Hyundai's electric car strategy takes shape under the radar

In case you missed it, the Ioniq is a legit EV, too.

  • Image Credit: Drew Phillips
Green car fans are frothing over the Tesla Model 3. The Chevy Bolt may turn out to be the better car, and it will be available sooner. But don't overlook another electric car that's also due next year: the Hyundai Ioniq.

With far less attention, Hyundai is launching an EV that is expected to be competitively priced and will spearhead the Ioniq lineup, which also has hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions. They share the same platform and look similar, but the Ioniq EV could prove to be a game-changer for Hyundai when it arrives at the end of the year, bringing new customers and casting the company as one with proficiency in the electric arena.

Built in South Korea, the Ioniq line will be available at every Hyundai dealership that wants to sell the cars, already giving it a leg up on Teslas that often have long waiting periods for buyers. With a range of 124 miles on a single charge, it won't compete with the Model 3, which will travel at least 215 miles on a charge, or the Bolt, which has a range of 238 miles. Rather, it will face off against humbler products like the Nissan Leaf (107 miles) and the Volkswagen E-Golf (83 miles). Hyundai has not announced pricing, but is mindful the Ioniq trails Chevy and Tesla in range. An executive also indicated it could be working on an Ioniq with a longer distance capability, but declined to discuss specifics.

Hyundai argues its found a sweet spot with the Ioniq EV, whose range is well within the distance most Americans drive in a day. It can recharge in about four hours and 25 minutes, which is faster than the six-hour charge time for the Leaf but slightly longer than the four-hour E-Golf. In quick charge mode, the Ioniq can juice up to 80 percent in 23 minutes. Critically, Hyundai is also offering a lifetime warranty on all of its hybrid and electric battery packs (it has since 2012), which could sway consumers still wary of the technology.

It's a lot of numbers, and Hyundai will need considerable marketing muscle to make buyers consider Ioniqs in the face of a growing field of electrified competitors. But it's part of a broader play to reach an audience of younger consumers, who expect electrification to be baked into their cars. Millennials will account for 40 percent of new car purchases by 2020, and Hyundai says the generation is more likely to consider alternative powertrains than older ones.

Though stricter CAFE rules could change under President-elect Donald Trump's administration, Hyundai says it thinks electrification will be part of a permanent shift in consumer preferences. Plug-ins – both pure and hybrid configurations – can be better-suited to urban areas than traditional gasoline or diesel engines, and Millennials have demonstrated a preference to live cities. "There's still a significant group of owners that still prioritize fuel economy," said Mike O'Brien, Hyundai vice president of product, corporate, and digital planning.

For those who don't need a full electric car, Hyundai will offer two hybrid models. One can be plugged in for charging and offers a greater all-electric range, and the other is a traditional hybrid that focuses on pure fuel efficiency. O'Brien admitted that three versions of an engine technology using the same name could get confusing, but wants Ioniq (a blend of ion and unique) to simply stand for efficient mobility, rather than drill down on powertrain specifics.

For now, the Ioniq is not as ambitious as the Bolt or Model 3, but if successful, it could change Hyundai's demographics and remake its image in the United States. Forget about taking on Chevy or Tesla – that would be more than enough.

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