What does it take to outdo the Prius at hybridness?
Hyundai — and the Ioniq hybrid.
By just about every metric other than who got there first, the Hyundai is the pick of the litter. It costs less — and it uses less gas. It is roomier — both for people and cargo — but it’s not as big as the Prius.
And it’s much quicker.
You can also get it as a standard hybrid, a plug-in hybrid, and a full-monte electric car. The Prius comes in only two of those three ways.
The Hyundai also comes standard with almost twice the warranty coverage — five years and 60,000 miles vs. three years and 36,000 miles on Toyota.
WHAT IT IS
Like the Prius, the Ioniq is a compact-sized, five-door hatchback hybrid.
Also, like the Prius, it isn’t just a hybrid.
It is a dedicated hybrid.
There is no “regular” (non-hybrid version) of either the Ioniq or the Prius; these come only as hybrids, were designed from the wheels up to be hybrids. Put another way; they weren’t converted into hybrids after the fact, as were most of the other hybrids on the market — including models like the hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion and the Toyota Camry and the Chrysler Pacifica minivan.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But dedicated hybrids are lighter and more aerodynamically efficient than converted hybrids, which is why both the Prius and the Ioniq are 10-15 MPG more fuel-efficient than all of the converted hybrids on the market.
Converted hybrids are also usually functionally impaired by tiny trunks — some less than 10 cubic feet — because there was nowhere else to put the batteries, after the fact.
They have to put the batteries somewhere in the Prius and Ioniq, too. But because they were designed from the wheels up to be hybrids, space for the batteries was designed in — leaving plenty of cargo space.
About twice as much space (26.5 cubic feet in the Ioniq) as most mid-sized non-hybrid sedans — and nearly three times as much space as some converted hybrid sedans.
But where the Ioniq parts ways with the Prius begins with its price. You can pick one up for $22,200 — the MSRP of the entry-level Blue trim — vs. $23,475 for the least expensive version of the Prius.
The gap continues to widen — at the pump.
EPA says 57 city, 59 highway for the Hyundai hybrid vs. 54 city and just 50 on the highway for the Prius, a difference of 9 miles per gallon.
Another gap is discernible in the back seat. The Ioniq has 35.7 inches of legroom vs. 33.4 inches in the Prius. And behind its back seat, the Ioniq has more cargo room, too: 26.5 cubic feet vs. 24.6 cubic feet.
As OJ used to say — look out!
The 2019 Ioniq is available with a drowsy driver alert system and automatic high beams, automated emergency braking and adaptive cruise control (SEL trims).
The plug-in and all-electric versions (reviewed separately) now come with remote charge monitoring; you can connect with the car via an app on your phone to check on the state of the battery’s charge — without having to go have a look at the car physically.
Makes economic and functional sense and it’s fun.
Makes more sense than the Prius — which costs almost $1,300 more to start, isn’t as roomy for people or cargo, is significantly less fuel efficient and much slower.
Doesn’t look weird — or drive weird.
Unbeatable warranty coverage.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
The rear glass is almost horizontal — hybrid under glass! — resulting in a skewed view to the rear.
If you want people to know you’re driving a hybrid, they won’t.
Prius still has the bluer chip rep.
Kia Niro hybrid — the Ioniq’s brother from the same mother — has even more room.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Ioniq is the most fuel-efficient hybrid you can buy. And it isn’t slow.
A Prius — which is less fuel-efficient — takes a pretty palsied 10.5 seconds to get to 60 vs. 8.9 seconds for the Ioniq.
Both cars weigh about the same — 3,031 lbs. for the Ioniq vs. 3,075 lbs. for the Prius — but the Ioniq has a lot more power. The combined output of its 1.6 liter gas engine (104 hp) and 44.5 kW electric motor (60 hp) is 164 hp — 43 more horsepower than the combined output (121 hp) generated by the Toyota hybrid’s gas-electric powertrain.
Of course, quickness isn’t why most people buy a hybrid; gas mileage is.
The Prius used to be the king of the fuel efficient — but it’s not anymore.
Perhaps because the Ioniq has power to spare — while the Prius has just barely enough — the Hyundai uses a lot less gas than the Prius. Particularly on the highway — where it scored 9 MPG better than the Prius on the EPA’s test loop: 59 vs. 50 MPG.
The two are closer in city driving — 57 MPG for the Ioniq vs. 54 for the Prius — but the Hyundai’s average (city and highway) is almost 60 MPG while the Toyota’s is closer to 50 — because it gets dragged down by its not-so-great highway number.
And you get to 60 almost 2 seconds sooner in the Ioniq — a big difference.
Another difference between the two is that the Ioniq does not have a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission — which most other hybrids (including the Prius) do have. CVTs are an efficiency boon because they are always in the right “gear.”
Because there are no gears inside a CVT.
Instead, the CVT continuously varies the mechanical ratio (via variable diameter pulleys and a belt connecting them) to keep the engine operating at the most efficient spot in its powerband without stepping up (or down) from one gear to the next. And the ratio can be varied almost infinitely, whereas a geared manual or automatic transmission shifts up (and down) through a fixed number of forward speeds, each gear being close to the right ratio for given road speed and load — but not as close as the CVT’s infinitely variable ratios.
But CVTs can be noisy — accentuating the noises made by an underpowered engine that doesn’t make much power until it’s revved way high in the powerband.
You floor it, the engine screams up the tach, often right up to near redline — and will stay near redline until you back off the accelerator pedal.
A transmission with fixed (e.g., 1-6) gears will upshift through the gears, engine RPM decreasing as the transmission moves up to the next highest gear, reducing engine noise as you accelerate.
The Ioniq has that kind of transmission.
It is a six-speed automated manual transmission — which combines the efficiency advantage of a manual transmission with the programmable shift perfection of an automatic. These transmissions are nearly as efficient as CVTs — but without the noise or the weird (to some) turbine-like operating characteristics of a CVT.
They are also much better for performance. You’ll find them in many current high-powered sports cars and sport sedans.
The Ioniq is the only hybrid that has one.
Well, not counting its Kia-badged sibling, the Niro.
ON THE ROAD
When the Prius was new back in ’98, it was like nothing else — and Toyota played that up.
The original Prius looked different — and it drove differently.
Like a . . . hybrid.
It not only made no engine noise when the gas engine wasn’t running; it made different noises when it was. The turbine-like whirring of the CVT transmission, for one. The beeps it made (and still does) when you backed it up, for two.
And the Prius felt different, too.
There wasn’t a conventional gear selector. There was — still is — an odd little toggle thing. It’s mounted on the lower lip of the dashboard. Which is laid out in a very I’m a hybrid manner. All LCD displays, all centrally mounted.
Nothing in front of the steering wheel except dashboard.
You can’t be a passenger in the Prius and not be aware that you’re in a hybrid.
Everyone else knows it, too, which has its downsides.
Just as Subaru Foresters somehow became associated with alternate lifestyles, the Prius became the car of choice not just for people trying to save money on gas but also people determined to make sure everyone was very aware of their interest in all things green.
Which carries with it certain associations that not everyone wants to be associated with.
The Ioniq is the antidote.
No one will know you’re driving a hybrid — including your passengers — unless you point it out to them. This means you’re less apt to get cut off by some dude in a jacked-up 4×4 who would cut off a Prius.
In the Ioniq, you are anonymous.
You’ll also be able to do things you couldn’t do in a Prius. Or at least, do them with greater ease — because you’ve got more margin. Two seconds’ difference to 60 is a very big deal when you need to achieve merging speed right now with traffic running 70 that isn’t going to slow down to accommodate you.
Having more than enough power — as opposed to barely enough — also means you can make a hole if need be.
The conventional gear selector is mounted on the center console.
Though it’s drive by wire as much as any new car’s gear selector (meaning, the lever isn’t physically connected to the transmission via a cable), it feels more connected than the Prius’ game boy toggle — which imparts almost no feel at all.
There is also no regenerative braking position — just Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive and Sport mode (engaged by moving the lever to the left). The hybrid operation is handled more automatically than in the Prius, though you can watch the proceedings — as in the Prius — by a display that can be called up on the LCD screen in the center stack.
The Ioniq also accelerates more conventionally. More quietly — as well as quickly. The six-speed automated manual shifts normally. One through six. No redline scream and turbine whine. The interplay between gas engine off and gas engine on is more seamless for this reason. The Prius feels — and sounds — more like an electric car, while the Ioniq feels and sounds like any other car.
One that also gets almost 10 MPG more on the highway than the Prius and easily 10-15 MPG more than just about anything else on four wheels.
AT THE CURB
When Toyota updated the Prius last year, it doubled-down on the visuals. Now it not only looks like a hybrid; it looks like an angry one.
Too bad it can’t back that up.
The Ioniq is much less visually aggressive.
Other than its very fast (almost flat) back and nearly horizontal rear glass, it looks like most other compact hatchback sedans. It’s beauty lies inside — where you’ll find two-inches-plus more backseat legroom than in the Prius (35.7 inches vs. 33.4 inches) as well as a cargo area (26.5 cubic feet) that is almost twice as spacious as the trunk of any current mid-sized sedan.
And — more icing! — the Ioniq has a smaller footprint than the Prius. It is 176 inches long vs. 178.7 for the less-space-efficient Toyota.
The almost three inches may not seem like much while reading this, but it will seem like more when you’re driving or trying to park the Prius. Especially in your garage. Close the garage door behind you and see how much those three inches matter when you try to walk between the closed door and the backside of the car.
Space-efficiency-wise, the Ioniq is only outdone by its Kia-badged sibling, which is basically the same package in a different wrapper.
The Niro is shaped like a small crossover SUV, and so it has a taller roofline and more cargo space (54.5 cubic feet) as well as an incredible (for its size) 37.4 cubic inches of rear seat legroom.
But the Niro’s not as fuel-efficient (51 city, 46 on the highway) because of the additional weight and less-favorable aerodynamics of the crossover SUV layout.
Its price is higher, too: $23,340 to start.
The Ioniq’s almost flat rear glass is a mixed blessing. On the upside, it allows for that comparatively huge cargo space under the glass. This little car can cart around more stuff than most big cars. But the near-flat glass (and the big brace in between the glass) gimps the rearward view.
It’s not terrible — but it’s not great, either.
Other than that, there’s little to not like about this little hybrid, which is arguable the best hybrid on the market because it’s the most sensible hybrid on the market.
It doesn’t make an issue of itself — or of you. But it does save you money, both up front and down the road.
That it does both of those things without costing you speed or room or any other thing is something that deserves praise.
The car’s main problem is that not many people know about it Hyundai hasn’t done a very good job of marketing it — or the Niro (reviewed here). They ought to pour the coals to this one because it’s a winner.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For the first time since ’98, the Prius is no longer the pick of the hybrid litter.
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The Eric Peters Car Review is sponsored by the NMA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation. The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions.