The Hyundai Kona Electric is the electric vehicle version of the Kona subcompact crossover. It’s one of multiple so-called “Tesla Model 3 fighters” aiming to capture a share of the the entry-level EV market, where cars start around $30,000 after factoring in the full $7,500 federal tax credit.
The Kona’s range and perky driving dynamics have made it a hit with reviewers; NACTOY jurors named it the “North American Utility Vehicle of the Year” for 2019, for example. It may be the best affordable EV on the market not made by Tesla. In the EV market, however, “affordable” still means spending $40,000-plus on a small Hyundai.
The Good: The Kona Electric is super-efficient: It delivers 258 miles of EPA range (nearly the most of any non-Tesla EV) out of a small 64-kilowatt-hour battery. Despite that efficiency, it’s quick in everyday driving, thanks to 291 pound-feet of instantly-available torque.
Who It’s For: The Kona EV is for the understated early adopter who finds a Tesla a bit too flashy. This buyer is not the sort to order a smug vanity plate or join an online motoring cult; he or she simply wants a car that cuts his or her carbon consumption.
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Watch Out For: Don’t let the “utility vehicle” moniker fool you. The Kona EV is tiny.
Alternatives: Major rivals for the Kona EV matching price, range, and capability include the Tesla Model 3, the Nissan Leaf Plus and the Chevy Bolt. The Kona also has a corporate cousin, the Kia Niro EV, built on the same platform.
Review: The Kona EV may not have been my white whale, but it did take me months to get hold of one in the Detroit-area media fleet. It has been a popular car to write about this year because it addresses some of the fundamental questions about this propulsion shift: Will converting to electric car affect daily life? Will EVs suck all of the enjoyment out of driving? Will anyone who isn’t a tech bro be able to afford one?
After a two-day-stint driving the Kona EV, I can report that the answers to those questions are no, no…and maybe.
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Automotive awards jurors like the Kona EV because it’s fun to drive. Small crossovers tend not to make great drivers’ cars, but the Kona EV is not the Nissan Leaf proxy many would expect. It offers 291 lb-ft of torque — more than a Golf R — and because it has an electric powerplant, that torque comes immediately at zero rpm.
This makes it feel super quick in everyday driving. You can sneak up on a BMW driver (literally, since they can’t hear you), and then have enough oomph to roar past them in the fast lane. The Kona’s performance is by no means “ludicrous,” but it’s engaging enough not to make converting to electric feel like an act of penance for carbon-related sins.
The Kona EV combines this performance with efficiency. It has an EPA-rated 258-mile range (longer than a standard Model 3) in spite of having only a 64-kWh battery. I tried to induce range anxiety over my time with the car; even without the Level 2 home charging apparatus most owners will use to top up with overnight, I couldn’t come close. With braking-based regeneration on full blast, I used about 10 miles of range over two days running errands.
I simulated the longest reasonable daily commute from my house in the Detroit suburbs — a 42-mile drive to Ann Arbor, which takes anywhere from about an hour to an eternity, depending on traffic. Over the whole trip, I used 50 miles of net range, then gained about 30 miles back on a charger in a public garage while I devoured a Reuben sandwich. The toughest part of my experience was the inordinate amount of time it took me to realize I had to unlock the car to disconnect the charger.
Owners will likely recharge at night. (At least, those with garages or private driveways will.) It’s only on extended trips where range anxiety would ever become an issue. Even then, it’s stopping for a long lunch at a fast charger; the Kona recharges to 80 percent capacity (206 miles of range) in 54 minutes. Unless you’re doing frequent cross-country trips, electric likely makes sense for you.
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I didn’t lead with the Kona Electric’s looks because, unlike a lot of EVs, it blends in. The pockmarked texture and sliver of chrome at the front give the illusion of a grille, so you don’t notice it doesn’t have one. Other than the fancy wheels that improve its aerodynamics, it looks like a regular Kona. My personal preference would have been to choose any color except the “cerulean blue” on my tester.
The Kona EV’s interior felt oddly analog for such a car. There are tactile buttons everywhere: the gear shifter is a series of hard buttons; climate and infotainment adjustment happen with buttons; you even engage the HUD with a button. There’s an argument to be made against Tesla-style touchscreen minimalism, but this felt too far in the other direction.
While you may see the Kona described as a “utility vehicle,” don’t let that fool you. There’s not much utility. The cargo area is small, and the rear seat is cramped. I had to contort my toddler more than usual to maneuver him into his car seat. It may be hatchback-sized, but it feels closer to a Mini than a Golf.
Besides a slight lack of practicality, the major sticking point for prospective buyers may be cost. Battery tech is still too expensive for mass-market adoption. The Kona EV is priced well compared to other EVs — the base model slides in a hair under $30,000 after the tax credit — but that price still can’t compete with internal combustion. Unless you’re committed to buying an electric vehicle, the choice for $40K or so is an entry-level Mercedes sedan, a large, loaded Honda SUV…or a subcompact Hyundai.
Verdict: I suffer from a lot of climate guilt, and the Kona EV is such a good daily driver, I’d consider buying one. Consider it: In reality, most buyers (including me) will need a more practical car. Many will still be tempted to stick with the value found in internal combustion.
Switching to a Kona would be a lifestyle choice, not just a transportation one. If Tesla’s foibles don’t scare you off, it’s a fancier brand, and you can get a Model 3 for only a few thousand more.
2019 Hyundai Kona EV: Key Specs
MSRP As Tested: $44,900
Torque: 291 lb-ft
EPA Range: 258 miles
Battery Size: 64-kWh
Hyundai provided this product for review.
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