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Car reviews - Hyundai - Kona - Electric Highlander

Our Opinion

We like
Relative affordability, long range, driveability ease, city-friendly packaging, practical body, magnetic roadholding
Room for improvement
Still expensive for a small SUV, too visually similar to the regular Kona inside and out, not pretty

Hyundai forges ahead with ground-breaking long-range Kona Electric small SUV

Hyundai logo15 Jul 2019

Overview

 

WHO’D have thought Hyundai would end the decade as the most progressive non-premium carmaker in Australia?

 

The Ioniq ushered in the company’s electrification era as a hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery-electric vehicle, but it’s the full-electric Kona Electric that ticks the most boxes necessary for the long-time-coming EV breakthrough.

 

Here we take a longer look at this pioneer in top-of-the-line Highlander guise.

 

Price and equipment

 

What price progress?

 

For a $30,000 premium, the electric version of the Kona transforms the latter from just another mediocre small SUV that you’d struggle to find something exciting to say about, to something special. SUV-crazy Australian buyers can now go electric from $59,990 plus on-road costs – without range anxiety (up to nearly 450km between charges is possible), science-experiment styling or intimidating controls. The Electric requires hardly any familiarisation.

 

As a consequence of these, this is a red-letter moment for electric vehicles in Australia. After a number of false dawns with the low-range, high-priced first-generation Nissan Leaf (2012) and BMW i3 (2014), Hyundai finally presents a true, relatively affordable breakthrough.

 

Question is, though, how good is the Kona Electric given it’s based on one of the great underwhelming SUVs of recent times? Our issues with the latter centre around coarse 2.0-litre powertrains, a choppy ride and too much noise intrusion. Does swapping out of the infernal… err internal-combustion engine (ICE) running gear for an electric motor and batteries make a difference? 

 

That’s an understatement. This Hyundai combines a 64kWh lithium-ion battery (compared to circa-40kWh items found in the latest Leaf and i3 and more than double that of the soon-to-be-upgraded Ioniq Electric), with a 150kW/395Nm electric motor driving the front wheels.

 

So, the all-important charging info. Using the supplied charging cable (under the boot floor), a standard 10-amp household plug needs 28 hours to go from empty to full.

 

Alternatively, this Kona is designed to handle a maximum 100kW DC fast-charger, which is a huge amount, and they’re now starting to sprout along major highways, ensuring an 80 per cent recharge in about 55 minutes, or 75min with the more common 50kW items also out there.

 

We strongly recommend stumping up for an aftermarket 7kW wallbox for your home or work. It costs about $1500 installed and fills the battery in under nine hours.

 

Remember, with more than 400km of real-world range available, that would only be once every week or so that charging would be required by most owners, and key to the benefits of having a big-storage 64kWh battery.

 

You’ll spot the Electric with its closed front grille, redesigned bumpers and swirly alloys. All models include autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, driver attention alert, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, keyless entry and start, and climate control as well as a reversing camera, sat-nav, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and digital radio – all within an 8.0-inch touchscreen.

 

Stepping up to the flagship Highlander from $64,490 (as tested) ushers in leather, a sunroof, wireless smartphone charging, powered and heated/ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a head-up display, high-beam assist, front park sensors, LED headlights and Hyundai’s agreeable five-year warranty and fixed-price servicing regime.

 

Like we said, many boxes ticked. And one unticked – the spare wheel, since there’s a tyre puncture kit with an electric air pump instead.

 

Interior

 

Not scaring off newbies is what this Hyundai is all about inside.

 

Compared to the regular Kona, the Electric gains a redesigned lower centre console with a push-button transmission and drive-mode selectors (that change the colour of the instruments from bluey-green in Eco to white in Comfort and italicised orange in Sport to correspond with the ascending oomph). The aim is to give what is essentially a garden-variety Kona cabin a bit of EV chic without the future shock.

 

Mission accomplished. The clear instruments are a unique combination of electric and analogue with a multimedia screen showing a range of driver-assist tech, trip, and consumption info (including how much electricity has been ‘made’ in Eco), among other things. About the only risible bit is a fake ‘tachometer’ to emulate rising revs in the Sport setting.

 

In all other aspects the Electric’s interior remains completely true to modern Hyundai practice – it’s smartly designed, beautifully built, hugely practical in terms of front-seat space, storage and ergonomics, and incredibly easy to use and operate. The driving position is excellent, vision out sat on high cushions front and rear is fine and there’s a pleasing uniformity to the overall aesthetic inside – grey and somewhat dry as it is. And going for the Highlander gives you heated front seats that toast you without having to put the range-depleting heater on – though that too is available, of course.

 

More plus sides: there’s a spaceship-on-impulse-engines muted hum to warn pedestrians of the oncoming EV below 30km/h and an addictive, soaring turbine whoosh above that, but there’s also discernible tyre, suspension and wind noise, too, since there’s no ICE racket to drown them out. Still, on balance, the Electric is a far-more hushed and pleasant experience than the normal 2.0-litre Kona.

 

The only thing is, even with all the aforementioned gear, the Electric’s cabin isn’t very $65K in feel or ambience. Maybe $40K at a long stretch. Too much sheeny and/or hard plastics for this Kona to walk the premium walk.

 

There are other issues, too, like the awkward location of the drive-mode button down low and on the back of the high-set centre console, requiring some deft elbow calisthenics.

 

The seats are a bit flat in terms of thigh support. Rear seat legroom is tight for taller folk, further questioning the high pricing from a purely packaging proposition. There are no face-level rear air vents.

 

And cargo capacity – ranging from 332 to 1114 litres (VDA) – shadows that of the ICE version (361L–1143L) and while long and wide, it’s quite shallow, with a tyre-puncture repair kit and some extra minor storage in lieu of a spare wheel.

 

That all said, the dimensions really do lend themselves to inner-urban living, coming in at just over four metres long, 1.8m wide and under 1.6m high. And this Hyundai has unexpectedly deft manoeuvrability down to an art form.

 

Engine and transmission

 

As with most EVs, the Kona Electric employs a permanent magnet synchronous motor for a healthy 150kW of power and 395Nm of torque, driving the front wheels via a single-speed reduction gear transmission.

 

But that 64kWh lithium-ion battery pack also brings a circa-350kg weight penalty over the front-drive Highlander 2.0-litre petrol equivalent, bringing up concerns about performance.

 

We needn’t have feared. Plant the pedal and the Electric leaps off the line with a clear, clean determination, piling on speed rapidly as the smooth, sweet electric powertrain gives this Kona massive wings – and that’s in comfort mode.

 

Select Sport, and the sheer torrent of torque barrelling through to the tyres can be overwhelming, even in the dry, breaking traction several times at take-off, chirping the front wheels like a bird attempting Morse code. Blame the hard-compound eco tyres that are designed to eke out maximum mileage.

 

Calling for more speed once on the move is met with an instantaneous thrust, whooshing forward and accompanied by that lovely jet-like wail. It all makes this Kona resoundingly fast point-to-point. The Electric certainly feels stronger than its official 0-100km/h sprint time of 7.6 seconds. Top speed is 167km/h.

 

Yet, even driving like it was stolen, we managed a decent level of range – around 14.5kWh per 100km, for over 400km between charges. In the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP), the Electric is rated at 449km.

 

Ride and handling

 

As with all recent Hyundai passenger cars sold in Australia, the Kona Electric benefits from a dynamic localisation tune. Note, too, that the EV is the only version of the wider range that pairs front-drive with a multi-link rear end.

 

The electric steering feels light and responsive, but is also completely bereft of feedback and feel, providing a perfunctory level of cornering and handling capabilities that should neither offend nor thrill.

 

Find a few fast curves, though, and the Electric’s dynamic character changes quite dramatically, coming alive with a newfound enthusiasm for cornering and sharp, sure handling, backed up by absolutely incredibly planted roadholding – surely the upshot of all those low-set battery cells.

 

This Kona simply grips the road at speed like it’s glued to the tarmac. Again, the sensation isn’t one of a sporty, interactive drive, with some considerable torque steer to deal with, but there’s a reassuring hunkered-down athleticism that’s quite incongruous given the Hyundai’s homely SUV underpinnings.

 

In some ways, the brakes represent both the best and worst part of the driving experience. On their own, they do a great job hauling the car up to a fast and efficient stop, with a regular, progressive level of retardation as per a normal Kona. But they can also be a bit like a light switch in their on/off response, resulting in an odd, wooden pedal feel.

 

Far better, then, to explore the four-mode regenerative braking system via the wheel-mounted paddle-shifters: a pull on the left provides three levels of forcefulness, with ‘3’ bringing the car to a fairly rapid complete halt the moment you take your foot off the accelerator; pulling the right one reduces that to ‘0’, which is like a freewheeling mode. Effortlessly cycling between each mode is a source of learning eco driving as much as it is fun. Soon, single-pedal accelerating and braking become second nature. 

 

Surprisingly, the ride is comfy, despite being fairly tautly se -up, with a decent level of isolation and absorption on offer. As we said earlier, a fair amount of road and tyre noise is noticeable, however.

 

Safety and servicing

 

The regular ICE-powered Kona scored a five-star rating in the Australasian New Car Assessment Program back in 2017, but there is no ANCAP or European NCAP equivalent for the Electric version.

 

Hyundai’s standard five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty with 12 months roadside assistance is offered, while the battery has an eight-year/160,000km warranty. Service intervals are every 12 months or 15,000km at $165 apiece.

 

Verdict

 

The Kona Electric is a transformative vehicle – it has the range, performance, dynamics and practicality to change people’s minds about EVs.

 

But is it cheap enough? On one hand, the Highlander version from $65,000 makes it more than $30K more expensive than the petrol front-drive equivalent, yet all others EV SUVs are north of $100K and rising.

 

Seen in that light, the Hyundai represents a massive step in the right direction for EVs becoming a reality on Australian roads. If you can afford it, enjoy.

 

Rivals

 

Nissan Leaf (from $49,990 plus on-road costs)

Arriving in showrooms in August, the second-generation version of history’s best-selling EV yet is better in almost every single respect – range (WLTP: 270km), performance, handling and refinement, though the original’s endearing oddball design has been exorcised, as the Japanese hatch moves towards the mainstream.

 

BMW i3 (from $68,700 plus on-road costs)

Gorgeous cabin design meets striking exterior styling in a fast driving, sharp handling four-seater city car now offering 260km of (WLTP) range, though ride comfort isn’t great, and that price tag will ensure exclusivity. Beware OF THE expensive options. The i3s VARIANT adds a bit more oomph for just $1200 more, but ITS suspension is too firm.

Model release date: 1 March 2019

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