Over the past few years, Hyundai has quickly rolled out one of the most comprehensive ranges of alternative propulsion vehicles in the industry, with regular and plug-in hybrid, fully electric, and even hydrogen-powered models as the company looks to prepare itself for the eventual demise of the internal combustion engine, and all of its futuristic efforts thus far have been quite well-received and present a strong case for themselves.
One such example is the Kona Electric, the EV designed to really silence the detractors. While the Ioniq Electric may be a great steer that’s well-equipped and well-priced, its 311km range, while certainly enough to be more than viable, might not sound like a big enough number to keep everyone’s range anxiety at bay, and its low-riding fastback shape, while very aerodynamic, might not be to everyone’s tastes.
The Kona, on the other hand, features a much larger battery to help it deliver a claimed 449km of range in real-world driving conditions, and comes wrapped in a more conventional and on-trend small SUV shell, making it seem on the surface like a far more viable option, particularly for SUV-mad Aussies given the vast distances many need to cover in this country.
With Hyundai having quietly given the Kona Electric a minor update for 2020, it seemed an opportune time to get back behind the wheel of it again just eleven months since I last drove one and get reacquainted with how liveable this EV really is.
Kicking off at $60,740 in Elite specification, the Kona Electric isn’t exactly what you’d call cheap to begin with, while the top-trim Highlander model on test here only bumps that up even higher to $65,290 plus another $595 for the Lake Silver paintwork. The two-tone Phantom Black roof is a no cost option though, it’s worth noting, although in opting for it you lose the sunroof – something even the staff at Hyundai’s Adelaide office pointed out was an odd omission on the spec sheet when I collected the car.
However, lack of sunroof of my tester aside, the Highlander certainly delivers quite a bit in the way of kit to justify that price tag, with little to be wanton for. Leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats with power adjustment, automatic climate control with a more efficient ‘driver only’ mode, wireless phone charger, digital instrument cluster, and head up display.
When I said that the 2020 update was minor, though, I really do mean it as the only thing you’ll notice that has been changed out is the infotainment system which now utilises a much larger 10.25-inch screen than the 8.0-inch unit that previously sat there, along with a slicker and even more attractive operating system that features satellite navigation, digital radio, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity as standard on both trim levels as it was before. It’s a shame, though, that it hasn’t inherited the slicker new digital gauge cluster from the facelifted Ioniq to go along with it, as well as its Level 2 semi-autonomous driving tech, too.
But while it’s clearly well-equipped otherwise, it must be said that it doesn’t necessarily feel like the interior of a car worth sixty-odd. The interior plastics by and large feel too harsh for a car at this price point, and it must be said that, given it’s a small SUV, it feels a tad cramped inside it – even surprisingly so in comparison to the i30 it shares a platform with, along with in comparison to the roomy Ioniq.
A lot of that cramped feeling does come down to the high-sided centre console, however, which is very tall and wide and lacks any sort of cushioning for your knee on the side of it, although it does at least have its advantages – all of the switchgear on it is right in easy reach and at the ideal height, and with no transmission in the way underneath it, it allows for a massive storage bin below it that’s ideal for things like handbags.
Speaking of the lack of a transmission, let’s talk drivetrain. Powered by a single permanent magnet synchronous motor that drives the front wheels through a single-speed reduction gear with a 7.981 ratio, it has 150kW and a particularly healthy 395Nm on tap, the latter of which is instantly available off the line.
Able to cover the 0-100km/h sprint in 7.6 seconds, like with all single-speed EVs it feels remarkably punchy off the line, especially with its hefty instantaneous hit of torque, but the power does start to taper off once you near triple-digit speeds, although not quite as noticeably as in some lesser-powered electric models.
You can tell just how much torque it’s really packing though if you simply stab the throttle at a standstill or lower speeds though as it’s perhaps even a bit too eager to chirp its front tyres sometimes, with the fact they are a low rolling resistance sort to improve its range not exactly helping.
Despite that, however, the Kona Electric is a well-rounded steer with enough grip to hang on, well-weighted and responsive steering, and decent body control helping it remain not just more balanced than many other little SUVs through the bends, but far better sorted than the regular front-wheel drive Kona.
Unlike it, which has a torsion beam connecting the rear wheels, the Electric model adopts the multi-link independent rear suspension of the all-wheel drive turbo petrol model which not only helps it ride far more smoothly but display better composure, too, particularly on bumpy tree-lined Australian backroads.
The big battery pack running along the floorpan of the car also keep its centre of gravity very low, helping it remain flatter through the corners than you’d expect, even if there’s a dash of lateral body movement to get past.
While it rides fairly well, it must be said it can occasionally feel a little busy at times which isn’t uncommon for small SUVs like this, displaying more lateral body movement than you’d perhaps like after tackling a bump, so it doesn’t feel quite as silky-smooth as the lovely Ioniq although it’s not too far off its mark.
Still the most impressive thing about the Kona Electric has to be its impressive range though which continued to leave me impressed after reacquainting myself with this thing again. Hyundai’s real-world range claims really are very accurate as to what you can actually expect to see from them, with the Kona indicating range of between 435-460km to me when fully charged depending on how the climate controls were set, including as much as 484km with the air conditioner off, with it averaging energy consumption of 15.3kWh/100km over the course of 890km which, funnily enough, matched Hyundai’s claims to the decimal.
With that sort of range, it truly is pretty comparable to a petrol car, although there is the drawback of a bigger battery equating to longer charging times. If you have access to public fast charge stations – easier to find in parts of the world like Europe, but incredibly scarce in Australia – this won’t be as much of an issue as you’ll be able to charge it from empty in as little as 54 minutes at 100kW, but if you’re charging it at home, it’ll take 9.5 hours with a 7.2kW home charging station, while the 2.2kW emergency trickle charger I had to use required more like a full 24 hours from empty.
However, with the sort of range it’s able to cover, and the ability to fully recharge fully overnight if you have a home charging station, the lack of public charging stations in Australia doesn’t bear much of an affect on the Kona’s usability in comparison to that of an Ioniq or Nissan Leaf, with range anxiety simply not playing as big a factor here as it often can in other EVs.
Perhaps the only catch for me with the Kona is the price – at over sixty-grand, it feels like a lot to pay for a little SUV from a distinctly mainstream brand, even if it’s well-equipped and packing some very expensive technology, but perhaps more importantly than that, it gets too close for comfort price-wise to a Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus as well, and the average EV convert I would dare to guess will be more tempted into a car from the brand that has made a name for itself solely based off electric propulsion.
Of course, in some other parts of the world such as the UK and Germany there are government grants and rebates to help subsidise the cost of purchasing an EV like this quite significantly to the point at which it is more comparable with a conventional ICE car, but at this current stage no such schemes exist in Australia.
Regardless, the Kona Electric is mighty impressive and perfectly usable even as it stands with Australia’s lack of charging infrastructure – there’s enough range to live with it, but relying on your own home charging solutions is the price you’ll pay for being an early adopter. As time goes on though and Australia’s EV charging infrastructure grows, I think Hyundai will find itself as one of the leaders in the mainstream EV race in years to come, and the Kona only asserts the company’s position as one of the frontrunners.
2020 Hyundai Kona Electric Highlander List Price: $65,290 | As Tested: $65,885
Pros: Impressive real-world range, plenty of standard equipment, much improved ride and handling in comparison to the petrol Kona, new infotainment system is very slick and well-presented
Cons: Some interior materials don’t befit the price tag, misses upgrades the Ioniq received for 2020 including semi-autonomous driving tech, let down by Australia’s lack of charging infrastructure like all EVs
In a nutshell: As Australia’s EV infrastructure develops in years to come, the Kona Electric will only make an even better case for itself, but even as it stands it’s a perfectly usable and viable option for those wanting to switch from petrol pump to power plug.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Hyundai Australia for 10 days, and was fully charged upon delivery.