HOLLYWOOD, CA – Why battery-electric vehicles have failed to achieve wide popularity is open to debate. Not enough range? Not enough marketing? Not enough charging infrastructure? Kooky designs?
You could argue all of the above are to blame.
We would posit one more possible culprit: Too many sedans and hatchbacks, not enough trendy CUVs. Per Wards Intelligence data, CUVs through September account for 38% of total U.S. light-vehicle sales this year, but only one of 13 BEV models available here is a CUV, the Tesla Model X.
Along comes the Hyundai Kona Electric, on sale late this year in California, as a CUV with more than a decent shot at success.
Another? The Kona is the industry’s longest-range, non-Tesla battery-electric vehicle yet. Able to go an estimated 258 miles (415 km) on a full charge, it tops the Chevy Bolt (238 miles [383 km]) and the upcoming Jaguar I Pace (234 miles [377 km]). Of BEVs on the horizon, only the forthcoming Porsche Taycan, with a projected 310-mile (490-km) range, should exceed it in the near term.
The Kona Electric is based on Hyundai’s new Kona small CUV, on sale since the spring in the U.S. with only an internal combustion engine.
Hyundai engineers have preserved the gas-engine Kona’s dimensions more or less for the BEV. Wheelbase and overall width remain the same, although the BEV is slightly longer (by 0.6 ins [15.2 mm]) to accommodate a 64-kWh lithium-ion battery pack under the front and rear seats.
Also for packaging reasons, Hyundai had to switch out the gas Kona’s torsion-beam rear axle in favor of a more compact independent rear suspension with trailing arms. The upside is that it gives the BEV a plusher ride than its gas-engine counterpart.
The suspension switch helps maintain the cargo volume of the standard Kona, 19.2 cu.-ft. (0.5 cu.-m), although that is below the Nissan’s Leaf’s 23.6-cu.-ft. (0.7-cu.-m) cargo capacity. The Leaf is more than a foot longer than the gas or electric Kona.
Not only is the Kona’s range great, but it also has a whopping 290 lb.-ft. (393 Nm) of torque from its 150-kW (201-hp) electric motor. Like all BEVs, its torque is available with no delay when you step on the accelerator, making weaving in and out of slow-moving traffic on the clogged streets and avenues of suburban Los Angeles a fun game.
However, as we strive to preserve range as much as possible during our afternoon test drive, we keep our lead foot mostly in check.
Thanks to that restraint, plus generous braking via the foot pedal or regen paddles, we lose just 22 miles (35 km) of range despite traveling a total of 45.8 miles (74 km). We end at 202 miles (325 km) of range remaining, or, expressed in another way, 73% of charge left in our battery pack.
Important to note is battery charge varies based on ambient temperature (usually the warmer the outside temperature the better the charge and vice versa). At the end of our drive on a typically warm and dry Southern California day, the Kona Electric’s energy information screen says if we plugged in at that moment and fully charged we could realize 304 miles (489 km) of range.
Most automakers caution against filling a pack to 100% all the time, as doing so degrades Li-ion cells quicker. But to get to 304 miles from 202, the info screen says it will take one hour and three minutes on a DC charger, three hours and five minutes using 240V and a hefty 16 hours and 40 minutes on a standard 120V line.
To go from 0% to an 80% charge on the Kona Electric’s pack, Hyundai has estimated it will take 9 hours and 35 minutes using Level 2 (240V) charging and 75 minutes or 54 minutes on a Level 3 DC charger. The 75-minute duration is using a 50-kW DC charger, currently what most public fast-chargers in the U.S. are rated at, and the latter time is on a DC charger rated at 100 kW. New public fast chargers by Electrify America output mostly 150 kW, but important to note is Hyundai has governed charging speed at roughly 75 kW for the Kona Electric to preserve battery life.
Unlike Hyundai’s 124-mile (200-km) range Ioniq Electric car which has an air-cooled 28 kWh pack, the Kona Electric’s larger battery pack is liquid cooled to guard against hot-weather driving and repeated DC fast-charging, which generates heat.
For tech geeks, there are 98 cell groups, with three sub-cells in parallel, in the LG Chem-supplied 64 kWh Li-ion pack, and each series having nominal voltage of 3.75V.
Grid-like steel and aluminum structures in the floor of the Kona protect the battery pack from crash forces as well as bolster the rigidity of the vehicle.
Regenerative braking paddles behind the steering wheel let Kona Electric drivers change motor drag, from zero to three (essentially none to strong). The level defaults to one each time the vehicle is started. We set our level to three to experience the strongest drag possible, which reveals itself most during stop-and-go traffic at low speeds on busy Santa Monica Boulevard.
Holding the left paddle down can bring the vehicle to a complete stop and activate the brake lights and is equivalent to about 0.25g of deceleration.
The Kona also offers driver-programmable smart regenerative braking which automatically adjusts (using the CUV’s radar) distance to the vehicle ahead and brake force depending on the Kona Electric’s speed.
Heavy use of the paddles and having smart regen braking on results in our range climbing from 214 miles to 218 miles (344 km to 351 km) during one point of our journey.
To maximize aerodynamics, the Kona has a full underbody shield, drag-reducing wheel designs and a flap at the front of the vehicle to control airflow into the CUV. The Kona Electric’s coefficient of drag. 0.29, trails the Leaf’s 0.28 Cd, but exceeds the Bolt’s 0.32 and Soul’s 0.33.
The noise the Kona Electric makes to alert pedestrians of its presence at low speeds reminds us of a muffled tornado siren, but in a good, non-annoying way.
The face of the Kona Electric varies considerably from the standard Kona. With no engine to cool, it has a solid upper grille. However, cute vertical and horizontal dashes give you something to look at vs. the flat, expression-less expanse of the Tesla Model 3’s schnoz.
As the Kona is the lowest-priced CUV in Hyundai’s U.S. lineup, the interior of the Electric predictably has lots of hard-plastic surfaces and small-ish displays. The blue-gray trim color in our light blue test vehicle adds some flair, though.
The Kona Electric has the same retracting head-up display as the gas-engine Kona, a nice feature in what essentially is an entry-level crossover.
Hyundai has yet to release pricing on the Kona Electric, but expect it to fall in line with ’19 Bolt and ’19 Leaf pricing, starting at $36,620 and $29,990, respectively, not factoring in a $7,500 federal tax credit.
Three grades of the Kona Electric will be available: SEL, Limited and Ultimate. Standard on the SEL is a 7-in. (18-cm) LCD touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, blindspot monitor and three years of Hyundai’s Bluelink telematics service, which, via its app, allows owners to view battery level and current charge status and receive notifications on whether the plug is in or out.
Stepping up to the Limited grade nets buyers leather seating, a sunroof, LED exterior lighting and wireless smartphone charging, while the Ultimate grade adds safety technology such as adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning, plus an 8-in. (19-cm) touchscreen, ventilated seats and a 350-watt Infinity audio system.
As with most BEVs, distribution will be strongest in those states following California’s zero-emission-vehicle rules, which includes Oregon, Washington and the northeastern states.
Hyundai is mum on sales potential but from comments made here the U.S. side appears ready to fight for as many as it can get.
Meeting demand may be tough as reports suggest the automaker had 20,000 reservations in Norway alone, from which it took just under 7,000 orders. But according to Wards Intelligence data, only 2% (3,080) of the roughly 154,000 Konas Hyundai has built in its Ulsan, South Korea, plant through August of this year are BEVs.
If Hyundai can build enough (dependent on getting sufficient batteries from supplier LG Chem), the Kona Electric could go the distance and be the first real challenger to Tesla’s Model 3, which is the No.1-selling BEV in the U.S. with around 49,000 U.S. sales through August.