No car encapsulates Hyundai’s eco car plans better than the Ioniq. It’s going to be launched in Singapore this year
HWASEONG, SOUTH KOREA — BMW i may have the sexiest hybrid cars on the planet, but it’s Toyota that reigns as the world’s eco car champion. In just over two decades the Japanese giant has put nine million fuel-sipping hybrid cars on the road, more than anyone else by far. Nearly half of them have been Priuses, a car that has been firmly established as the poster child for hybrid tech.
Now Hyundai is taking aim squarely at Toyota with a Prius of its own: the Ioniq. The car is just part of what the group’s engineering supremo calls an “aggressive eco car development roadmap”. That map includes 28 eco-friendly cars from Hyundai and Kia by 2020, all built with in-house technology.
“Our company will lead in the eco-friendly car market,” says Yang Woong-chul who, as the boss of Hyundai’s R&D centre in Namyang, has 10,000 engineers under his command.
He and his team already have an eco achievement to brag about. In 2013 the company put a hydrogen fuel-cell version of its Tucson Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) into production, thus making Hyundai the first car company in the world to sell such a car.
That Tucson, says Yang, not only emitted only water vapour, but also filtered the air passing through its fuel cell system, meaning you would breathe better air if one of them drove past you.
Hyundai also sells hybrid versions of several existing models, but the Ioniq is a different project on a different scale. “Ioniq is the first project that Hyundai has ever made that is exclusively for eco cars,” says Ahn Byungki, the director of Hyundai’s eco car performance group.
The Ioniq is actually a family of three different cars (four if you count the Kia Niro, a car that shares platforms with the Ioniq). They share the same body, but each one has a different propulsion system.
At one extreme is the Ioniq Electric, which is a battery-powered vehicle that can travel 190km on a single charge. It’s not the kind of car that’ll work for a market with few charging stations around, like Singapore, but there’s the Ioniq Plug-In. It can also function like an electric vehicle with a smaller range of 50km or so, but it also has a petrol engine for longer distances or when you want a burst of performance.
Then there is the Ioniq Hybrid, essentially a head-on rival to the Prius. It, too, has a petrol-electric drivetrain, though the two companies diverge in terms of how they juggle the energy flows between the two.
The Toyota (below) uses a power split device that behaves like a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), while the Hyundai has a 1.6-litre engine, an electric motor and a twin-clutch, six-speed transmission, all connected (or disconnected) via simple mechanical clutches.
Hyundai insiders claim the Ioniq Hybrid will be more frugal than the Toyota, which averages 3.7L/100km, but whether it succeeds in the real world conditions where the Prius tends to shine is still a matter to be proven.
However the Ioniq performs, Hyundai is spreading its electric technology around, a move it sees as vital if the company is going to stay relevant in an increasingly carbon-hostile world. At the Busan motor show in May, Dr Yang announced that by 2018 it will manufacture an electric SUV with a range of 320km — enough for a week’s travel in Singapore. Hyundai and Kia will have six electric cars on sale by 2020.
The ambitious eco car plans might well be seen as a game of catch-up, but if the Ioniq can outsell the Prius it would be a symbolic victory for Hyundai. No one has seriously challenged Toyota at the hybrid car game, points out Dr Ahn. “We’re like David and Toyota is Goliath,” he says.
Driving “Hyundai’s Prius”
COMPARISONS BETWEEN THE Toyota Prius and Hyundai Ioniq are inevitable, but the two cars are very different to drive, as we found out behind the wheel at Hyundai’s Namyang R&D centre.
The Prius is smooth, practically silent and feels like something from the future. Its Korean rival behaves much more like a regular car. Usually you get a steady, distant thrum whenever the Prius fires up its engine, but in the Ioniq the sounds have more of an everyday quality.The engine doesn’t sound as remote, and the six-speed transmission lets the revs rise and fall as the car accelerates.
That was actually done on purpose, according to Scott Yoon, a project manager for the Ioniq.
“Customers want a car that behaves like a normal vehicle but that delivers (a hybrid’s) fuel economy,” he says. While the Ioniq is meant to be an eco car, it was also intended to be fun, which explains the use of a twin-clutch gearbox. In its internal tests, Hyundai found that women preferred the smoothness of the Prius, while men go for the more direct responses of the Ioniq Hybrid. Make of that what you will.
The battery-powered Ioniq Electric seems just as fun-focused. It can sustain an impressively long burst of powerful acceleration all the way into a three-figure speed, and it handles and brakes like a normal car. It’s only because there is no engine noise that you’re clued in to the fact that you’re driving something different.
Mind you, we were only given a minute or two to try each car. But both have gone into production, and the Ioniq Hybrid will be sold in Singapore, so Hyundai has obviously deemed them ready. A minute or two doesn’t give you much time to get to know a car, but the very existence of the Ioniq is enough to tell you lots about Hyundai’s ambitions.