The Hyundai Kona Electric’s High Card is Its Familiar Blend of Normalcy
The Kona is pretty refined for a compact car, and the electric version is nice to drive. We can't really call it "cheap," but it does feel accessible.
To most folks outside of the automotive journalism blog-o-sphere, electric vehicles are not normal. To many, it seems an electric car is synonymous with Tesla, an expensive, oddly-shaped spaceship car with a weird steering wheel and a swath of interior screens. Actually, no, electric cars can be very normal. The Hyundai Kona Electric, is in fact, that normal girl.
For a week, Hyundai loaned me a brand-new 2022 Kona Electric Limited in my quest to learn about EV livability and infrastructure in the Midwest. So here’s what we learned about the car and what it’s like to live with one in between the coasts of America.
2022 Hyundai Kona Electric Limited
- Base Price (as tested): $34,000; ($43,840 including destination)
- Powertrain: 201 HP/291 LB-FT, electric motor — front-wheel drive
- Battery Size: 64 kWh
- EPA Estimated Range (observed range): 258 miles, (about 225 miles)
- Vehicle Type: Subcompact Crossover
- Curb Weight: about 3,800 pounds
Not All Konas Are Electric
The regular, gasoline-powered Hyundai Kona is a small, subcompact(ish) crossover, near the bottom of the Hyundai’s lineup. It directly competes with the Chevy Trax, Honda HR-V, Ford Ecosport, et al, all little jacked-up modest-budget soft-roaders that are really just made for basic transportation. It’s fine, subcompact crossovers are fine, and the Kona’s generally a solid offering. I have a friend who recently replaced her rusted-out Grand Am and Santa Fe (a slightly bigger Hyundai with a similar shape) with a brand new one, and she’s enthralled with her car. On its face, the Kona should be a great base to build an electric car on.
For 2022, the whole Kona lineup has been facelifted, with new front and rear fascia, and a revised gauge cluster. The electric version has a pushbutton e-shifter, and a floating-style center console design. My Kona Limited presser included leather seats that were both heated and cooled, rain-sensing wipers, but no wireless Apple Carplay or Android Auto. Weirdly enough, the smaller infotainment option includes it, Hyundai says that the larger unit is older, and they didn’t get time to integrate that functionality. Still, the interior is swanky for what it started life as. The floating center console, super responsive infotainment, solid door thunk, and very tight fit and finish imbue a car that definitely feels more expensive than a regular subcompact crossover. The cheapest electric Kona is $34,000, minus destination charges. The test car I got sent rang up at $42,500, not including destination charges. I certainly thought it was nice, but I’m still not convinced it was $42,000-level luxury.
Right now, EVs seem to go one of two different ways. The “good” electric cars are designed from the ground up to be electric; the chassis, suspension, and styling all consider the huge, thick, low-mounted battery pack. Other manufacturers take a gas car and then staple a battery pack to the floor. OK, I’m being hyperbolic, of course they at least use super glue. Still, the result ends up looking goofy, like the automotive equivalent of those scammy-ass Sketchers shape-up shoes. They look bad, and the interior’s compromised, as the thick battery raised the floor, ensuring a much uncomfortable ass-on-the-ground, knees-in-the-air style seating position.
But even though the Kona kind of is just a gas-powered Kona with some batteries attached to the bottom, it remarkably avoids those pitfalls common to the converted EV design. The electric Kona has near-identical ergonomics to the gas-powered car. This also means it shares the gas Kona’s deficiencies; namely the kind of tight rear seat, and trunk with a high liftover. Still, it’s far less compromised than say, the Mazda MX-30, which has poor range, and a tiny interior for about the same price as a base model Kona Electric.
The Kona is Remarkably Refined
With the transition to electric power, the Kona’s gained nearly a thousand pounds. That is a lot for a subcompact crossover, and yet, that excess weight worked wonders for the ride. The last gas-powered Kona I drove, (a 1.6 Turbo, “Iron Man” edition) felt as if the ride was a bit brittle and stiff for what it was. The electric version, however, rides smoothly. It absorbs bumps both big and small, better than other gas-powered crossovers that are several class sizes up. Despite its humble underpinnings and excessive weight, the Kona doesn’t feel jiggly or overwhelmed over bumps.
That extra weight doesn’t hinder straight-line performance, either. Underneath the hood, sits a 201-Horsepower electric motor that sends all of those electric ponies directly to the front wheels. The car is quick; accelerator pedal programming is linear and progressive, very familiar to anyone comfortable with gas cars. Even with traction control on, the Kona EV doesn’t hesitate to light up its front tires. Braking is good, the transition from regenerative braking to friction brakes is nearly imperceptible, not lumpy and uncomfortable, like other brands.
The Kona EV offers three tiers of regenerative braking. The first two levels feel familiar, almost as if the Kona EV has a gas engine, and the car is engine braking. The third level is very intense, but the Kona doesn’t offer one-pedal driving. I didn’t like the third level, I kept it on two. To those unfamiliar, in one-pedal driving, generally, only the throttle is necessary to control acceleration and braking. The regenerative braking triggers the moment you reduce throttle input, slowing the vehicle down. I’m not a huge fan, but many electric car owners love it.
In the curves, the Kona feels sportier than its vehicle class type should be. The batteries are mounted low, allowing for a relatively low center of gravity. It’s nearly 4,000 pounds, and yet, body roll is somewhat low for how tall the car is. The steering is accurate, with good feel for what type of vehicle this is. Hell, accelerate mid-curve, you’ll get wheelspin.
The Kona’s Efficiency and Range is Admirable
I used the Kona as my lone vehicle while I had it. But I set out to plot my day around potential electric-car limitations. If I felt like doing something, I was going to do it. I didn’t pay much attention to range, or my driving style specifically to see how the car would behave while being treated like this. I kept up with traffic, I drove the Kona like it was mine. Over the course of seven days, I put on a little over 500 miles. I’d personally describe my driving style as somewhat mild. I’m no slouch on the road, but I’m not the type to do hard braking or jackrabbit starts.
The Kona noticed this too, and often the range estimator would sit quite a bit higher than the EPA’s 258-mile range claim. Did it get that range? Uh, not quite, but it was generally admirable. Over the course of a week, the Kona showed an average of about 3.5 to 3.8 miles per kWh. Using my loosey-goosey math, I was getting about 200 miles, per charge. The battery never slipped under 10 percent, and my driving was mostly mixed. If the Kona’s range calculator is to be trusted, the car was good for an extra 25 to 35 miles or so, bringing everything roughly on target for the 258-mile range. Your mileage may vary, if you drive faster, carry more people, live in an area that’s not so flat, or drive in the cold, all of those factors have notable effects on the range. During my week with the Kona, the weather stayed in the high 40s, dipping down to the 30s and even 20s at night.
Out of all the vehicles our Car Bibles test, the Kona’s 75 kW onboard charger is the slowest, but I never visited any DC fast charger greater than 50 kW the entire week I had the Kona. The lone Electrify America charger was across town, in an area I never had a reason to visit. Still, the Kona’s small-ish 64 kWh battery only took about 90 minutes via DC fast charging to charge from 13 percent to completely full. The Kona does throttle back to around 25 to 26 kW per hour once 80 percent of the battery is full. Not too shabby for a vehicle that wasn’t initially designed to be electric from its outset.
The Kona Isn’t Perfect, Though
Now, not everything was peachy keen. Remember, I don’t have home charging, so my Kona adventures have me at the mercy of the public charging infrastructure. Even in big cities, the public charging infrastructure is piecemeal, with several apps handling charging stations from unrelated brands.
Hyundai has attempted to aggregate them in an “EV charging station search function” integrated into the very good infotainment system. One catch though, it might be wrong. At least twice, the Kona directed me to two different Level 2 charging stations that were inaccessible to the public. At one point I drove around downtown Columbus for thirty minutes, searching for a suitable charger. In a hurry to meet friends, I said “screw it”, and left the Kona parked someplace. I ended up picking the car up the next day, and then figuring out a better charging situation, much further away. It was more than a little frustrating, as I found my plans somewhat revolving around where and when I could charge my car.
According to a Hyundai representative, that data on where charging stations are is sourced from a third party. Sometimes, the service provider provides Hyundai with inaccurate data. I was told there’s a way to report and mark charging stations as closed, but at that point Kona EV was no longer in my possession. The representative told me that the Kona is incapable of over-the-air updates, so that bunk list in the infotainment, is what the car is stuck with.
Thankfully, the car has Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, so you might be better off using the myriad of charging phone apps to get electrons in the Kona.
But as for the car’s functionality and usability itself, the only real issue I had was how crappy the heating system was. In a gas-powered car, interior heat is often a byproduct of the engine. Engine coolant flows through a mini dash-mounted radiator, siphoning off heat that was generated by the engine anyways. It has no effect on gas mileage. Electric cars don’t work that way, they’re generally reliant on electric-powered heating. The Kona EV uses a 5.5 kW resistive heater, essentially not unlike what you’d find in an electric space heater. Even on max, the heater was weak, and dramatically reduced projected electric range. Apparently, this isn’t an uncommon complaint for cold-weather Kona EV owners.
Canadian and European Kona EVs are equipped with a heat pump. This nifty gadget essentially siphons off heat and air from the battery and uses it as heating. It’s more energy-efficient, and in theory, should work better than the crappy resistive heater. Curiously, the heat pump is not even an option on US market Kona EVs. Via email, a Hyundai representative explained why:
“Canada is colder overall than the U.S. and their market planners deemed the heat pump was critical to their market. Of course, it adds cost to the vehicle that all consumers must pay. Making it optional also adds to production, distribution, and dealer stock complexity.”
That’s a bummer. Hyundai should have added it in as an option.
It’s OK That the Kona Electric is Normal
A long time ago, way back when I was still in the closet, and my mom and I were on good terms, she asked for my help car shopping. She learned to drive in the 1970s, on old-school American cars. For the next thirty years, she drove whatever bench-seat, column shift American sedan, until she had kids, and then migrated over to conversion vans. Conversion vans aren’t all that dissimilar to any other full-bodied old-school American car, they all came with column shifts and had, in her words, “space to put her purse down”.
When she decided that her old Econoline was ready to be replaced by a modern crossover, she was shocked to find that most vehicles came with floor shifters, center consoles, and in-your-face stereos with lots of buttons and fiddly HVAC controls. To her, the designer’s intent to “surround you” with a cockpit-style dashboard, wasn’t luxury, it was confining. A floor shifter was scary, frustrating, and threatening to her, as it occupied the space where she’d normally put her purse.
Like my mom, there are a lot of people out in the car market, who are simply uncomfortable with the user interface that many electric cars offer. A Tesla’s large screen and now-telepathic gear selector sound like the razor’s edge of technology, but to someone else, that experience is frustrating, if not cheap feeling.
Hyundai’s insistence on letting the Kona be “normal” is an asset. The control and user experience is nearly identical to the gas-powered car, which is a great base to start with. The Kona Electric is comforting, it feels like a gentle handhold, as it guides you into the future, whereas something like a Tesla could feel like someone marching you forward across a plank, at gunpoint.
The Kona feels normal. It looks normal. Hell, if you get the lower-priced SEL trim, it’s even priced normal; only a bit more expensive than a loaded-out gas-powered Kona. It’s a great entry for someone who is interested in a good car that just so happens to be electric, rather than a science experiment that only half works.
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