By on October 15, 2018

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]

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31 Comments on “2019 Hyundai Kona Electric First Drive – Worthy Competition...”

  • avatar

    “I don’t know what killed me, but the last thing I heard was the sound of angels. Ain’t that ironic?”

  • avatar

    I’ll admit I’m not that much of an EV expert, so I’ll ask – why does it have a lead-acid “starting” battery under the hood? What’s that used for?

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      12V electrical systems have been the norm for 50+ years, and EVs are no different. The 12V battery powers everything in the car except the drive motor, and the high voltage battery keeps the 12V battery topped off.

      Someday, mfrs will migrate to 42V systems, reducing the need for heavy copper wiring.

      • 0 avatar

        True, most subsystems are still 12V, but why not use a power converter to drop the main battery voltage to 12V? It would be much lighter than that heavy lead battery.

        • 0 avatar
          SCE to AUX

          12V batteries are great at dealing with load surges, and they can discharge for quite a while before requiring replenishment from the HV battery.

          My 12 Leaf wouldn’t even start if the 12V battery was dead (which never happened, but that’s how it was made).

        • 0 avatar

          Because the contactors, the part that turns the traction battery on, are controlled by the PCM which runs on 12v. Which is why they need separate 12v source to boot the PCM which can then turn on the power from the traction battery and then be able to turn on that inverter to the the 12v that actually runs the car once it is on.

  • avatar

    “The Kona scrambles like an egg from a dead stop.”

    I have no idea what that means.

  • avatar

    That fake grille design looks like it will be a pain to clean up. Dead bugs and other dried debris will have to be painstakingly removed from all those nooks and crannies.

  • avatar

    I keep being told by TTAC commenters that the Tesla M3 only costs about $4 to manufacture, and that Tesla is wildly profitable because of those low production costs. If true, then this lower spec Kona ought to be almost free to produce, and that begs the questions: why is the price so high and availability so limited? If EVs are so cheap to make (after all they don’t have a gearbox, valves, pistons, crankshafts or any of that expensive stuff), why not really get the EV revolution started by pricing it in Elantra or Accent territory – i.e. well under 20K? Doesn’t Hyundai want to make lots of money and save the polar bears by selling hundreds of thousands of cheap to produce EVs?

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      You’re not hearing that from me.

      The Model 3 is likely profitable with economies of scale, which it should be achieving now; we’ll soon hear if TSLA made a profit in Q3. If they didn’t, and don’t in Q4, then they may never be.

      I believe other mfrs produce EVs in low volume simply because they don’t want to lose money. The irony is that they could probably underwrite their EVs with ICE car profits, which is what I think Nissan has been doing. Obviously TSLA can’t do this, so their only choice has been to go all in.

    • 0 avatar

      @stingray: Never said $4. Read the articles about the Munro Report. Yes, volume plays a huge, huge part. But, the high ATP is helping out too. It hit $60k in September. Also, battery costs are coming down to the point Tesla lowered prices on the 100kWh models. There are other factors as well and that’s outlined in the report.

      • 0 avatar

        MCS – of course I’m exaggerating what your wrote about the Munro M3 report, but it seems very strange that such positive M3 cost findings don’t seem to be believed by the world’s other automakers with hundreds of cumulative years of car manufacturing experience, because if they believe the report that would almost certainly be seeking the economies of scale that would give them “big” EV profits. I expect they have also torn down and costed-out Teslas, and I suspect their own cost accounting isn’t nearly so favorable as the Munro report. I also suspect they are not so optimistic about battery costs coming down, otherwise we wouldn’t continue to see so many limited availability compliance cars being introduced such as this Kona.

        • 0 avatar

          Tesla took a lot of cost out of the Model 3 by taking what other manufacturers do with 25 to 40 electronic modules and integrating nearly all of them into one. That’s why almost everything has to be done via the touchscreen; the module it connects to runs damn near the whole car. That’s one thing which Munro called out as impressing him, the high level of integration in it’s main module.

          on the other hand, that’s a single point of failure.

          also, that “30%” number is an *estimation* Munro came up of the car’s bill of materials cost and an *estimation* of the labor needed. BOM just tells you how much money Tesla spends to buy the parts to build the car. If their BOM cost is 30% below what they’re selling the car for, but that 30% margin is being eaten up by other operating costs, then it’s still not going to net them a profit in the end. I can sell you something for $100 which cost me $70 to make, but if it costs me another $30 getting the widget into your hands, I’m still not making any money.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “Worthy Competition”

    Not really. This car’s cousin, the Ioniq EV, has sold an average of 30 copies per month this year, and only in compliance markets. The Kia Soul EV is maybe 100/month. Hyundai/Kia aren’t serious about the EV market.

    “Hyundai understands that electrics currently experience what we’ll politely call “limited appeal” in the United States”

    Two comments:
    1. When you play not to win, you lose.
    2. That ‘limited appeal’ is growing – a lot. Exhibit A: Tesla’s Model 3.

    I’ll take cars like this seriously when I can actually buy one. Right now, my choices are limited to Tesla, Nissan, Chevy, and BMW.

    • 0 avatar

      “That ‘limited appeal’ is growing – a lot.”

      *TESLA’S* appeal is growing, but is that the case for EVs in general? The Bolt was down 18% YTD by Q3 and the Volt down 14%, while overall sales weren’t exactly huge to begin with. The Leaf is flat YTD. Prius Prime is up 36%. Everything else is basically a low-volume, limited market “compliance car”.

      Right now there is more of a “Tesla Revolution” than an “EV Revolution”. If Tesla shows a profit for Q3 or Q4 that would be huge. If they don’t I’m not sure what the future holds for electrics.

      • 0 avatar

        Tesla’s issues have almost nothing to do with the cars. I wouldn’t use them as a barometer for EVs, though judging by the rest of the market the $35K M3 seems to be vaporware.

        There is a big gap between cars like this and the $60K+ EV crossovers the Germans have in the queue. If someone can make a decent $50K EV I think people will be into it, especially if they can market the significant fuel cost savings. In expensive states we are talking thousand$ of dollars a year.

      • 0 avatar

        Range anxiety is the obvious issue. Until they can offer a EV model with ~400 miles (real world) range, they will remain a niche product. Consumers are not stupid and most see through the marketing hype the surrounds EVs.

        • 0 avatar

          Do most people routinely drive 400 miles in a day, and pretty much non-stop?

          • 0 avatar

            Asdf says they do.

          • 0 avatar

            No, but any reason to deny the viability of EVs is good enough.

            Range anxiety is ignorance for most Americans. 400 miles represents 11 days of driving for the average American, who also most likely lives in a detatched single family home. Most Americans could go for a few days on half that range, and if they need to go long distances often have access to a 2nd vehicle.

          • 0 avatar

            I drove more than that yesterday, but since charging an EV isn’t as quick nor as convenient as gassing up an ICE, longer range is more ideal.

            There were hundreds of places along my trip to buy gas. A healthy majority of the exits i passed on the interstate had at least one gas station. When I did need to fill up, it took all of 15 minutes and I was back on the road. Within about 10 miles, I caught and passed a black Sienna that I had passed a few miles before I stopped. When its that easy and quick to do the same with an EV, you’ll have something.

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX


        Since Tesla owns ~3/4 of the US EV market at this point, it’s hard to say. As much as I like their cars, I’d definitely consider other mfrs who offer less drama.

        There remains real interest in an affordable long-range EV that isn’t dorky looking, and isn’t associated with Elon Musk.

        Another significant advantage for TSLA: the Supercharger network. This really makes cross-country travel with an EV (theirs) viable. It’s still nearly impossible with any other make.

    • 0 avatar

      Maybe not serious about the US EV market, at least not yet.

      Otoh, there were 20k interested buyers for the Kona EV in Norway for an allocated supply of 2.5k.

      Overall in Europe, Hyundai expects to sell around 11k of the Kona EV by the end of the year.

      In Europe, Korea and select other markets, there are long wait list for the Kona EV and Niro EV.

      Maybe Kia will increase supply for the US when the next gen Soul EV launches.

  • avatar

    “The Kona even hums like an an angel…”
    Perhaps I haven’t had enough near-death experiences, but what does a humming angel sound like?

  • avatar

    This EV has an unremarkable range, and takes virtually forever to charge, unlike an ICE-powered car. In other words, the Kona EV is dead on arrival, and must be withdrawn from the marketplace ASAP. Fortunately, Hyundai also developed an ICE-powered version, so all is not in vain.

  • avatar

    The 2019 Volt has that same “angelic UFO” sound effect that plays at low speeds, and for some reason it also plays through the rear speakers when you’re in reverse. The Bolt, on the other hand, sounds like a hairdryer.

  • avatar

    them: hUndAY iS on A RoLl thEY’Ve coMe a LOng WAy fROm wHat THeY uSeD tO MAkE

    me: *looks at this interior picture*

  • avatar

    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.

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