Hyundai’s Ioniq wants to be the new darling of green

Hyundai Motors, South Korea’s flagship automaker, transformed itself over the decades from bit player to global dynamo.

In 1998, the company sold a mere 90,000 cheap and tinny cars to U.S. customers. But that same year, it bought Kia Motors out of bankruptcy. And last year, the two combined sold 809,426 vehicles in the U.S. — not far behind Nissan and Honda — by making cars with the looks and quality to compete with the best Japan had to offer.

Now, Hyundai seeks to take a lead in what it calls eco-vehicles: hybrid, plug-in electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.


California will serve as a bellwether for success when Hyundai’s Ioniq hits dealerships this year.“California is the most important state in the U.S. as far as eco-vehicles go,” says Byung Ki Ahn, the director of the eco-vehicle performance development group at Hyundai. “The real battlefield will be in California.”

During a recent interview at the company’s R&D center southeast of Seoul, Ahn credited federal and state incentives for eco-cars and a large population receptive to all things green.

But he sees the state as a sophisticated auto market that won’t respond to incentives alone. If an eco-vehicle can make it in California, it can make it anywhere, he figures.

“Tesla is based in California,” he said. “They knew exactly what the customer wanted.”

Hyundai is making a short-term play and a long-term play for the kind of fuel-saving, pollution-cutting cars people will buy.

The Ioniq will come in three platforms: hybrid, all-electric and plug-in hybrid. The hybrid will go on sale this year and, in California, the all-electric Ioniq will also be released before 2017. The plug-in hybrid will follow next year.

The first version of the all-electric Ioniq will have a 110-mile range; Hyundai plans to increase that to more than 200 by 2018.

Although just about every carmaker sells some sort of hybrid, no one touches the Toyota Prius in market share. It’s been around since 1997.

“They’ve been there for 20 years and had a lot of challengers, and no one has been successful,” Ahn concedes.

Hyundai aims to change that. The Ioniq’s shape is similar enough to a Prius to connect the cars in buyers’ minds, but it’s not a copycat design. In fact, its smooth profile sets it apart from the aggressively angular new look that Prius debuted in January.


Hyundai claims the hybrid will get 57 mpg.

But competition will be tough.

“They have challenges on a couple fronts,” says Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Autotrader. First, hybrids still represent only a tiny share of the car market — about 3 percent. “People are not going for hybrids, plug-in hybrids” in large numbers, she says.

The Ioniq will be equipped with a dual clutch transmission. The dual clutch is split in two, odd gears on one side, even gears on the other, so the next gear is meshed up and ready to go. A computer predicts which gear you need.

A dual clutch is more powerful and responsive. Originally installed on high-end sports cars, dual clutches are becoming more popular, especially in Europe, where they’ve been enthusiastically embraced by Volkswagen and Audi, among others.

Marketing the feature will be tough, Ahn admits. Yet the company spent time and money in research and development to produce a transmission light enough and low-cost enough for a model such as the Ioniq. He thinks customers who try the vehicles will pick up on the difference right away.

That means luring customers to take a test drive, one of the biggest challenges that auto dealers face. In a bid to make it easier, Hyundai and Amazon in August announced a pilot program in which customers can schedule test drives on Amazon’s website and mobile platform. If the program is a success, it could benefit Ioniq.

Longer term, Hyundai is banking on fuel-cell vehicles. Some automakers see fuel cells as essential in a world where governments, including China’s, are trying, in some measure, to wean their citizens off gasoline engines to combat pollution and global warming. Electric cars have limited range, the thinking goes, so adding fuel cells to the mix would hasten the transition

Tony Hartman Kok

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Adolfo Gonzalez

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Jerald Winterdal

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