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2017 Hyundai Ioniq: First Drive Review

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author photo by Aaron Gold February 2017

As we drove the new 2017 Hyundai Ioniq, we couldn't help but think of another hybrid car from the not-too-distant past: the Honda Insight. (We're talking about the 4-door version, introduced in 2010 and given the chop in 2014.) The Insight was meant to be a low-cost alternative to the Toyota Prius, but it missed the mark: It was noisy, a little chintzy and -- most importantly -- not nearly as fuel-efficient as the Prius.

Now, it seems, the promise of a low-cost Prius alternative has been fulfilled. Hyundai's new Ioniq is (nearly) everything the Insight should have been.

Hyundai's Affordable Hybrid

Like the old Insight, the Ioniq is inexpensive, at least at the lower end of the range. The entry-level Ioniq Blue lists for $23,305, which is $4,255 less than the least-expensive Prius (but $2,270 more than Toyota's subcompact Prius c). We drove one, and it's not the stripped-down, no-credit-no-problem loss-leader we were expecting. It's actually a very nice car with lots of standard equipment including dual-zone climate control, an Apple CarPlay/Android Auto/Bluetooth-compatible stereo, alloy wheels and cruise control. The seats are covered in attractively patterned cloth, and while the Blue does without some of the niftier bits on the top-of-the-line Limited, it certainly doesn't feel like a cut-rate alternative. It's also more fuel-efficient than other Ioniq models.

Just like the old Insight, the Ioniq features environmentally friendly interior materials, but the quality is exponentially better. The door panels are made from a material comprised of recycled plastic, powdered wood and volcanic stone. Not only is it eco-friendly, but it's also 20 percent lighter than regular plastic. Sugar cane extract is a major ingredient in the headliner, carpet and soft-touch panels. These materials look and feel great, and we think they'd be right at home in Hyundai's higher-priced cars. (How about it, Hyundai?)

The Ioniq even looks a bit like a Honda Insight, though in profile, one could just as easily mistake it for a Chevrolet Volt. That said, there's no mistaking that trapezoidal Hyundai grille. Overall, the Ioniq is swoopy, svelte and tidy, and we're sure many buyers will appreciate that it's nowhere near as weird-looking as the new Prius.

Promising Fuel Efficiency

Most importantly, the Ioniq's hybrid powertrain looks like it will deliver the fuel economy it promises. The hybrid system is based on a 1.6-liter Atkinson-cycle version of Hyundai's long-stroke Kappa engine paired with a 32-kilowatt electric motor for a total system output of 139 horsepower. Unlike Honda and Toyota's hybrid systems, which use some variation of a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the Ioniq uses a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic. Hyundai says they chose this transmission because it drives like a traditional automatic, a sharp contrast to CVTs that allow the engine speed to rise and fall freely. One of our complaints about dual-clutch automatics is a lack of low-end acceleration when paired with a small engine, but the Ioniq's electric motor solves this nicely: It delivers plenty of low-end torque, so the Ioniq moves off smartly from a stop.

So what about those fuel-economy numbers? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates the Ioniq at 55 miles per gallon in the city and 54 mpg on the highway in SEL and Limited trim, while the entry-level Blue is rated at 57 mpg city/59 mpg hwy. We drove a Limited model on a mix of highways and back roads and averaged 43.9 mpg. While that's not quite up to those EPA estimates, it's a promising start. (Our brief press drive wasn't a great approximation of real-world driving.) The beauty of the Toyota Prius is that just about anyone can get behind the wheel and get 45 mpg. We'll have to wait for a full test to see if the Ioniq can easily deliver 50-plus.

Nifty Packaging, Long Warranty

Hyundai did some innovative packaging to keep the Ioniq small and light. They placed both the hybrid battery and the fuel tank under the rear seat (don't worry, they're well separated), freeing up interior room. And there's no separate battery for starting and accessories; instead, a 12-volt battery is integrated into the main hybrid battery. Should the 12-volt section somehow go dead, there's an emergency-start button that taps into the main hybrid battery, allowing the car to essentially jump-start itself.

This being a Hyundai, you'd expect a long warranty, and you won't be disappointed. Like other Hyundais, the Ioniq gets a 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and 10 years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain (though the latter only covers the original owners). Hyundai is touting a lifetime battery warranty, though this only protects against outright failure. We asked Hyundai if the warranty covered lost capacity over time, and they were still trying to figure that out as our article went live. (Early indications are that it doesn't.) Again, the battery warranty only covers the original owner, though Hyundai is considering adding it to their certified pre-owned program.

But...

For all the things we like about the Ioniq, we do have areas to criticize. First is the back seat: Even with the front seats adjusted for our tester's short 5-foot-6 frame, leg room was limited, and headroom wasn't overly generous. And while the trunk looks good on paper -- 26.5 cu ft. -- the Ioniq's low roof line limits space for bulky cargo.

Speaking of the roof line, the back window is split into two pieces, with a large bar running between them. It makes for an odd view out the rear window. There's no rear wiper -- a victim of cost and aerodynamics, we suppose -- but the Ioniq could use one.

And then there are the Ioniq's road manners. The old Insight's best attribute was its handling; the Ioniq, not so much. Actually, we have little complaint about the suspension, which rides smoothly and evenly. We didn't have many tight, twisty turns on our press preview drive, but what curves there were the Ioniq handled well. Our big complaint is one we've made about other Hyundais: the steering. On the open highway, the Ioniq darts to and fro, requiring constant tiny corrections that can make long drives a real chore.

We also noticed quite a bit of road noise making its way through the floor in the Ionic Limited we sampled. We assumed the culprits were the Michelin Energy Saver tires, which are designed for maximum fuel economy and longevity (they have a 65,000-mile tread-wear guarantee), but then we discovered that the Limited has Michelin Primacy MXM4 tires -- the same model fitted as original equipment to many nonhybrid cars. Oddly enough, the Ionic Blue, which does have the Energy Savers, struck us as being a bit quieter.

Low-End Value, High-End... Er...

Another potential issue is top-end price. The Ioniq Blue is a great value at $23,000, and the same goes for the $24,785 SEL model, which adds a nifty digital instrument panel, heated front seats with power adjustment for the driver, a blind spot monitoring system, rear cross-traffic warning and better trim inside and out. A grand on top of that buys the Tech Package with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning. But the Limited trim level -- which adds leather seats, a sunroof, BlueLink telematics and a few other goodies but doesn't include the items in the SEL Tech Package -- lists for $28,335, making it difficult to use the word "value" in the same sentence. Ditto for the Limited model's Ultimate Package, which includes the SEL Tech Package equipment plus navigation, a better stereo, wireless phone charging and air vents for the rear seats (which really ought to be standard in all Ioniqs) and raises the price to $31,335. That seems like a lot to pay for a small hybrid car.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the Kia Niro, a new hybrid from Hyundai's sister company, sells in the same price range. The Niro is basically a more upright version of the Ioniq, but its taller body makes it a family-friendly SUV alternative. Mechanically, the Niro is basically the same vehicle as the Ioniq, but we have an easier time with the idea of paying more than $30,000 for a Niro.

More to Come

This is only the first chapter of the Hyundai Ioniq story: Hyundai has an all-electric version with 124 miles of range, standard fast-charging capability and a $30,335 price tag -- before the $7,500 Federal tax credit. The Ioniq Electric goes on sale in California in April and will spread to the rest of the country thereafter. Coming in the fourth quarter of 2017 is a plug-in version of the Ioniq called, creatively, the Ioniq Plug-In Hybrid, which will offer at least 27 miles of electric-only driving. We got a chance to sample both models briefly, and like the regular Ioniq hybrid, they are very promising cars.

Our first impressions of the Ioniq are very favorable. This is an attractive hybrid car that promises to deliver very strong fuel economy at a low price. We think it will do well -- or at the very least, better than the Insight.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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2017 Hyundai Ioniq: First Drive Review - Autotrader