By Jonathan Crouch
At its launch in 2018, the Hyundai Kona Electric aimed to re-define the kind of proposition we'd previously got used to affordable full-electric cars being able to provide. From launch, the 279 mile WLTP-rated driving range figure of the top 64kWh variant shamed volume versions of the market-leading Nissan LEAF, yet the price being asked here wasn't much different. But how does this Kona Electric stack up as a used buy?
No manufacturer is more invested in the whole concept of clean automotive mobility than Hyundai. The brand has eco-petrol, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and even hydrogen fuel cell options in its range. And of course, some full-electric battery-powered models. Here's perhaps the most appealing of them, the Kona Electric.
Unlike Hyundai's other full-electric offering, the battery-powered version of the IONIQ family hatch, this car wasn't uniquely styled as a Prius-like eco-class model. But nor was it merely a converted version of a normal combustion-engined design as, say, a Volkswagen eGolf from this period would have been. Instead, this Kona Electric was something in-between in design concept - and it's something in-between when it comes to your driving range expectations of an electric vehicle too.
Prior to this Hyundai's arrival in 2018, the full-electric car market was pretty much divided into a couple of kinds of contender. There were relatively affordable ones, like the Nissan LEAF, developed steadily to the point where their lithium-ion batteries could offer up to around 180 miles on a good day. Or for around twice the money, buyers could graduate to the more sophisticated battery technology that luxury models used - cars like the Jaguar I-PACE, the Audi e-tron, the Mercedes EQC and various Teslas. With these, a driving range of around 300 miles or more was the norm. This Kona's chief selling point is that it offered the kind of range you'd get in a luxury EV for the kind of price you'd pay for a more affordable one.
As selling points go, that's a pretty strong one, though unfortunately for Hyundai, it wasn't an exclusive attribute. All the same engineering that features in this car could also be found for a similar price in its cousin, the Kia e-Niro. That car was also a compact SUV but was much less overtly styled as one, leaving this Kona probably better placed to capitalise on the market's craze for Crossovers. Those who wanted to satisfy their SUV desires in tandem with EV planet-consciousness were here promised 279 miles of WLTP-rated driving range if they went for the larger-capacity version. And, assuming the buyer install a 7kW wallbox charger in your garage, he or she would be easily able to completely re-charge the battery overnight. There's decent space inside, a big-ish 332-litre boot and acceleration that'll take you from rest to 62mph quicker than a Golf GTI. Sounds promising doesn't it?
The Kona Electric sold in its original form between 2018 and Autumn 2020, when it was lightly facelifted. It's the pre-facelift 2018-2020-era models we look at here.
What You Get
When Hyundai created its first mainstream electric car, the IONIQ, it started from a clean sheet of paper. But with this Kona Electric, the company was keen to show that EV design could be just as effective when it used a shared platform and body shell with combustion-engined cars. It helped that the model in question here is a high-riding SUV, so the batteries could be packaged in more easily without affecting cabin space, spread across the floorplan for a low centre of gravity, as they would be in a Tesla.
Ki-Sang Lee, Hyundai's Director of Research & Development, says that Tesla's Model 3 directly influenced the development of this car, but in profile or from the rear, this really doesn't look like the unique piece of automotive engineering it actually is. In fact, you'd have to examine this car pretty closely to distinguish it from any other conventional Kona variant.
Only from the front does this battery-powered model very clearly visually differentiate itself, mainly through its closed plastic grille panel, which incorporates a flap for the charge point. That necessitates a re-designed bumper, which incorporates active air flaps that enhance the aerodynamics. And you get a separate silver garnish connecting the high level daytime running lights. Under the bonnet, you'll find the electric power unit, integrated with the battery inverter and the cooling equipment.
In profile, the look is much as it would be with any other Kona, though if you were to get your tape measure out, you'd find this one to be 15mm longer. The lower side skirts and wheel arch cladding is unique to this model, as are the 17-inch alloy wheels, though their rather fussy detailing makes it rather look as if plastic wheel trims have been fitted. From the side, this Kona Electric certainly has a chunkier, more overtly SUV-style demeanour than its Korean cousin, the Kia e-Niro, with a super-short rear overhang and a front wing design supposed to suggest forward direction. That's also the purpose of the rather unusual mid-level styling crease, which rises up from just below the door mirror before flowing back above the handles and easing into the power-packed rear C-pillar. Roof rails are standard and if you avoid entry-level trim, there's the option of a contrast-colour roof finish. Lower down, a further sill-level styling crease gives the flanks some shape.
Move to the back and the styling flourishes come thick and fast. Your eye is drawn by the wrap-around cladding that houses the redesigned indicators and the reversing lights. And then perhaps by the slim high-set tail lamps, which are LED-lit.
At the wheel, key change lies with the installation of a wide aircraft-style silver-trimmed centre console, which incorporates the 'shift-by-wire' push-button controls for the single-speed auto gearbox. And additionally includes a useful extra storage area in its lower section. Also quite different is the single-dial instrument binnacle, flanked on the right by an information screen and on both sides by EV read-outs. Everything else you'll need to know will be on the centre-dash screen, 8-inches in size on early variants (later upgraded to 10.25-inches), with mapping functionality that integrates into range read-outs and helps you to locate nearby charging stations. The clear, neat graphics of this display make it easy to use and switch between Energy Information, EV Routing, Charge Management and Eco Driving sections without having to spend hours briefing yourself with handbook tutorials.
The cabin design is rather sombre and lacks much wow factor, but the comfy seats get standard lumbar support and there's reach adjustment for the three-spoke leather-trimmed multi-function steering wheel. Neither feature can be had in a rival Nissan LEAF from this period.
And in the rear? Well it's in this part of the car that you're likely to be most keenly reminded that you've bought an SUV based on a supermini-sized platform, rather than that of a family hatchback. The Hyundai IONIQ you could have bought for a fraction less is a substantial 290mm lengthier than this Kona; the EV market-leading Nissan LEAF is 310mm longer. These are the kind of differences you'd expect to really notice once you take a seat inside. As it turns out, it's not too bad in the back for the carriage of two folk, providing they're not especially lanky of leg. If they are, then compromises will be need to made by the front seat occupants in order to be able to accommodate them.
Push forward the 60/40 split-folding rear seat and you'll reveal a relatively flat loading floor with as much as 1,114-litres of total fresh air if you load to the roof.
What to Look For
Very little goes wrong here, though it's worth noting that Hyundai recommends that "Consumers should only charge their vehicles up to 90% of its battery capacity." In terms of faults, we came across one owner who complained of a rubbing noise; and another who cited a grating noise. Otherwise, there's a clean bill of health. Except for the recall that Hyundai was forced to implement for vehicles sold between December 2018 and February 2020, citing a potential fault with the lithium-ion battery and battery management system (BMS).
According to the recall, "the lithium-ion battery may have internal damage or the battery management system (BMS) control software may cause an electrical short circuit after charging. If an electrical short circuit occurs, this could result in a vehicle fire which can increase the risk of serious injury or death to vehicle occupants, bystanders and/or damage to property. Affected vehicles need to be parked in an open space and away from flammable materials and structures, that is, not in a garage."
(approx based on a 2018 Kona Electric - Ex Vat) Front brake pads sit in the £37 bracket. Front brake discs sit in the £70-£100 bracket. A pollen filter is around £10. A mirror glass is around £24. A wiper blade is in the £5-£12 bracket.
On the Road
The way this car hurls itself away from rest is pretty surprising the first time you experience it. Once you understand the drive dynamics here though, the rush of blood to the head that this Hyundai gets every time you press the loud pedal with any real vigour is only to be expected. There's a lot more pulling power than would be generated by an equivalent combustion engine - 395Nm of torque - and all of it's delivered to you right from the get-go, rather than building, as it would do with a fossil-fuelled powerplant. 62mph from rest takes 9.7s in the entry-level 39kWh version, which has a reasonable WLTP-rated 180 mile driving range between charges. But most Kona Electric customers are going to want the 64kWh variant, which manages a WLTP-rated range of 279 miles that set a new standard amongst affordable EVs.
Conserving that driving range requires careful management of the energy regenerative process that kicks in when you come off the throttle. Like some other EVs, this one provides you with paddleshifters behind the steering wheel that allow you to either intensify or reduce the regenerative braking feel. Alternatively, you can automise things using a 'Smart Regenerative Braking System' that constantly calculates the optimum level of braking regeneration, based on the positioning of vehicle ahead. There's also a selectable 'Virtual External Sound System' for creating artificial noise to warn those on the pavement of your approach in urban areas. On the open road, this car struggles a little with weight (it's 300kgs heavier than a conventional Kona) but the even distribution of the battery pack across the floor plan helps with handling and a more advanced independent rear suspension set-up has allowed the engineers to deliver a decent quality of ride.
As usual with an EV, you get plenty of cabin screen options to allow you to plan your route around your remaining available charge. When it's depleted, you'll be able to recharge your Kona Electric to 80% of capacity in just 75 minutes if you can find a 50kW DC CCS charging point. Most of the time though, you'll be charging this Hyundai overnight using a 7kW wallbox that you'll have to pay a little extra to get installed in your garage. In the 64kWh model. You can revive the cells from empty in this way in around 9.5 hours (which would use around £9 of electricity at current rates). It would take just over six hours if you were to go for the 39kWh model.
Hyundai seems to specialise in game-changing design. The ix35 FCV was the world's first mass-market hydrogen-powered car. The IONIQ was the first model with three different electric powertrains in one body type. The i30N hot hatch changed the shape of the shopping rocket segment. And in 2018, this Kona Electric revolutionised what we could expect from an affordable electric car.
Was it really ground-breaking? We reckon so. For the first time, a relatively affordable EV here delivered the kind of relatively usable driving range that could make it almost usable as an only car. Better still, for almost the first time in testing an EV, we found here that the claimed range wasn't so far away from what was actually achievable in everyday use.
In a Volkswagen e-Golf from this period, you'd get a classier interior. In a Nissan LEAF, you'd get more rear seat passenger space. But both those cars were completely trounced by the driving range this Kona Electric could offer in its higher output form. Which is something that only this car's Kia cousin can match for the price. This Kona though, has wider appeal. It proved to be a clearer signpost to an all-electric future than EV we'd seen to date back in 2018. And that made it - and makes it - a very important car indeed.