Review: 2019 Hyundai KONA Electric and NEXO Fuel Cell

By: Jim Kenzie November 26, 2018

2019 Hyundai KONA Electric
WHAT’S GOOD: Like its gasoline-powered twin, good driving dynamics; well-equipped; strong exterior styling.
WHAT’S BAD: All the usual drawbacks of battery-powered cars, although its range is better than most; very pricey compared to its twin; those backup lights still must be repositioned.
2019 Hyundai NEXO Hydrogen
WHAT’S GOOD: Handsome, especially inside; decent driving dynamics; excellent range for an alternate-fuel vehicle.
WHAT’S BAD: Hydrogen availability extremely limited; performance not up to that of possible battery-powered alternatives.

LOS ANGELES—Hyundai is hedging its bets on powertrain technology.
It knows as any thinking person does that gasoline will continue to be by far the dominant player for at least another half-century.
Hyundai also understands that battery-powered vehicles will never be more than bit players — again, where are we supposed to get enough electricity to replace all the gasoline we burn?

Battery-powered electrics will mainly be a bridge to the obvious medium- to long-term solution, which of course is hydrogen-fuel-cell electrics.
To illustrate progress on both fronts, Hyundai brought me to Southern California to try the battery-powered KONA, and the hydrogen fuel-cell-powered NEXO.
Two for the price of one.

2019 Hyundai KONA Electric

We told you about the gasoline-powered KONA back in the spring, and found it to be a peppy, generally pleasing little crossover.
How would it fare with an electric motor for propulsion?
For starters, it looks about the same from the outside except for the front end, which is essentially grille-less. No need for intake air, so why would you need a grille?
That said, it does lose what is becoming Hyundai’s trademark front-end styling.
And it still has the backup lights located way too low on the rear fascia. C’mon guys; I told you about this last spring! I thought you were fast?
Inside, however, you’ll find considerable differences. The electric KONA (and yes, Hyundai always capitalizes ALL THE LETTERS in KONA) doesn’t have a “transmission” in the conventional sense, so the centre console between the seats is a two-level affair rather like some Volvos, with the top level having push buttons for Drive, Park, Neutral and Reverse, a cubby bin, some minor controls and a pair of cup holders, with a sizable storage bin underneath which is accessible from both front seats.
The main difference in the KONA electric is obviously the powertrain. A permanent magnet synchronous electric motor motivates the front wheels with 201 horsepower and 290 lb.-ft. of torque which as with all electric motors peaks effectively at zero r.p.m. This makes acceleration feel even livelier than it actually is, although a 0-100 km/h sprint time of around eight seconds isn’t bad.
As electric motors are, this one is near-silent in operation, which means you sometimes hear a few odd clicks and whirs from the powertrain because there’s no exhaust noise to mask them. You soon get used to this.
The suspension has been beefed up to handle the extra weight. Hyundai hasn’t released weight figures for this version of KONA yet, but it would likely be in the neighbourhood of 200 — 300 kg more. Batteries are heavy.
Still, ride quality is decent.
The steering is light and a bit devoid of feel, but people won’t be buying this car to strafe canyons, even if that’s what we did on this drive when we weren’t slogging along in California 1 traffic.
A degree of driving customization is available via a ‘Mode’ switch. ECO+ is for real save-the-earth types, although why they would buy any car in the first place escapes me. This shuts off the air conditioning (in LA? No thanks…) and tames throttle response to eke out a few extra km from that battery.
ECO eases off the hair-shirt thing a shade, allowing both air con and heated seats (yes, you can buy this car in Canada…).
Normal mode allows a bit better throttle response, although the step is pretty small.
Sport mode makes the car feel much livelier and firms up the steering to make it feel — well, more like the regular KONA.

Maximum range is given as 415 km. As with any car, using the sportier modes will sap some of that range, as will driving in hilly country, although to be fair (aren’t I always?) KONA electric did pretty well during our test. The estimated remaining distance number on the dash did not go down as quickly as the odometer reading went up.
Most of the time, apart from the silence, you’ll hardly notice you’re driving anything all that unusual. That is a deliberate strategy by Hyundai, to try to “normalize” driving an electric car. This in contrast to, say, Chevy’s Bolt or Nissan’s Leaf, which never let you forget.
One exception is that the left steering column paddle allows you to control deceleration in four stages. Tugging on the paddle increases electric drag, effectively braking the car to the extent (depending to a degree on traffic) that it becomes almost a one-pedal car. Accelerate to go, tug on the paddle to slow, then stop.
And yes, the brake lights do come on when you do this.
As I always say, I don’t hate electric cars — science hates electric cars. And here’s the kicker: pricing has not been released yet, but the guess is KONA electric will come in somewhere in the mid-forty thousand dollar range.
That’s about twenty grand more than a roughly-comparably-equipped gasoline KONA. You’ll have to drive a lot to make up that difference.
And recharge times can be very long. Hyundai claims a Level II charger — that’s 240 volts, like your stove or dryer uses — will take over seven hours to full recharge KONA’s battery.
If you still want to use your stove for cooking or your dryer for your laundry, and don’t want to spend several thou putting a Level II recharging facility in your garage, you’ll be stuck with the standard 110 volt system. Hyundai doesn’t offer a time for this, but according to electric car-fan websites, this doesn’t seem to be a linear thing. Other electrics which take around seven hours to recharge with 220 volts can take three to four times as long with 110.
Mind you, if your daily driving distance is short enough, you can top up at night even at 110 and it will work for you.
As long as everyone in your neighbourhood doesn’t buy an electric car. If they do, the entire neighbourhood probably burns to the ground.
You will also have to live with the fact that the manufacture and eventual disposal of battery-powered cars is significantly more impactful on the environment — shipping all that toxic lithium to make the batteries from Bolivia to China and back again on bunker-C-fuelled ships, etc.
And from the “a broken clock is right twice a day’ file, the new Ontario government did the right thing by killing the ill-advised subsidy for electric cars — better late than never.
The question: is there a market for a nearly 50-grand vehicle (tax, etc. in…) that looks just like the one your neighbour bought for about half that?
Hyundai thinks so, expecting to sell some four to five thousand KONA electrics starting next month.
Personally, I think that’s optimistic, but they get paid way more to make these decisions than I do to criticize them.
Let the games begin.