THE PROS & CONS
2019 Hyundai KONA Electric
- WHAT’S GOOD: Like its gasoline-powered twin, good driving dynamics; well-equipped; strong exterior styling.
- WHAT’S BAD: All the usual drawbacks of battery-powered cars, although its range is better than most; very pricey compared to its twin; those backup lights still must be repositioned.
2019 Hyundai NEXO Hydrogen
- WHAT’S GOOD: Handsome, especially inside; decent driving dynamics; excellent range for an alternate-fuel vehicle.
- WHAT’S BAD: Hydrogen availability extremely limited; performance not up to that of possible battery-powered alternatives.
LOS ANGELES—Hyundai is hedging its bets on powertrain technology.
It knows as any thinking person does that gasoline will continue to be by far the dominant player for at least another half-century.
Hyundai also understands that battery-powered vehicles will never be more than bit players — again, where are we supposed to get enough electricity to replace all the gasoline we burn?
Simply, we never will.
Battery-powered electrics will mainly be a bridge to the obvious medium- to long-term solution, which of course is hydrogen-fuel-cell electrics.
To illustrate progress on both fronts, Hyundai brought me to Southern California to try the battery-powered KONA, and the hydrogen fuel-cell-powered NEXO.
Two for the price of one.
2019 Hyundai KONA Electric
We told you about the gasoline-powered KONA back in the spring, and found it to be a peppy, generally pleasing little crossover.
How would it fare with an electric motor for propulsion?
For starters, it looks about the same from the outside except for the front end, which is essentially grille-less. No need for intake air, so why would you need a grille?
That said, it does lose what is becoming Hyundai’s trademark front-end styling.
And it still has the backup lights located way too low on the rear fascia. C’mon guys; I told you about this last spring! I thought you were fast?
Inside, however, you’ll find considerable differences. The electric KONA (and yes, Hyundai always capitalizes ALL THE LETTERS in KONA) doesn’t have a “transmission” in the conventional sense, so the centre console between the seats is a two-level affair rather like some Volvos, with the top level having push buttons for Drive, Park, Neutral and Reverse, a cubby bin, some minor controls and a pair of cup holders, with a sizable storage bin underneath which is accessible from both front seats.
The main difference in the KONA electric is obviously the powertrain. A permanent magnet synchronous electric motor motivates the front wheels with 201 horsepower and 290 lb.-ft. of torque which as with all electric motors peaks effectively at zero r.p.m. This makes acceleration feel even livelier than it actually is, although a 0-100 km/h sprint time of around eight seconds isn’t bad.
As electric motors are, this one is near-silent in operation, which means you sometimes hear a few odd clicks and whirs from the powertrain because there’s no exhaust noise to mask them. You soon get used to this.
The suspension has been beefed up to handle the extra weight. Hyundai hasn’t released weight figures for this version of KONA yet, but it would likely be in the neighbourhood of 200 — 300 kg more. Batteries are heavy.
Still, ride quality is decent.
The steering is light and a bit devoid of feel, but people won’t be buying this car to strafe canyons, even if that’s what we did on this drive when we weren’t slogging along in California 1 traffic.
A degree of driving customization is available via a ‘Mode’ switch. ECO+ is for real save-the-earth types, although why they would buy any car in the first place escapes me. This shuts off the air conditioning (in LA? No thanks…) and tames throttle response to eke out a few extra km from that battery.
ECO eases off the hair-shirt thing a shade, allowing both air con and heated seats (yes, you can buy this car in Canada…).
Normal mode allows a bit better throttle response, although the step is pretty small.
Sport mode makes the car feel much livelier and firms up the steering to make it feel — well, more like the regular KONA.
Maximum range is given as 415 km. As with any car, using the sportier modes will sap some of that range, as will driving in hilly country, although to be fair (aren’t I always?) KONA electric did pretty well during our test. The estimated remaining distance number on the dash did not go down as quickly as the odometer reading went up.
Most of the time, apart from the silence, you’ll hardly notice you’re driving anything all that unusual. That is a deliberate strategy by Hyundai, to try to “normalize” driving an electric car. This in contrast to, say, Chevy’s Bolt or Nissan’s Leaf, which never let you forget.
One exception is that the left steering column paddle allows you to control deceleration in four stages. Tugging on the paddle increases electric drag, effectively braking the car to the extent (depending to a degree on traffic) that it becomes almost a one-pedal car. Accelerate to go, tug on the paddle to slow, then stop.
And yes, the brake lights do come on when you do this.
As I always say, I don’t hate electric cars — science hates electric cars. And here’s the kicker: pricing has not been released yet, but the guess is KONA electric will come in somewhere in the mid-forty thousand dollar range.
That’s about twenty grand more than a roughly-comparably-equipped gasoline KONA. You’ll have to drive a lot to make up that difference.
And recharge times can be very long. Hyundai claims a Level II charger — that’s 240 volts, like your stove or dryer uses — will take over seven hours to full recharge KONA’s battery.
If you still want to use your stove for cooking or your dryer for your laundry, and don’t want to spend several thou putting a Level II recharging facility in your garage, you’ll be stuck with the standard 110 volt system. Hyundai doesn’t offer a time for this, but according to electric car-fan websites, this doesn’t seem to be a linear thing. Other electrics which take around seven hours to recharge with 220 volts can take three to four times as long with 110.
Mind you, if your daily driving distance is short enough, you can top up at night even at 110 and it will work for you.
As long as everyone in your neighbourhood doesn’t buy an electric car. If they do, the entire neighbourhood probably burns to the ground.
You will also have to live with the fact that the manufacture and eventual disposal of battery-powered cars is significantly more impactful on the environment — shipping all that toxic lithium to make the batteries from Bolivia to China and back again on bunker-C-fuelled ships, etc.
And from the “a broken clock is right twice a day’ file, the new Ontario government did the right thing by killing the ill-advised subsidy for electric cars — better late than never.
The question: is there a market for a nearly 50-grand vehicle (tax, etc. in…) that looks just like the one your neighbour bought for about half that?
Hyundai thinks so, expecting to sell some four to five thousand KONA electrics starting next month.
Personally, I think that’s optimistic, but they get paid way more to make these decisions than I do to criticize them.
Let the games begin.
2019 Hyundai NEXO Hydrogen-powered SUV
Hyundai is one of the world leaders in hydrogen-powered vehicles. When your head office is on a seismically-active peninsula where memories of the Fukushima nuclear power disaster in nearby Japan remain fresh, electricity generation is a hot topic, and hydrogen is the only feasible alternative.
Hyundai is the only carmaker currently making hydrogen-powered cars available in Canada, albeit in limited numbers in certain regions of the country.
As noted above, hydrogen is obviously the future, which is particularly good news for Canada because some of the leading hydrogen technology companies in the world are located in our own back yard.
Our northern climate also makes battery-powered cars even less appealing than they are anywhere, because battery efficiency drops markedly with temperature.
Hyundai’s second commercially-available hydrogen-powered vehicle, the NEXO compact SUV, will be available later this year. The price is as yet unannounced, but will likely top $50,000.
NEXO is a major step up in every way from their previously-available hydrogen car, the old Tucson.
NEXO is based on its own dedicated platform which utilizes lots of ultralight high-strength steel — Hyundai is the only major carmaker which makes its own steel.
It’s a bigger car than KONA, by 490 mm overall and 190 mm in the critical wheelbase dimension, so it’s commensurately roomier, especially in the rear seat.
It also allows for a sizable cargo area, measuring 839 litres with the rear seats in place, 1,600 litres with them folded.
It’s a handsome beast, with some high-tech touches like door handles which pop out like those on Jaguars. Very cool unless you’re taking photographs of the car and don’t want them sticking out.
Consistent with the ecological theme, NEXO features environment-friendly soybean-oil based polyurethane paint, and some fabrics and materials made from bamboo thread and sugar cane.
The interior is gorgeous, especially the door panels. No seriously, take a look when you get the chance…
The dash contains two big bright screens, the one in front of the driver with all the pertinent driving info, and a big centre screen for SatNav, audio and the like. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are on board.
Likewise Hyundai’s own Blue Link system which includes the dreaded remote start, although I don’t know if this kills electric motors and is as wasteful of fuel as it is with gasoline engines.
Blue Link does include a hydrogen refuelling station locator which will come in very handy.
The fuel cell provides 95 kilowatts to the permanent magnet electric motor, augmented by a 40 kW battery which adds a bit of extra urge when starting from rest.
Acceleration is considerably quicker than the fuel cell Tucson was, getting from rest to 100 km/h in about 9.5 seconds, although that is about a second and a half slower than the battery-powered KONA.
Not sure why the electric motor in NEXO is so much less powerful than the one in KONA; I’ll let you know when/if I find out.
Still, NEXO gets out of its own way well enough.
Also, NEXO’s mode switch omits the Sport setting. Again, not sure why.
NEXO’s fuel consumption based on our test drive should be outstanding; it returned the equivalent of about 2.5 l/100 km.
The suspension is biased toward ride comfort, yet handling is surprisingly good, given the car’s size and weight. Big (245/45 19) Michelin tires help a lot, as they always do.
NEXO also has something called Remote Smart Parking Assist. Unlike most self-parking cars, NEXO will park itself, parallel or perpendicular, without you even in the car.
Get out, push a button, and watch it go.
Likewise when you return — push the button, and the car presents itself.
Talk about a party trick.
The potential downside — the guy you may have parked way too close to might have doored your car getting into his.
So, two alternate-fuel vehicles, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Where the fuel cell NEXO blows the electric KONA away is in two vastly critical measures: driving range, which at 600 km is about 45 per cent longer than the KONA electric; and even more critical, refuelling time, which is about five minutes, or roughly the same as a gasoline car, and orders of magnitude faster than the KONA electric.
That of course assumes you can find a source of hydrogen. Battery recharging stations are rare enough, but you can (at considerable expense) put one in your own home.
Hydrogen — not so much.
Current hydrogen availability is very limited. Having 600 km of range isn’t much use if you have to drive 300 km to find a refuelling station.
But that may change faster than most people think. Canadian Tire already runs their warehouse fork lift trucks on hydrogen; how tough would it be for them to offer it at every CTC gas bar?
True, at the moment most hydrogen is reformulated from fossil fuels, but long-term there are much better solutions.
We won’t need anywhere as many hydrogen filling stations as we would electric recharging stations due to the much faster refuelling time.
And, they should be less expensive to install than high-speed charging stations.
At whatever its price will be, NEXO is clearly a luxury item, although not out of reach of early adopters who like to be first with new tech.
And unlike KONA, there is no other NEXO model which costs about half as much yet looks the same.
Hydrogen cars will take a while, but they are going to happen.
Wanna be first?
Get in line.