2019 Hyundai Kona Electric First Drive - Worthy Competition

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Until recently, anyone wanting a purely electric vehicle capable of driving beyond the confines of a daily commute was stuck shelling out the big bucks. Then Chevrolet introduced the Bolt in 2016, proving that 200+ miles of range wasn’t out of the question. With most EV competitors achieving just over half that, it seemed like it might be awhile before we saw another mainstream nameplate surpass that achievement.

Keen to one-up the Americans (even though the Bolt was technically developed by GM Korea), Hyundai has come forward with the 2019 Kona Electric. This subcompact crossover replaces its standard four-cylinder and fuel tank for an electric motor and 64-kWh battery pack. The end result is a familiar platform with an unfamiliar powertrain that’s capable of 258 all-electric miles, according to the manufacturer. It also happens to be quite enjoyable to drive. The Kona even hums like an an angel at low speeds, something I found wildly entertaining as I wheeled it around Los Angeles.

If I had to be run over by a car, I would love for that noise to be the last thing I heard before the world went dark.

Full Disclosure: Hyundai flew me out to California and put me up in the Sunset Marquis hotel in order to test both the Kona EV and hydrogen-powered Nexo. They also provided meals for the duration of the drive event and hooked me up with some hydrogen-infused water — which tastes like regular water, in case you’re curious.

During our pitstop, I popped the hood to see if I could find the source of this magical sound. This was the press equivalent of shaking a bag of dog food, as every journalist immediately flocked to my teal Kona to take photos of the “engine bay.” But it also provided an opportunity to compare notes. I mentioned that the Bolt’s pedestrian alert sounds like a dial-up modem compared to the Hyundai, whose warning noise makes you feel like you’re being abducted by benevolent aliens. They unanimously agreed.

The Kona EV resembles its gasoline-powered sibling to a large degree. However, the grille has been replaced with an interestingly textured bit of plastic that also houses the vehicle’s charging port. In Electric guise, Hyundai’s smallest crossover gets a little bit quirkier without falling off a cliff. I don’t expect everyone to love the styling, but it’s not so wild that most will find it off-putting, either. It’s busy, not asinine.

Things are a bit more normal on the inside without getting dull. Hyundai took great pains to give the interior some of the exterior’s personality, going so far as to do some trim-to-paint color matching. Unfortunately, while almost everything appears to have been pieced together meticulously, much of the hardware feels as if it won’t stand up to routine abuse. The steering wheel is exceptionally disappointing in this regard. While it felt good in the hand, wrapped in a grippy, rubberized skin, it also felt as if it might dissolve into mush after a few years of direct sunlight. I don’t know if it will, and I’m not certain if it’s due to Hyundai’s obsession with soy-based materials on its green cars or simply because it’s not a quality item, but I have to mention it.

The cubby in the center console felt particularly flimsy and refused to close without a carefully planned push. Too hard or soft and the magnet wouldn’t snag the proper component and the lightweight door would spring back open. While highly obnoxious, you’ll either eventually get the hang of it or begin using the massive cubby located beneath the “floating” center console.

However, there will still be random reminders that you’re sitting in a budget automobile. Soft touch materials are located where you’d normally place your arms, but, if you stray away from them, you might be surprised when an identical-looking panel turns out to be rock hard plastic. In a way, it’s kind of genius. Hyundai managed to cut costs without making it immediately obvious. Depending on your personal level of criticality, you can either praise the automaker’s cleverness or condemn it for trying to turn a profit.

Regardless of your level of forgiveness, interior comfort is still very good for the segment and it’s reasonably quiet inside, which is mandatory for EVs. Cargo space behind the rear seats is minimal but still manages to outperform most other small electrics — save for the Nissan Leaf — at 19.2 cubic feet (or nearly 46 cubes with the seats folded). While you can get adults into the rear, it’s a little too tight to house anyone legitimately tall for more than a short trip. That’s par for the course for vehicles in this class, but the fact that you’re sitting on top of the battery makes everything a little bit worse.

Front seats are supportive and modestly bolstered, but far too tight for anyone with an unhealthy body mass index. I found them perfect for my unambitious frame, however, and the bolstering came in handy after we started flinging the little crossover around the Hollywood hills.

The Kona scrambles like an egg from a dead stop. Maybe not one of those jumbo-sized chicken eggs, but definitely a quail’s egg. Sticking with the bird references, it’ll also playfully chirp the tires below 20 mph if you give the throttle a good mashing. While this may have something to do with Hyundai’s choice in rubber, it’s also a testament to the svelte-looking (it’s actually pretty heavy) crossover’s 201-hp electric motor, which also generates 290 foot-pounds of instantaneous torque. No matter how many times you do it, it remains a very satisfying experience. So satisfying, in fact, that my co-driver couldn’t resist treating a hilly residential area as our personal rally stage. I followed suit on the way back down, leaving the local joggers with more unhappy expressions. To be fair, I don’t believe we ever broke the speed limit, but I also don’t care about joggers’ feelings — just their safety.

Despite being heavy for its size, the Kona EV carries its heft exceptionally well thanks to a low center of mass. Balance is excellent for a front-wheel drive vehicle (for the Kona Electric, Hyundai optioned to use a rear multi-link setup found on AWD gas models.) The floorpan rails are also heavily reinforced with aluminum, which Hyundai says improves overall rigidity. The manufacturer hasn’t released an official curb weight, though Derek Joyce, Senior PR Manager for Hyundai’s Product and Advanced Powertrains, said it will be in the neighborhood of 3,800 pounds. That’s significantly more than the Chevrolet Bolt, which is also a treat at boulevard speeds.

Handling is confidence inspiring and inputs are sharp, albeit without the feedback needed to appease the most mental of car enthusiasts. However, it’s better than most EVs I’ve driven and regular folks will feel like they’re driving an oversized go-kart — especially if they maximize the regenerative coast settings to the point of near single-pedal driving.

The Kona EV has three driving modes: eco, comfort, and sport. While not entirely tepid, eco is the underhand pitch of the three. It basically turns on every setting that might aid in recouping power while dulling the throttle response. You could happily drive around in this mode all day without feeling frustrated, though. “Comfort” ditches some of those settings to optimize normalcy. “Sport” sharpens the throttle and attempts to add some faux engine braking by incorporating a little more regenerative coasting. There’s a slight delay between the moment you take your foot of the “gas” and the moment regen kicks in, but it’s otherwise agreeable.

There’s also an Eco Plus mode that disables power-hungry accessories, like air conditioning, to maximize range in emergency situations, or to calm those riddled with range anxiety. However, considering the Electric’s rather exceptional range, we doubt you’d use it unless you find yourself in real trouble.

In truth, there isn’t a lot of discernible difference in dynamics outside of throttle response, especially since you can always adjust the regenerative settings on the fly by tapping the paddles mounted behind the stressing wheel. But Hyundai has done an excellent job making it feel like there are. For example, in eco mode the dashboard turns green and notifies you of how many miles you’ve just restored to the batteries when coasting down a hill. Meanwhile, sport mode gives the gauge cluster a warmer color palate and disincentives hypermiling by hiding those elements.

As much as I enjoyed trying to overwhelm the tires until the computers stepped in to save them from undue harm, the Kona EV does lose some pep at higher speeds. Again, that’s par for the course with vehicles employing a single-speed reduction gear. You’ll still get to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds on your way to a top speed of 104 mph according to the manufacturer, but I’d wager it’s a little quicker than that.

If the numbers are to be believed, that makes the the Hyundai officially slower to highway speeds than either the Bolt — which feels slightly faster from a stop — or Nissan’s Leaf. But both of those models top out at around 90 mph, while the Kona just keeps on going. While this writer wouldn’t use that ability as the basis of any buying decision, you can’t discount it for those days when you forget to go to the bathroom before leaving the office. And it also happens to make overtaking on the expressway a more seamless experience.

Differences between trims are minimal. They all use push-button gear selection, which seems to be the norm for zero-emission vehicles, and come equipped everything you’d really want — including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and all the cool features associated with Blue Link. The base SE trim even has heated front seats, adaptive cruise control, and lane keeping assist. This is the kind of stuff that makes the odd cheap trim piece seem irrelevant in the grander scheme of things.

If you want more, the Limited trim adds a sunroof, power adjustable driver’s seat, wireless device charging, a upgraded sound system, LED headlamps, and fancier interior materials. The Kona EV Ultimate adds, adaptive cruise with stop and go, parking distance indicator, and an 8-inch touchscreen with navigation. Hyundai’s interface is easy to use and clear to see, even with the sun blasting directly onto it.

One additional perk is that the Kona’s fast-charging setup comes standard on all trims. Hyundai said it went to great lengths to ensure the Kona could charge swiftly in all climates by incorporating battery heating and cooling. This helps to keep charging times consistent. In ideal situations, that means 75-kW fast charging can restore 80 percent of your battery life in under an hour (decent, but not tops). Of course, you can still plug it in at home and let the Kona get a slow and steady stream while you catch up on your sleep.

All told, the Kona is quite good as far as electric cars go. Any shortcomings are due primarily to its relation to the standard, internal combustion model and not because Hyundai screwed something up. Assuming the company manages to price it close to the Chevrolet Bolt’s $37,500 starting MSRP, it’ll be tied with the Bowtie as the best affordable EV on the market (I’ve yet to drive Tesla’s Model 3).

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to go out and buy one. Hyundai understands that electrics currently experience what we’ll politely call “limited appeal” in the United States. As a result, the Kona Electric will launch exclusively in California. From there, Hyundai says it intends to expand availability to the East Coast in 2019 — followed by select areas where buyers are more prone to purchasing zero-emission vehicles.

[Images: Hyundai; © 2018 Matt Posky/TTAC]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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2 of 31 comments
  • IBx1 IBx1 on Oct 16, 2018

    them: hUndAY iS on A RoLl thEY'Ve coMe a LOng WAy fROm wHat THeY uSeD tO MAkE me: *looks at this interior picture*

  • HotPotato HotPotato on Oct 17, 2018

    I gave up on waiting for this thing to come out, so I went to get a Bolt. I gave up on waiting for them to get production ramped back up on the Bolt so lease prices would go down again, so I got a Volt. I'm enjoying my third-choice semi-EV, but I would have liked to at least try the Kona EV. Oh well, looks like Hyundai isn't particularly serious about selling them, what with the whole one-state availability thing. I can't imagine they're profitable in the big-battery, big-motor version tested here, although there is a medium-battery, medium-motor version available in Europe which might actually turn a profit despite its lower starting price.

  • Doug brockman hardly. Their goals remain to punish us by mandating unsafe unreliable unaffordable battery powered cars
  • Lorenzo It looks like the curves are out and the boxy look is back. There's an upright windscreen, a decided lack of view obstructing swoop in the rear side panels, and you can even see out of the back window. Is Lexus borrowing from the G-Class Mercedes, or the Range Rover?
  • Lorenzo Didn't those guys actually test drive cars? I was told that one drove like an old lady, another like a maniac, and the third like a nervous middle aged commuter who needs to get to work on time and can't afford big repair bills, and they got together to pass judgement within their individual expertise. No?
  • Lorenzo Aw, I don't care what they call the models, as long as they don't use those dots over the O's.
  • The Oracle GM just seems hapless lately