon.
A 7.2-kilowatt fast-charger is built into the car as standard (Hyundai is eager to note that the Bolt charges extra for fast-charge capability). It's claimed to juice the Kona Electric's battery up to 80 percent in just 54 minutes. A Level 2 charger, the kind you're most likely to install in your garage, will fully charge the battery in a claimed nine hours and 35 minutes.
The charging port is located at the front of the car, on the driver's side of the grille. There's a button next to it to start charging the battery instantly; Hyundai officials said research indicated that customers were frustrated if their EV was set to scheduled-charging and they needed to get back inside to start it juicing up straight away.
That battery location means the Kona Electric has the same amount of cargo space and back-seat room as the gasoline model. The former, by the numbers, comes in at 19.2 cubic feet with the 60/40 split-folding seats raised and 45.8 with them lowered. Head- and legroom in the back seat are quite good, but note that the Kona is still a small-ish car: if you've got a six-footer in the back, the passenger will need to scoot his or her seat forward to make every comfortable.
On the outside, the Hyundai Kona Electric takes on a slightly different look than its sibling in order to cut aerodynamic drag. That flush grille, a flat underbody tray and even aerodynamically optimized wheels cut the drag coefficient to 0.29, right between the figures posted by a Leaf and a Bolt. An active shutter in the lower fascia stays closed to reduce drag but can open when cooling air is needed.
Like the regular one, the plug-in Kona looks funky. Not everyone will love it, but at least it's far less deliberately weird in terms of design than some other EVs. The subdued color palette includes choices like Ceramic Blue and Pulse Red, but none of the wildest colors (e.g., lime green) of the gasoline Kona. EV-specific interior tweaks include a push-button shifter that sits on a new, tall console. There's space at the front of the console for the optional wireless phone-charging pad, while beneath it is more storage space and USB ports. A new digital instrument cluster, too, provides information on battery charge and energy usage.
When you're on the move, you can choose between three driving modes: the default Normal, Eco and Sport. They adjust the throttle mapping and regenerative-braking performance, but frankly, Normal is the one to go with. Even in that mode, the Kona Electric offers both decisive acceleration and thrifty regen. If you're freaked out the battery is about to run down far from a charging point, you can even select an Eco+ mode that disables the air conditioning, reduces performance and cuts maximum speed to 60 miles per hour -- all to eke out a few more miles of range.
The Kona Electric also has paddles on the steering wheel for adjusting how much regenerative braking you get, a feature we also saw on the Ioniq Electric and many other rival EVs. Drivers can pick from Level 0 (coasting like a gasoline car) to Level 4, in which you get 0.25 g of deceleration when lifting off the throttle, which is enough that the Kona's brake lamps illuminate. You can also hold the left-hand paddle to get maximum regen and slow the car without using the brake pedal.
As with the drive modes, the default regen option -- Level 1 -- is the best for most driving. It seems to recoup quite a lot of power easily without forcing a new driving style. The more aggressive levels will start slowing the car before you even lift off, and it takes some adaptation to understand that, say, five-percent throttle input will actually decelerate the car.
Hyundai will sell the Kona Electric in three trim levels. Even the base SEL is generously equipped, with a seven-inch touchscreen featuring Apple CarPlay and Android Auto , heated front seats, push-button start, forward-collision warning and braking, lane-keep assist and blind-spot monitoring. Moving up to the Limited will add features like a sunroof, LED head- and taillights, leather seats and wireless phone charging. The Ultimate adds an 8-inch touchscreen with navigation, a head-up display, adaptive cruise control, a heated steering wheel, cooled front seats and an upgraded Infinity sound system.
Ready to enter the electric-car fray
The 2019 Hyundai Kona Electric goes on sale at the start of 2019. It'll initially launch in California and other states with high sales of electric cars . Although Hyundai does plan to offer the Kona Electric nationwide, the automaker says the gradual roll-out makes sense given that, according to its numbers, about 80 percent of all EVs are sold in California. (Click here for a more in-depth look at the roll-out strategy.)
As with any electric car, prospective buyers will need to consider whether their commute and access to charge points will work with the Kona Electric. However, the car's long driving range and affordable entry price will make it a more feasible option for more drivers. Like the gasoline-powered model we quite like, the Kona Electric has just-above-average driving enjoyment, a practical cabin and eye-catching design. It's a really exciting choice in the electric-car space because it doesn't seem to ask many compromises at all of its buyers.
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