2017 Hyundai Ioniq

DURHAM, N.C. — Automobiles, not unlike other products or events, are, from time to time, recognized and lauded with superlative citations: the fastest, largest, class-leading, most advanced, first, and so on. Some are even strange or bizarre: The first crash-test dummy came to be back in the 1930s, replacing a live human with a cadaver.

And while the Toyota Prius is certainly the best-known and best-selling gas-hybrid vehicle, it wasn’t the first. That honor dates back to the 1899 Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus by 25-year-old Ferdinand Porsche. Yes, that Ferdinand Porsche.

Fast-forward 119 years and we have Hyundai introducing the world’s first dedicated vehicle, a compact five-door hatchback with three electrified low-and zero-emission powertrain choices on a single platform. The Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid is on sale now; Ioniq Plug-in Hybrid will be available this fall; the Ioniq Electric with pure electric mobility debuts this spring in California then in a limited number of states thereafter. Hyundai says that both the electric and plug-in hybrid can be special-ordered by any dealer.

While Hyundai already offers a hybrid variant of its popular mid-sized Sonata, Ioniq (eye-ON-ick) — whose name is an amalgamation of the lithium-ion battery it uses and the word “unique” — is the brand’s first dedicated alternative-fuel nameplate.

According to product planning manager John Shon, the Ioniq isn’t about jumping on the alternative-powertrain bandwagon to keep up with the tremendous number of new vehicles being released into the marketplace or because of runaway sales of these vehicles. Nor is it about having a new entrant into the compact-car market that actually shrunk 5.2 percent in 2016.

In fact the sale of “green cars” including hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric have tanked, dropping a full 19 percent in 2016, thanks, in part, to cheap gasoline and the booming popularity of crossover utility vehicles. Industry share of alternative vehicles finished at just 2.87 percent for 2016, up from 2.25 percent in 2011, with a decline in the last three out of four years.

According to Shon, the Ioniq introduction isn’t about trying to conquest the Toyota Prius, because even if they did, it still doesn’t amount to a lot of sales. Rather, he sees it as a looming societal sea change that’s expected to transform the automotive marketplace, with trends like the generational shift from boomers to millennials, from suburban sprawl to megacities, from SUVs to autonomous and connected vehicles and meeting government CAFÉ standards.

By 2020, millennials, who prefer to reside in urban areas and are more open to alternative vehicles with better fuel economy, will be responsible for 40 percent of new car sales.

Hyundai says that most car shoppers, while open to considering a dedicated green vehicle, generally avoid them for several reasons. They cost too much compared to gas-powered vehicles the same size; they lack performance; the styling is too funky, bland or boring; they aren’t sporty enough and lack sufficient passenger seating.

For the most part, Ioniq is an answer to those objections, as I found out at the recent media launch where we drove both the hybrid and plug-in hybrid models.

In almost every way, Ioniq was outstanding and an absolute joy to drive, especially when maneuvering in urban traffic.

Both the Ioniq Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid are powered by a 1.6-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine delivering 104-horsepower, connected to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The hybrid uses a 43-horsepower 32 kW electric motor and a 1.56 Kwh battery pack fitted underneath the back seat. The plug-in has a more potent 60-horsepower version.

We were pleasantly surprised at its performance, easily scooting along and keeping pace with city traffic, getting up to speed entering the interstate and passing slower vehicles, all without the noisy bleating we commonly find in conventional compact sedans. That performance alone makes it easily acceptable, but considering that it’s now the most fuel-efficient car in the industry without a plug, Ioniq is even more appealing. It delivers 55 miles per gallon, thanks in part to the lowest coefficient drag of any vehicle at just 0.24.

The Plug-In offers all-electric range for an estimated 27 miles before switching over to traditional gas-electric hybrid driving.

To enhance both the Hybrid’s and Plug-In’s fuel efficiency and driving dynamics, the driver can select either SPORT or ECO modes. SPORT function holds lower gears longer for maximum performance. ECO optimizes transmission gear selection for efficiency by upshifting earlier to improve fuel economy.

All three Ioniq models share the same body style and are approximately the size of Hyundai’s compact Elantra sedan and hatchback. But the styling is much more attractive with a far more aerodynamic shape. Shon was quick to point out that one of the major objectives with the design was to make it “normal” — not funky hybrid looking. It’s certainly more attractive than a Toyota Prius.

Inside, the dash is clean, intuitive and attractive with a sensible shifter, buttons and knobs, and an infotainment system that’s a no-brainer to use. Passenger space is adequate with ample room for my too-tall frame, but I could have used a bit more headroom.

Hyundai is also attempting to do its part by using recycled and ecologically-sensitive materials in the cabin, like blending powered wood and volcanic stone with plastic in the door panels. Raw materials extracted from sugar cane are partially applied on the headliner and carpet, and paint with ingredients from soybean oil is used in metallic colors on key components.

The new Ioniq Hybrid Blue is priced at $23,035 to start, including $895 in destination charges. That compares to $25,570 for the Prius Sedan, including destination. Pricing for the Plug-In has not been announced; Ioniq Electric starts at $30,395 before applicable state and federal tax credits.

Overall, Hyundai’s introduction of the Ioniq seems to be less about realizing a sudden ascension to unsuspected realms of wealth, rather a looking with a sharp eye to an imminent future of rapidly changing buyers, consumer and environmental trends, and sensible mobility solutions.

But Ioniq doesn’t solve the premium price hurdle against the numerous gas-only compact cars that routinely deliver 40-mpg, and cost several thousand dollars less. We wonder if consumers will be willing to pony up the extra dollars for a hybrid.

Vital Stats

Price: $23,035 - $30,395 (electric)
Price as Tested: $23,035
Engine: 1.6-liter 104-hp gas 4-cyl and 43-hp electric
Horsepower: 139-hp total
Fuel Economy: 55-mpg combined city-highway
Crash Test Safety Rating: Not yet rated

Competes With:

Ford C-Max
Kia Niro
Toyota Prius

What Stands Out:

Unique hybrid, plug-in, electric lineup
Prius beating fuel economy
Attractive styling

— Jim Prueter