The more compelling of the two is the Hyundai Kona Electric. It joins other purely battery-powered machines such as the Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Bolt and the Tesla Model 3, but the Korean automaker one-ups the competition by arriving in the form of a crossover. Americans can’t get enough of them, and no other pure electric on the market offers it unless you’re talking about the $83,000 Tesla Model X. The Kona EV’s next closest competitor is the boxy electric Soul, and in case you didn’t know, Kia’s affiliate company is none other than Hyundai.
In truth, the crossover moniker isn’t entirely accurate. Like its internal-combustion-engined counterpart, the Kona EV doesn’t really sit above regular car height. Rather than call it a compact crossover, it’d be more appropriate to label it a hatchback with some rugged-looking body cladding. The Kona Electric does, however, top nearly all of its EV rivals for cargo space, with 19.2 cubic feet. Only the Leaf tops it at 23.6 cubic feet, but the Kona’s footprint is almost a foot shorter than the Nissan’s.
Visually, the Kona Electric is distinguished from its petrol-powered sibling by a grille-less face, replaced by an LCD readout grid pattern with the charging port neatly hidden beneath a panel on the left side. A new light bar spans the prow, connecting the upper driving lights in a digital wave pattern repeated in the lower front, side and rear skirts. It’s meant to evoke the pathways in a circuit board, according to senior chief designer Chris Chapman.
Inside, more differences serve to remind you that you’re sitting not just at the helm of a crossover, but a shuttle to the future. An array of PRND buttons and an electronic parking brake await your instructions. Neither seemed necessary nor an improvement over the Kona classic’s tried-and-true gear selector and handbrake, but there they were. The e-e-brake perhaps does permit the double-decker center console, though, the lower level meant for gadget recharging, whether via USB or Qi wireless.
In our Kona Electric Limited tester, the cabin proved generally a pleasant place to be. Our 7-inch touch screen was intuitive and user-friendly for auxiliary functions such as radio and nav. Exclusive to the Kona Electric is an LCD screen that replaces the traditional instrument gauges, but we prefer lag-free sweep of the analog needles. On the Unlimited trim level, an 8-inch display, ventilated front seats and a heated steering wheel offer additional posh options not available on the dead-dinosaur-driven Kona.
Also unique to the Kona Electric is a nicely designed three-tone light gray interior with silver trim. The materials don’t seem to be the most durable; the skin of the steering wheel in our tester, for example, was visibly lumpy, but the lightness swathes the cabin in a newfound serenity befitting of its Hawaiian island namesake.
With the conversion from gasoline to electric power, the Kona gets even tighter inside, with some room lost to the battery pack spanning the floor pan and its associated protection bracing. Front legroom stays the same at 41.5 inches, but the rear is trimmed down to 33.4 inches from 34.6 inches. The cells add mass, too. Official numbers haven’t come out yet, but engineers estimate a portly 3,850 pounds. That’s about 600 pounds heavier than a standard Kona Ultimate and nearly 400 pounds heavier than a Leaf.
To wean drivers off of fossil fuels, though, an EV can’t compromise too much when compared with similar gasoline-imbibing cars. Here, the Kona Electric shines. Click the D button, and the car gets moving with a pleasant, high-tech hum. It exists at low speed primarily to warn pedestrians that a silent machine is on the prowl, but also happens to be exactly the type of thrum you’d expect a Lucasfilm sound engineer to conjure for some kind of futuristic hovercraft.
Mash the go pedal in Sport mode, one of three drive settings, and you can actually do some serious passing. It’s not just from takeoff, either, where the 201-horsepower, 290-pound-foot motor lets you do some damage. Sport mode kicks up the sensitivity of the throttle response to instant, so when you need to overtake, merge or make evasive maneuvers, motive forces are instantly summoned.
The other two settings are not quite as thrilling. The time between pedal push and forward motion lags noticeably, but it helps eke out a 258-mile range, which easily puts the Kona at the front of its class. It offers an additional Eco+ mode, too, which cuts functions such as A/C to help conserve that last bit of juice. Each mode comes with a different level of regenerative braking as well, but drivers can also select one of three levels of regen with paddle shifters to suit their coasting deceleration preferences or — for the supremely lazy — drop it into an additional setting of one-pedal driving.
Despite its weight, the Kona exhibits surprisingly composed handling, even in the winding Santa Monica Mountain roads that comprised part of our drive route. Sure, the battery pack keeps the center of gravity low, but Hyundai also didn’t skimp on narrow tires to inflate its mpgs. The Kona’s 215/55 R17 tires help keep its mass planted when slung. Its seats are forcefully bolstered, to an almost intrusive degree, contributing to the sports car-like sensation on your torso, but their grip may get tiring after long trips. Most importantly, however, it reacts naturally to steering inputs and communicates road surfaces logically to the driver. It’s not quite a sportster like the Mazda CX-3, but the Kona’s suspension geometry is light-years ahead of its Soul EV cousin’s.
When it’s not in motion, the Kona Electric’s 64 kWh battery can be rejuvenated via DC quick charge, taking about 54 minutes on a 100kW Level III system, or 75 minutes on a 50kW trickle. Fast charging comes standard on the Kona, while on cars such as the Chevy Bolt and Nissan Leaf, it’s an extra-cost option. Home AC charging requires 9 hours and 35 minutes for a full top-off. Charging status can be monitored on Hyundai’s Blue Link app, which also lets owners set charging times to take advantage of off-peak hours.
From Hyundai’s own analysis, the Kona’s battery performs better than the Bolt’s in extreme climates. For example, the 54-minute DC charge time drops to 64 minutes when the ambient temperature climbs to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and it sinks to 120 minutes at -4 degrees. The Bolt’s standard 79-minute charge takes 92 minutes at 104 degrees and a whopping 292 minutes at -4 degrees.
Additionally, the Kona comes with much of the safety tech one has come to expect on modern machinery. Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and forward collision, lane keeping, and rear cross-traffic assist all come standard. Hyundai has not yet said anything about pricing but expect an announcement closer to launch.
Up to this point, EVs have often felt like compromises—cars that you’d only buy if you cared about saving either money or the environment. The Kona Electric makes a strong case that a pure-electric crossover can be had without sacrificing drivability or utility. We’ll have to wait until pricing to cast our final judgement, but our experience with it makes us think it should be on any crossover buyer’s list, especially if cars such as the Ford EcoSport or Toyota CH-R are already there. Our critiques haven’t been lobbed at the technology itself, but at particular choices Hyundai could have made on any car. The fact that the Kona can be cross-shopped as a capable entry-level crossover, electric or not, is a big step toward the mainstreaming of EVs.