While electric cars have often seemed out of reach for the average person, with the technology itself still being costly to develop and premium marques leading the charge, there are more affordable alternatives out there, and Hyundai – quite possibly the greatest zero-to-hero story in the history of the car industry – has indeed been proving that for a few years now.
Although the Korean marque was far from the first mainstream company to launch an affordable EV – Nissan and Mitsubishi were almost a decade ahead of them on that – it was the first, I believe, to deliver a product that actually worked in the real world with the Ioniq Electric, which, in Elite specification as tested here, is still the cheapest electric vehicle you can buy in Australia today.
First launched in 2018 with Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid, and Electric models, I’ve been consistently impressed with it since its launch, having driven a pre-production Hybrid model and the original Electric as well before now. Chiefly, it’s a strikingly normal car – to the average pedestrian or fellow motorist, it simply looks like an Elantra with some extra badging on the back – and when it comes to the electric version in particular, it not only had enough range to get you to work and back, but for a countryside jaunt on the weekend, as well.
As we entered the year 2020, however, Hyundai decided the 230km real-world range wasn’t quite enough, and that’s what rather neatly leads us on to the facelifted model you see here.
Not only have the looks been tweaked slightly, with new wheel designs and a different front bumper which, on electric models, incorporates two smaller retractable openings inside the otherwise flat grille area, but there’s new tech inside and, most importantly when it comes to range, a bigger battery.
Now enlarged from 28kWh to 38.3kWh, it claims to afford the Ioniq an even more usable range of 311km per charge on the stricter and more trustworth WLTP testing cycle, which is great. The downside? It’s now more expensive, with a $3500 price increase for electric models, which, while still asserting it the position of being the cheapest EV in Oz, just undercutting the second-gen Nissan Leaf, does beg the question – is it worth the extra dough, and, even more so, worth giving up petrol for?
Certainly, on the surface at least, it’s a smart-looking thing as most Hyundais are these days, although I do feel the pre-facelift model did look a bit more streamlined than this new one with its more prominent flat grille area and angular, drag-reducing wheel design. The average punter won’t notice what it is though unless they take notice of the ‘electric’ badge on the back, although if you were to pry that off, no one would be any the wiser.
On the inside, it presents smartly as well, with the revised interior a noticeable step up from what was in here before. The larger 10.25-inch infotainment screen – which runs a very similar operating system to what I recently tested in the Kia Seltos – is clear, slick, and easy to use, and the digital instrument cluster also features a larger display and revised graphics that make the two fit together well.
There are some handy EV-specific displays on both screens as well. On the centre screen, for instance, you can dive into its EV menu to find plenty of handy information such as the nearest charging stations, a radius overlay on the map of just how far you can drive from where you currently are, and information showing just how much running the air conditioning or other similar functions is affecting your range, while on the gauge cluster, when you put the car into sport, a power usage gauge appears in place of an ICE car’s tachometer.
Also lifting the interior feel is the redesigned climate control unit which swaps regular push-buttons for capacitive touch units. It looks smart, but does smudge easily with its gloss black backing, although the AC functionality itself is excellent, with the notable inclusion of a driver-only setting to avoid needlessly heating or cooling the rest of the car when you’re in there by yourself, saving you even more precious range.
The grey cloth seat upholstery in the affordable Elite model is a big step up from the rather low-rent patterned cloth found in here before. Step up to the Premium, however, and leather-appointed seats with heating and cooling and memory settings for the driver will take their place, while a sunroof and wireless phone charging pad are also added.
With that being said though, it’s hard to escape the fact that some of the interior materials, particularly on the dashboard and door cards, do feel particularly plasticky, but with this being the cheapest EV on sale here, and with all the key contact points feeling nice to the touch, it’s a compromise that’s fairly easy to make in my estimation.
Interior comfort is very good with well-padded seats and armrests, and plenty of room up front. Legroom is fairly good in the back, although headroom is at a bit of a premium for the taller folks out there due to the sloping roofline, but that’s just the price you pay for improved aerodynamics. The larger battery pack than in hybrid models does intrude on boot space slightly as well, it should be noted, but its 357 litre boot is still a perfectly usable size. The additional interior storage though, particularly in the centre console where the lack of a transmission frees up a massive amount of storage space, does make up for that somewhat, however.
While it does feature a larger battery pack than before, the other mechanical underpinnings of the Ioniq Electric remain the same as before, meaning a front-mounted permanent magnet synchronous motor making 100kW and 295Nm driving the front wheels, with a 7.412-ratio single-speed reduction gear taking the place of an unnecessary transmission.
As you’d expect from an EV with this amount of power, it’s incredibly punchy off the line thanks to its instantaneous power delivery, with more than enough torque to get the low rolling resistance front tyres spinning, although by the time you hit triple-digit speeds, the power does start to taper off rapidly. At highway speeds though, it’ll still accelerate past slower-moving traffic when overtaking easily.
The other positive EV characteristic, of course, is that its low centre of gravity, thanks to its floor-mounted lithium-ion battery pack, does aid its handling to no end, with it remaining very flat and balanced through the corners, while the lack of a transmission up front helps it turn in sharply due to there being less weight over the front axle – even if it does lead to some steering rack rattle when you hit particularly large mid-corner bumps, which is, admittedly, a uniquely Australian problem.
Make no mistake, it’s no hot hatch when it comes to performance as an i30 N will out-corner and outperform it every day of the week, but it is far more fun on backroads than you’d expect for a car that seems relatively pedestrian.
More relevant to the average Ioniq buyer, however, is the incredibly supple suspension which helps it ride absolutely beautifully on poorly-maintained surfaces, and works well with the comfortable seating and, of course, the sheer silence as there’s no engine running to deliver a truly serene driving experience.
So, it’s well equipped, nice to be in, and great to drive, but there is still that all important question of just how usable its range is, and how accurate the claims are.
While for inner-city folks, even the pre-facelift model’s shorter range was usable for a whole week, for people like myself who live outside of their nearest major city – around 40km in my case – it did require daily charging when all was said and done.
With the extra range the bigger battery pack delivers, however, it saw me only having to charge it once every two or three days, making it far more practical for those living outside the city – even if the range isn’t nearly as good as that of Hyundai’s larger and more expensive Kona Electric. The WLTP claim is pretty accurate, too, as unless you’ve got the air con or heater absolutely cranked, you’ll get very close to that full 311km on a single charge.
Charging it at all, however, is still the main issue facing not just the Ioniq but all EVs. With Australia being embarrassingly behind the times when it comes to public charging infrastructure and home charging stations being very expensive, plugging it into a regular wall socket was the only option I had at my disposal, and the slow 2.2kW charging speed combined with the large battery did mean that it took far longer to charge than the older model – I’m talking around 18 hours from near-empty, which is far, far longer than the six hours or so a 7.2kW home charging station would take, or the 54 minutes a 100kW fast-charge station would take… if there were any here.
What’s more, another general criticism I have is that while you may feel like you’re doing your bit for the environment by having an electric car, the environmental impact of mining lithium for the batteries and, in most instances, burning coal to generate the electricity being put into those batteries, it’s not quite as clean as you might think, even if it isn’t producing any tailpipe emissions.
As a side note, I do have a large solar system at my house where I was charging it, meaning my conscience was free, as was the charging itself, too, but the point does still stand.
If you look past that, however, the Ioniq does make a good case for itself if you’re thinking of making the switch to an electric car. Yes, it’s more expensive than before, but it’s also a better car than before, and is not just the cheapest EV you can buy, but honestly one of the best dollar-for-dollar.
2020 Hyundai Ioniq Electric Elite List Price: $48,490 | As Tested: $48,985
Pros: Range finally improved to a truly usable distance, slick infotainment system and digital gauges, lots of interior storage space, handles tightly and confidently
Cons: Dashboard and door cards feel a bit plasticky, bigger battery does mean it takes longer to charge, some rack rattle on mid-corner bumps
In a nutshell: If you’ve been tempted to make the switch to an EV, the affordable Ioniq only makes an even greater case for taking the plunge than it did before.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Hyundai Australia for a week, and was fully charged when the keys were handed over to us.