To the average American, electric cars aren’t an option. They don’t work as the main household transportation, and too many folks can’t plug in at home. Forget about long trips; the charging network sucks, and it takes forever to recharge. And aren’t they prohibitively expensive for a car that has so many limitations?
Those arguments, however, are falling apart fast. Even ignoring Tesla’s (expensive) cars and (expansive) Supercharger network, EVs increasingly offer longer ranges and fast charger compatibility.
Have we reached the point that an electric car can work as a family’s only vehicle? And more important, which offers a better driving experience?
Until now, there was no way to perform a direct comparison. Thanks to the Hyundai Kona, though, we can finally make this evaluation happen. For now, it’s the only vehicle in the U.S. to include both traditional gas engines and a long-range electric option, which allows us to control for sheetmetal variations, size and weight differences, and equipment variables. (Volvo is scheduled to release an electric XC40 late this year, and the Kia Niro is offered as a hybrid and an EV.)
Using a Kona Electric and a Kona 1.6T, we devised a series of tests to see if average Americans could rely on an electric car as their sole mode of transit—and with all things equal, determine which powertrain is more rewarding to drive.
For most of us, how a car handles the ins and outs of the weekday commute and weekend errands is the most relevant factor in a new car purchase, so testing director Kim Reynolds and I decided we’d start there. Each of us would spend a week living with each of the Konas, with the aim of figuring out which model (and thus which powertrain) best handles the doldrums of daily driving.
In a lot of ways the Hyundai Kona is the perfect medium for this test. For starters, we happen to really like both the gas- and electric-powered Konas; we named the entire lineup an SUV of the Year finalist in 2019. Its subcompact tall-hatchback body style is also increasingly relevant as more buyers ditch cars for crossovers. Most essential for our purposes, though, is that Hyundai effectively treats the electric version like either of the Kona’s two gas four-cylinder powertrains, so we could spec two Konas as identically as possible.
Although the Kona Electric SEL’s base prices starts at $38,285 before the $7,500 federal (and any applicable state) tax credit(s), our Kona Electric included the top-level Ultimate trim, ringing in at $46,630 , which would allow us to best mimic the equipment level of a gas-powered Kona. The front-drive Kona Electric (the EV’s only driveline) fits an electric motor making 201 hp and 291 lb-ft of torque mated to a one-speed automatic, with a 64-kW-hr battery pancaked underneath the floor and rear seat. The EPA rates the 2020 Kona Electric’s range at an impressive 258 miles per charge, and its 132/108/120 city/highway/combined mpg-e score also ranks it among the most efficient vehicles on the road today.
The gas-powered Kona is impressive in its own right, especially when you spring for the optional 1.6-liter turbocharged I-4 instead of the standard 147-hp 2.0-liter I-4. Our tester makes a healthy 175 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, and it drives either the front (as in our Kona tester) or all four wheels through a seven-speed twin-clutch automatic. Our loaded tester stickers for $28,980. It scores 28/32/30 mpg city/highway/combined in EPA tests, and a 13.2-gallon fuel tank helps give it a 396-mile range on regular fuel. These numbers don’t exactly put the EV concerns to rest.
Despite its modest power output, the gas-powered Kona drives much like a high-riding hot hatch. Its four-pot is pretty laggy off the line, and impatience with the throttle will only result in torque steer and tire squeal. Once the Kona hooks up, though, it can be pretty entertaining, has plenty of character, and offers a good amount of power up high in its powerband.
When pushed, the Kona’s seven-speed dual-clutch bangs off quick upshifts, doing its best to help the hard-working 1.6-liter engine stay in its powerband. “It’s spritely to drive, with no significant flaws, and has a happy demeanor,” Reynolds said. “It’s weird how some cars similar to this feel like penalty boxes, whereas the Kona gas feels like a treat.”
“No significant flaws” is true, but it doesn’t mean the gas-powered Kona is flawless. Its biggest issue, its lack of transmission refinement, rears its head during our daily commutes. Although the “dry” type dual-clutch shifts smartly when pressed, it tends to stutter at low speeds, especially in stop-and-go traffic. (“Wet” clutches, such as those used by Audi and Porsche, tend not to suffer this stuttering problem but are more expensive and less efficient.) What’s more, the throttle is difficult to modulate smoothly, as the transmission haltingly slips its clutches while determining the best gear to get the car moving. The end result is a near-constant motion sickness–inducing seesawing in traffic.
Whereas you’re always working around the gas Kona’s laggy turbo and lurchy transmission, the Kona Electric couldn’t be smoother. Its power—and critically, its torque—is available the instant you dip into the throttle, allowing you to zip off the line or plug a gap in traffic. “The EV is almost continuously better to drive than the gas,” Reynolds said. “Its silky acceleration and right-foot response are akin to a Rolls-Royce.”
Unlike a lot of EVs, the Kona Electric doesn’t slow down as speeds pick up; Hyundai appears to have tuned its little permanent-magnet AC motor to have a broad powerband, giving this Kona ample passing power—something the Kona 1.6T lacks. The Kona Electric’s sole wart is its brakes. Despite four levels of driver-adjustable regeneration (adjustable via steering wheel–mounted paddles), smooth stops are difficult to accomplish.
We wanted to see if our impressions matched up with the cold, hard numbers, so we took the twin Konas to our test track. Surprisingly, they were even more evenly matched than we’d thought.
Despite what our driving impressions would have led us to believe, the gas-powered car is quicker. It accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds; the Electric needed 6.6. The EV starts to pull on the gas car from there, though. It ties the Kona 1.6T’s 15.1-second quarter-mile time, but it’s doing 95.9 mph by that point to the gas car’s 91.7. Still, for most commuters, these marks are even Steven.
Thanks to the Kona Electric’s low-rolling-resistance tires, the gas car takes the advantage in braking and handling tests. It stops from 60 to 0 mph in 119 feet compared to the EV’s ponderous-for-its-size 138 feet (batteries weigh a lot). On the figure eight, the gas car laps in 26.9 seconds versus the electric’s 27.8 seconds, both at 0.65 g average.
Even considering the Kona 1.6T’s acceleration, braking, and handling advantage at the track, the Kona Electric is the car that both Reynolds and I want to drive in the real world. In an urban environment, the EV’s instant-on power is preferable to that of the laggy 1.6, and with charging infrastructure becoming widespread in SoCal, charging publicly and cheaply (sometimes free!) at Level 2 chargers is about as easy as refueling the gas Kona.
But what happens if you have to leave the safety of Los Angeles—or New York, Chicago, or hell, even Helena—and hit the open road for a good, old-fashioned American road trip? We pointed our Konas north to find out.
Life Is a Highway
The most common argument I hear about electric vehicles—Tesla or
otherwise—is that you plain can’t travel long distances because the charging infrastructure doesn’t exist or because it takes too long to charge.
That may have been the case as recently as five years ago, but things have changed. Companies like ChargePoint, EVgo, and Electrify America have Level 3 fast charger stations sprouting nationwide, with the latter already offering more than 1,700 fast chargers (and counting) spanning coast to coast and border to border. You can thank Volkswagen’s dieselgate scandal for that.
So we devised a plan: We’d drive both cars north to the growing vineyard town of Paso Robles, with Reynolds driving the gas Kona and me the electric one on the northbound leg, swapping cars for the return south.
Normally a 220-mile trip that would take between 4 and 5-and-a-half hours, depending on traffic, the drive is about the same distance as a trip from New York to Washington, D.C. or Chicago to Detroit. In other words, it’s a realistic distance that the average American family may expect to travel to visit family or friends in a distant city a couple times per year. Too near for an airplane but too far for an EV?
To level the playing field, we decided to treat the two cars as equally as possible. We’d both leave our L.A. headquarters at the same time, fully charged and gassed up, take the same route on both legs, and drive in the same manner north and south. To make matters more difficult for the EV, we weren’t going to bother with any fancy route-planning apps—we knew there were both ChargePoint and Electrify America fast chargers along I-5 near Paso Robles, so if we needed a charge, that’s where we’d go. Once in Paso Robles, we’d fully fuel both vehicles, turn south, and start out again.
Before the trip I was a bit apprehensive that the Kona Electric would only make the journey with great difficulty. Truth be told, though, the experience couldn’t have felt more normal.
I’d left the Kona Electric’s drive mode in its default Normal setting (Eco mode nets you a couple extra bonus miles of range), I had the heater going damn near full blast to deal with the cold January air, the heated seats and steering wheel were in use, and I was charging my phone and blasting music over the stereo. In other words, I treated the electric Kona as I would any other car.
In the old days of electric vehicles, leaving Los Angeles via the 43-mile-long Grapevine was a daunting obstacle that would bleed off battery range like a sieve. Not the case here. I lost 67 miles of range on the 30-mile climb, still had 155 miles of range at the 4,144-foot summit near Gorman, and gained back 12 miles on the harrowing 13-mile plunge into the San Joaquin Valley.
After a sole half-hour stop near Bakersfield, with me snacking at an Electrify America station and Reynolds at a Taco Bell, both the Kona Electric and 1.6T arrived no worse for the wear 4 hours and 25 minutes after we’d set off. Ducking an illegally parked non-electric Mazda CX-5 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class (no respect!), we plugged into Paso Robles’ sole remaining free Electrify America fast charger space, charged the Kona Electric’s battery to full—in retrospect an expensive decision—and went off to brim the gas Kona’s tank and grab lunch.
The return trip, this time with me in the gas Kona and Reynolds in the electric, went much the same as the first—uneventful. Although I missed the electric car’s smoothness and quietness, I didn’t hate getting back to L.A. about 90 minutes before Reynolds, whose 5.5-hour journey included a stop at an Electrify America station to charge and grab a late lunch—and heavier late-day traffic.
With both cars re-energized, the gasser from our local Chevron and the electric from an EVgo fast charger across the street from our office, we started to crunch the numbers to see how much time and money we’d spent on the trip.
The results surprised us. We’d assumed the gas Kona would do the trip quicker but the electric one would do it cheaper and more efficiently. As my high school Army JROTC instructor, Sergeant Wayne Atherton, was fond of asking, “You know what happens when you assume, right?”
Our over-reliance on Electrify America stations, which charge a $1 session fee plus a per-minute fee based on the charge rate your vehicle is capable of accepting (which, in our case, works out to $0.69 per minute for up to 125 kW) to fully charge the Kona’s battery is largely to blame for the massive cost—especially because EV charging rates slow significantly once a battery exceeds 80 percent capacity.
Our two times charging to 100 percent were blow-out expensive, Reynolds said, calling the decision “stupid” in retrospect. Per-minute charging by Electrify America and EVgo puts a preposterous penalty on charging to 90 or 100 percent, particularly Electrify America, which has higher dollar-per-minute rates.
“Our loosey-goosy planning exposed how eye-wateringly expensive minimal planning can be if you choose to travel across Electrify America’s network,” Reynolds said. “The Kona Electric cost us over double what the gas version did to do basically the same trip—even while using far less energy. This is completely upside down from the usual situation where the EV is about half the cost per mile of a gas car, based on far cheaper home charging. If we fumbled like this all the way across the country, we’d be broke by Brooklyn.”
It would break with the spirit of our story, but a little planning would’ve gone a long way. Although there’s no app available for other EVs as easy to use as Tesla’s Trip Planner (because it’s built into Tesla’s infotainment system), free websites like ABetterRoutePlanner.com show that we could’ve easily saved $40 or so if we’d fast charged the Kona’s battery only enough to get us to our destination and then opted for slower Level 2 charging overnight at our hotel. Hindsight and whatnot.
As with all things in life, both gas and electric powertrains have their compromises. The former offers a less refined experience, is generally more expensive to run day to day around town, and pollutes more. But there are refueling stations everywhere.
The latter is generally more expensive up front, will cost more to travel with, requires some planning before embarking on a long journey, and will take longer to refuel on the way (though we predict that ever speedier fast charge times will soon enough minimize the recharge/refuel time difference).
We set out with our two Konas to answer two questions: All things being equal, is gas or electric better to drive? And can the average American household get by with an EV as its only car?
When it comes to driving these two Konas, we prefer the electric one. “Just about every minute you drive the EV is better than that minute in the gas car, except for braking to a stop,” Reynolds said. The Kona Electric is silky smooth, powerful, and refined. The Kona 1.6T is good, but the Kona Electric is better.
The latter question has a more complicated answer, but we think the answer is yes, with some obvious caveats.
With more than 250 miles of range, electric cars like the Kona Electric are easier than ever to daily drive. For those lucky enough to have a garage or driveway, charging nightly couldn’t be more painless. Some forward-thinking office complexes are stocked with chargers for their employees. Apartment dwellers might have to rely on public chargers, which in our experience is becoming far less of a hassle than it sounds. Chargers are found in places you’re spending time anyway, like malls, grocery stores, and movie theaters.
As for long-distance travel, a change in your way of thinking is necessary. Fast charging availability and capability are improving rapidly, but “fuel” stops still aren’t the splash-and-dash affairs of gasoline. A little bit of planning will go a long way in saving you both time and money (prices differ at gas stations, too).
But above all, long-distance electric travel is no longer a Tesla monopoly. With expanding charging networks across the country, especially from Electrify America, the democratization of the electric car is finally here.
|2020 Hyundai Kona Electric||2020 Hyundai Kona 1.6T|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-motor, FWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|MOTOR/ENGINE TYPE||Permanent-magnet AC synchronous electric||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||NA||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||NA||96.6 cu in/1,583 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||201 hp @ 3,800 rpm||175 hp @ 5,500 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||291 lb-ft @ 0 rpm||195 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm|
|REDLINE||Not indicated (11,200 rpm max)||6,500 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||18.7 lb/hp||17.6 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||1-speed automatic||7-speed twin-clutch auto|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO||7.98:1/7.98:1||4.29 (1, 2, 4, 5), 3.17 (3, 6, 7, R)/2.29:1|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.0-in vented disc; 11.8-in disc, ABS||12.0-in vented disc; 11.2-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.0 x 17-in cast aluminum||7.5 x 18-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||215/55R17 94V M+S Nexen NPriZ AH8||235/45R18 98V (M+S) Goodyear Eagle Touring|
|WHEELBASE||102.4 in||102.4 in|
|TRACK, F/R||61.2/61.6 in||61.4/61.7 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||164.6 x 70.9 x 61.2 in||164.0 x 70.9 x 61.0 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||6.2 in||6.7 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||16.6/14.6 deg||17.5/16.7 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||34.8 ft||34.8 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,763 lb||3,073 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||54/46%||62/38%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||Not recommended||Not recommended|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.0/37.7 in||38.0/37.8 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.5/33.4 in||41.5/34.6 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||55.5/54.5 in||55.5/54.5 in|
|CARGO VOLUME, BEH F/R||45.8/19.2 cu ft||45.8/19.2 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.9 sec||2.5 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.0||3.3|
|QUARTER MILE||15.1 sec @ 95.9 mph||15.1 sec @ 91.7 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||138 ft||119 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.79 g (avg)||0.85 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.8 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)||26.9 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||6,400 rpm||1,800 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$46,630||$28,980|
|AIRBAGS||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||10 yrs/100,000 miles (battery included)||10 yrs/100,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/Unlimited miles||5 yrs/Unlimited miles|
|BATTERY/FUEL TANK CAPACITY||64.0 kW-hr (1.9 gasoline-gallon equivalent)||13.2 gal|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||Not tested||26.4/38.7/30.8 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON (RANGE)||132/108/120 mpg-e (258 mi)||28/32/30 mpg (396 mi)|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||26/31 kW-hrs/100 miles||120/105 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.00 lb/mile (at vehicle)||0.65 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||110V-220-V AC/200-450V DC electricity||Unleaded regular|
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