AUTO REVIEW: Free Juice! Hyundai Reimburses Electric Charging Costs to Ioniq Drivers

(Los Angeles Times/TNS) -
The 2017 Hyundai Ioniq Electric Vehicle. (Hyundai/TNS)

I have made no secret of my affection for electric cars.

Seduced by their smooth, strong, silent motors, and the promise of never visiting a gas station again, the battery electric vehicles represent a real promise for a future of petroleum-free motoring.

But not everyone agrees with me. Despite increasing numbers of choices, plug-in electric cars still represent less than 1 percent of annual U.S. car sales. Through May of this year, American car buyers purchased only 35,406 pure electric vehicles out of 6.9 million vehicles sold, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

To attract reluctant drivers to the electrified world, Hyundai has a new policy: Lease a plug-in Ioniq, and they’ll pay for the juice required to run it. The company estimates that a commuter driving 30 miles a day would see his lease rate drop by $41.40 a month.

The gambit is similar to one used by companies selling or leasing hydrogen fuel-cell cars — such as Toyota’s Mirai, Honda’s Clarity or Kia’s Tucson, all of which come with a free fuel allowance.

That makes sense for fuel-cell cars, because retail hydrogen fuel stations are few and far between, and the fuel itself is pricey.

But electricity isn’t expensive, or hard to find. So, will cost-free charging drive anyone into an Ioniq?

The question would be immaterial if the Ioniq weren’t such a good car.

(Hyundai/TNS)

Hyundai’s only pure electric car — the company does sell plug-in hybrid versions of other models — is a sturdy, solid hatchback.

Its electric motor scoots the car around town and accelerates comfortably on the freeway. It does so free of vibration and in near silence; Hyundai engineers have gone to great lengths to dampen the sound inside the cabin.

The Ioniq produces little wind noise and not too much tire noise, which heightens the pleasure of using the phone or listening to music. (The phone charger is wireless, though it doesn’t adapt to iPhones.)

Visibility is fair, marred somewhat by the horizontally split rear window glass.

The simple dash and well-designed cockpit make everything easy to see and easy to reach. The seats are designed for ease of egress and ingress and are comfortable enough for a long-distance drive.

The Ioniq Electric is sold or leased in two trim lines, the base model and the Limited. Those retail for $29,500 and $32,500, respectively, before taxes and delivery charges. They are available for lease at $275 a month for the base model, $305 a month for the Limited, and $365 with the Unlimited Package. (Those numbers don’t include the electricity “reimbursement” Hyundai promises, by which the company tracks the number of miles the car has been driven, calculates the cost of the electricity needed to drive that distance and automatically deducts that amount from the next lease payment.)

The Electric Limited trim line, which I drove for a week, included heated front seats, leather upholstery, blind-spot detection, power driver’s seat and power side mirrors.

(Hyundai/TNS)

It also included the Unlimited Package, a $3,500 upgrade, which included a sunroof, “smart” cruise control, automatic braking, lane departure warning, the wireless phone charger and an improved sound system.

I really liked it, and could happily have hopped on the highway and headed for Vegas.

But I wouldn’t have gotten there. The Ioniq’s battery-only range is only 124 miles.

For some prospective buyers, that will be a deal-breaker. They may love the car. They may like the $275-a-month lease rate and the promise of having their charging costs reimbursed.

They may long to qualify for the state and federal rebates that go to EV buyers — not to mention the carpool lane access they get as zero emission vehicles.

They may be attracted by the idea that electric vehicles, having very few moving parts, need almost no maintenance.

They may be warmed by the thought that they’re saving the environment, or what’s left of it. They may boast about the estimated 136 miles per gallon equivalent fuel economy they’ll get in the car, per the Environmental Protection Agency.

But many will quail at the range. Though it’s higher than the 89 miles the new Honda Clarity Electric will be able to go when it becomes available this summer, they’ll wonder why the Ioniq can’t go as far on a single charge as the Chevy Bolt EV (238 miles) or a Tesla Model S (210 to 315, depending on battery size).

They may overlook the fact that the Ioniq’s relatively smaller battery means a relatively shorter recharge time. Hyundai said a full recharge will take four hours on a 240-volt system. My experience: I plugged in overnight on a 120-volt system and had an estimated 111 miles range when I started it up in the morning.

That might not be enough, even though very few Americans ever drive more than that in a day. Commuters typically drive less than a third of that, according to sources like the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

Jessica Caldwell, analyst for Edmunds.com, said “ease of use” and a mindset change would ultimately determine whether people make the switch from gas to electric.

“The Bolt EV and the Kia Niro and the Hyundai Ioniq are pushing the numbers, and they’ll go up with the arrival of the Tesla Model 3, but this is still a tough sell,” she said. “You’re asking people to make a real lifestyle change.”

Hyundai hasn’t been delivering the Ioniq Electric long enough to show whether customers are responding, and the company doesn’t break out sales numbers by model.

So we know they sold 1,648 Ioniqs through the end of April — compared with 70,548 Elantras and 54,163 Sonatas — but not how many of those were the plug-in electric models.

So far, the company said, only 100 Ioniq battery electric vehicles have been delivered, and the car is available only in California.

Resistance to the Ioniq may have less to do with fuel costs and infrastructure than with the car’s styling.

It’s dull. It doesn’t look inspired. It’s not unattractive, and it doesn’t scream “look at me!” like the gate-mouthed Mirai. But it may be too plain to attract attention at all.

There may also be some resistance to the name. Kia and its automotive sibling Hyundai seem to specialize in quirky car christening.

What is an Ioniq, anyway? What’s a Cadenza? Azera? It sounds like a skin condition, or the medications prescribed to cure it. Ask your doctor about … Elantra.

That’s too bad, because a lot of drivers, even those with longer commutes, could get very comfortable with a car like this.

Drive to work, drive home, plug in, recharge, and start over — and watch your lease payment go down based on Hyundai’s calculation of how many miles you drove and how much electricity you must have used.

That’s a formula for successful, environmentally friendly cruising.

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2017 Hyundai Ioniq Electric Limited

Quick take: Affordable California-only battery electric vehicle option

Highs: Quiet, comfortable and competitively priced

Lows: Very short on styling, a bit short on range

Vehicle type: Four-door, five-passenger sedan

Base price: $30,335

Price as tested: $36,835

Powertrain: 88 Kw electric motor

Transmission: Direct drive automatic

Horsepower: 118

Torque: 215 pound-feet

EPA fuel economy rating: 150 miles per gallon equivalent city / 122 highway / 136 combined