The Hyundai Kona Electric. Credit: Bridie Schmidt
The Hyundai Kona Electric. Credit: Bridie Schmidt

The Hyundai Kona Electric compact SUV is the latest new electric vehicle unveiled in Australia, and as I have discovered in recent days, it is possibly the first to offer Australian drivers who simply want an EV to do what they need it to – and a lot more.

A couple of days zipping around the winding roads of northern NSW in the Kona EV have proved it is a delight to drive; it handles corners beautifully and the instantly available power from its electric motor means it doesn’t skip a beat tackling hills and in overtaking lanes.

On the open highway, the pure electric motor handles the demands of overtaking artfully and effortlessly, as it delivers a maximum 150kW to the front wheels to zip past slow-coaches and escape looming semis.

Offering up to 480km of real driving range, the Hyundai Kona Electric’s 64kWh battery can cover enough distance in a single charge for a casual drive from town to city, as I did on Tuesday this week.

At the start of the trip, the display told me I had about 100% battery and 480km rang. So, for a 170km drive, there was no range anxiety. Even switching the aircon still left a range of 466km.

Stopping at the 59km mark for a coffee, the battery was still 91% full with 439km range with the air con off and the most conservative of the Kona’s three driving modes, “eco” mode on.

The Hyundai Kona Electric EV display. Credit: Bridie Schmidt
The Hyundai Kona Electric EV display. Credit: Bridie Schmidt

By the end of the drive I can confidently say that the Hyundai Kona would easily do one of Australia’s most-driven, long-distance, daily commutes – the 280-odd kilometre drive from Sydney to Canberra- and only on one battery (see Giles Parkinson’s scathing take-down of Sky News in the wake of Labor’s recent EV strategy announcement)!

It would even make it to Dubbo.

For me however, it was the drive during peak hour through the Gold Coast to Brisbane in the Kona that nailed the experience.

A cruise up the Pacific Highway from Byron Bay before hitting traffic on the Gold Coast in the Kona EV was a dream, with the quiet hum of the electric motor giving the feeling of being in a miniature, grounded jet plane.

Any initial jerkiness in driving the Kona is easily ironed out: EVs demand a different driving style due to regenerative braking that slows the vehicle down, recouping energy for the battery.

To compensate for different drivings styles, the Kona offers three regen modes, with 1 offering the least resistance once the foot is taken off the accelerator, and 3 the most. To change them all that needs to be done is tap a paddle on the left behind the steering wheel to increase the level, or the right one to decrease it.

I found that regen level 2 felt the smoothest; level 1 was too light and required more braking than should be necessary in an EV, while regen level 3 was too restricting and heavy.

Then, a simple adjustment to “one-pedal driving” to allow the vehicle to use the resistance offered by the regen smoothed the ride out – used in combination with the three driving modes (eco, comfort and sport), any driver should be able to find their favourite driving zone.

Then I hit traffic.

I am not a fan of traffic – and who is? The jolting bumper to bumper, stop and start of congested roads are draining and frustrating to say the least.

Kicking into adaptive cruise mode on the highway however completely changed the drive: as I reached that heavy traffic, the vehicle automatically slowed down, then adjusted its speed accordingly to the surrounding traffic.

While this kind of tech is available in modern ICE vehicles, I suspect that the responsiveness of the EV motor makes the experience even better.

A “heads up display” (HUD) pokes out of the top of the dashboard behind the steering wheel, showing the vehicle’s speed and any known speed limits (warning: it doesn’t always get this right, as I was shown a 100km speed limit on a highway side road that actually had a 80km limit).

The HUD, which is only available on the premium Highlander variant, also shows approaching traffic when cruise control is on, as well as warning symbols for vehicles in the blind spot – this assist is combined with a warning beep if you indicate you want to change lanes at an inopportune moment.

Lane assistance also kicks in when cruise control is on, nudging you gently back into the lane if you drift to either side, and beeping if you drift too far. It’s a little disconcerting at first but I found it reassuring after getting used to it.

Thanks to these cool drive assist features combined the silence afforded by the electric motor, it was literally the best peak hour drive I have ever experienced.

For a daily commute, the Kona’s 480km range more than meets the needs of workers even if living out of the city. Using air con reduced the range by about 30km, and driving in sport mode as opposed to eco reduces it another 30-40km (assuming you’ve still got somewhere between 80-100% battery).

However, if a trip pushes the range of the Kona, planning and flexibility is still required, through no fault of Hyundai, and highlighting the need for a concerted national electric vehicle strategy for infrastructure.

While charging at home on the “granny charger” (so-called home cable supplied with the vehicle) is well enough and good overnight, there is still some catching up to do with regards to infrastructure.

The Hyundai Kona Electric. Credit: Bridie Schmidt
The so-called trickle or “granny” charger. Credit: Bridie Schmidt

Keen to test out the Hamilton charging location that forms part of the “Queensland Electric Superhighway” on arrival in Brisbane, I found the only available and working CCS2 plug out of a possible three was in use by a 2018 BMW i3.

One of the two 50kw Tritium Veefils was out of order, while the Schneider electric unit required the driver to supply a cable.

I was out of luck time wise or I would have waited for the i3 to finish, but luckily for me, the Kona still had 270km range left on it.

At the Hamilton EV charger. Credit: Bridie Schmidt
At the Hamilton EV charger. Credit: Bridie Schmidt

There’s no denying the feel-good, eco-friendly factor that the electric Hyundai Kona gives you – the EV display showed that for the entire trip, nearly 30 kilograms of CO2 were saved as opposed to driving a comparable vehicle (presumably the Kona ICE).

It also offers a range of displays to keep you informed about your electricity usage while driving, and options for charging management if you have a routine drive to plug into the settings for pre-charge thermal management of the battery.

Although a compact SUV, the Kona (like its ICE counterpart) has comfortable, spacious enough seating, just enough leg room and ample head height for a tall person; a 6’2” lanky teenager was happy enough in the back once the front passenger seat was moved forward a little.

The rear cargo area, while not as ample as your normal SUV size, is roomy enough for a decent grocery shop or suitcases headed for the airport.

I think the only misgiving I have for the Kona is its price; when the Tesla Model 3 arrives in just months it will offer a similar range for possibly only a slightly higher price, but it will also offer a lot more in terms of software and tech – plus all the verve of owning a Tesla.

As Giles Parkinson notes in his review, cost savings from electric charging compared to high fuel prices will go some way to buffering this higher price, as will reduced maintenance costs compared to ICE vehicles.

The Kona does not cost the earth – either financially and environmentally, so to speak – and though the upfront price is probably still a bit out of range for many drivers, it’s important to include the total cost of ownership, as well as what it offers for that price, which is the opportunity to blend into the compact SUV crowd – and an antidote to virtue signalling.

Because it is not an “electric only” vehicle, the entire time I was driving the Kona, it was only noticed by one group of kids cruising the streets, with the leader of the gang turning to gasp: “its electric!”

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