Hyundai Is the One to Watch in the Race for EVs. Here’s Why

In 30 years, the Korean marque has gone from afterthought to global powerhouse. It's poised to do it again with electric cars.

Hyundai IONIQ5 Electric Vehicle new
Hyundai

The race to lead the automotive industry through electrification is often viewed as a clash between long-established giants and new disruptors—see General Motors versus the Volkswagen Group, or Ford and Tesla trading blows. Though it’s not quite a zero sum game, there will be clear winners and losers over the next decade. And we’re here to point out that in ten years time, you might just be looking back and wishing you’d bet more on one dark horse in particular: Hyundai.

Yes, Hyundai. As it stands now in 2021, with striking designs, interesting battery tech, and a robust product pipeline, the Korean automaker could emerge among the companies that transition fastest to EVs. Could—this is informed analysis, not a guarantee. Its battery-electrics will come fast, entering the mass market on pace with those from GM and Ford. Hyundai’s smart enough not to try to compete in full-size electric pickup trucks, still the last stronghold for the Detroit 2.5, not least because they’re largely unsellable outside North America. The lackluster results for Nissan and Toyota after 20 years of building U.S.-style full-size pickups provide an object lesson. But Hyundai has aggressive plans for the rest of the light truck and passenger vehicle market.

Of course, every automaker worth its salt these days has a bold plan to launch a flotilla of electric vehicles over the next 5-10 years and is pouring billions of dollars into making it happen. What's slightly different here is that Hyundai has shown over the past decade it can notably improve its cars with each generation and break new ground as fast as any other maker, all while keeping prices relatively close to Earth. It was late to SUVs, but now it has a full lineup that leads its sales and offers good value for the money. With the playing field mostly leveled by a tectonic technological shift, expect Hyundai to do the same with electric vehicles, even as the global patchwork of emissions regulations and cultural divides means different markets will move at different speeds.

When the company launched vehicles with plugs in the U.S. in 2014, it didn’t limit them to two vehicles (as GM did), but released half a dozen of them. They were BEVs with ranges from 100 to 230 miles, various plug-in hybrid models of sedan and now SUV, and more are coming. Hyundai also wants to play in the world of hydrogen vehicles, though it is wisely focusing on freight movement rather than personal-use vehicles. But that’s a different story altogether. What matters now is understanding how Hyundai became a force to be reckoned with in this all-important, high-stakes battle.

Hyundai

The Japanese Playbook, but Faster

First, a bit of history is in order. Spool back 30 years, to the latter part of the Malaise Era, halfway through the Radwood period, as it’s dubbed today.

In 1991, Toyota was still best-known for the Corolla, but the third-generation Camry was about to hit its stride. Honda had been building its Accord in the U.S. for a decade; that car and its Civic were known to be reliable, fun to drive, and more appealing than anything GM, Ford, or Chrysler could offer. The three domestic companies struggled to stem the deluge of reliable, affordable, better small- and medium-sized cars from Japanese brands. (Spoiler: None succeeded.)

But Hyundai? The South Korean maker was a laughingstock. Its main U.S. offering was the Excel, a tinny subcompact that sold mostly because it was cheaper than anything outside a Yugo. The first Sonata looked like a poverty-spec Nissan Sentra, not the sleek, high-tech, almost coupe-like sedan it is today. And the firm bought engines from Mitsubishi for many years before making its own.

Hyundai

How times change. Hyundai is now a global powerhouse, the world’s fifth-largest carmaker. It took control of Korean rival brand Kia in 1998, and spun out the Genesis premium model into its own brand in 2015. It manufactures in every major car-buying region, including North America, where its two brands build cars in Alabama and Georgia. It has a design center in California and an R&D center in Michigan. It’s poached designers and engineers from European makers, erasing any traces of Asian origin and even creating its own “N” performance brand within Hyundai—just like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes.

And like the Samsung phone that may be in your pocket, it’s a leader in technology, with features that are often more advanced than what’s found on Japanese and European competitors. In some ways, Hyundai of the 2020s feels like the Japanese automakers did in the 1980s, poised for a level of dominance that probably keeps a lot of other executives awake at night.

Small, Low-Volume EVs Test the Waters

The company’s first electric car wasn’t actually a Hyundai, but the 2016 Kia Soul EV, a low-volume adaptation of that brand’s compact “small-box” hatchback with 93 EPA-rated miles of range—followed by the 2017 Hyundai Ioniq Electric, with what it expected would be a class-leading 124 miles. Awkwardly, the Ioniq’s specs were frozen only weeks before GM CEO Mary Barra announced the car that became the 2017 Chevy Bolt EV, with twice the range.

In February 2020, the company released the first details of its Electric Global Modular Platform (E-GMP). That basic architecture will serve as the base for 23 separate models globally, not including the Genesis brand, by 2025. That number of models puts Hyundai-Kia in the same league as GM and VW Group, and likely ahead of Ford and EV pioneer Nissan. (Tesla, we note, has four models now in production, with a pickup truck, a Semi, and a Roadster supposedly coming in future.)

E-GMP’s technical specs underscored just how serious Hyundai is about making its EVs fully competitive in all the markets it plays in. Crucially, it supports larger vehicles—up to the three-row crossover utilities that may be the most profitable mass segment in the U.S.

The first three E-GMP vehicles will be the 2022 Hyundai Ioniq 5; the Kia EV6, which follows the Hyundai early next year; and the Genesis GV60, just unveiled in late September. All are marketed as compact crossover utility vehicles, though in another lens, they could just as easily be viewed as large compact hatchbacks with all-wheel drive. The U.S. loves crossovers and loathes hatches, though, so SUVs they are—albeit low, sleek, aerodynamic SUVs.

Hyundai

The Ioniq 5 sports a blocky, almost Blade Runner-esque design, unlike any current Hyundai model. It’s aimed at the market’s sweet spot: compact crossover utility vehicles. It will have available all-wheel drive, along with 250 to 300 miles of range, and will launch in limited U.S. markets by the end of 2021.

Experience suggests the company’s electric models will offer better range ratings than competitors—a crucial selling point for first-time EV buyers. In 2017, the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid Blue bested the Toyota Prius Eco in combined fuel-economy ratings, 58 mpg to 56 mpg. Similarly, the 2019 Kia Niro EV launched with a 239-mile EPA range rating, beating Chevy Bolt EV’s 238 miles.

Hyundai is targeting a range of 300 miles for the Ioniq 5 in its rear-wheel-drive version, using a 77.5-kilowatt-hour battery powering a 168-kilowatt (225-horsepower) rear motor. All-wheel-drive configurations add a 74-kW motor on the front axle, rated at 320 hp and 446 lb-ft combined. Unsurprisingly, adding AWD lowers the range to 269 miles—or 244 miles in the Limited AWD version with all the bells and whistles. Still, given the Volkswagen ID.4’s EPA ratings of 240 to 260 miles among RWD and AWD versions, Hyundai looks like it may come out ahead.

Those Hyundais won’t be the first all-electric compact crossovers on sale: the Ford Mustang Mach-E, Tesla Model Y, and Volkswagen ID.4 are already here, and more will follow. These include the Audi Q4 e-tron, Nissan Ariya, Subaru Solterra, Toyota bZ4X, and a Chevrolet crossover that’s expected to launch in 2023. But while some of those brands will have only one EV crossover by 2025, Hyundai and Kia will likely have at least two apiece—perhaps more.

RWD, 800 Volts, and Power Out

Several things struck EV analysts during Hyundai’s technical presentations on the E-GMP platform. In particular, four factors make it stand out: (1) It uses rear-wheel drive for the single-motor versions; (2) the battery pack can charge at 800 volts; (3) it’s capable of home recharging at a higher rate than today’s EVs; and (4) owners can use the battery as a power source for electric appliances, which Hyundai calls “Vehicle To Load” or V2L capability.

Rear-wheel drive: From the 1960s on, front-wheel drive swept small-car design because it increased cabin space by eliminating the driveshaft. Using much smaller electric motors between the wheels, that constraint goes away. While many mass-market car companies are sticking with FWD electric cars, perhaps even because it’s become what so many buyers are used to, VW Group put its motor at the rear. That can offer a sportier driving feel, as well as more room up front under the hood (which VW so far hasn’t taken advantage of). Hyundai is doing the same thing, meaning its EVs may prove unexpectedly fun to drive.

800 volts: Battery voltage means nothing to the average consumer, but higher-power batteries can recharge faster—and that does matter to drivers and EV shoppers. So far, only Porsche has 800-volt battery packs in production, in its Taycan sport sedan and the related Audi e-tron GT. Under optimal circumstances, the Taycan can charge from 5 to 80 percent of battery capacity in just 22 minutes, using the 350-kilowatt charging stations so far available only on the Electrify America network (owned by VW Group, Porsche’s parent company).

It appears all future Hyundai and Kia EVs will be able to charge at similar speeds to the Porsche. That’s not bad for a mass-market brand, especially since the Volkswagen ID.4 electric crossover now on sale can’t do the same—nor will all the other VW and Audi models on the same ‘MEB’ underpinnings. Creating an 800-volt battery for mass-market vehicles is a bold move, and it’s the first volume maker to do so. GM uses clever electrical architecture to charge its future vehicles with Ultium batteries at 800 volts, but the packs natively run at 400V. (To preempt howls from Tesla owners, we should note 400-volt Teslas can briefly charge at up to 250 kW. And Lucid has a 900-volt pack, but it hardly competes with the likes of Hyundai and Kia.)

Home charging rate: The Ioniq 5 spec sheet offered something of a surprise: the car’s onboard AC charger functions at up to 10.9 kilowatts, presuming the owner installs a Level 2 charging station capable of delivering that rate. That’s higher than the previous decade’s EV standards, which have been 6.6 or 7.2 kW. Higher rates give faster home charging … so, happier owners?

Hyundai

Vehicle to load (V2L) capability: When Ford launched its first hybrid F-150 pickup truck, the ability to use the onboard high-voltage battery to power electric appliances proved to be a huge selling point. Contractors could power electric tools or recharge their battery packs, and all those happy groups of camping or tailgating Millennials could power their audio gear, portable refrigerators, and everything else. That feature also got a ton of attention in February when people in Texas used their trucks to keep the lights (and heat) on during the state's historic cold snap and energy crisis. For the fully electric F-150 Lightning, Ford upped the ante and provided up to 9.6 kW of power out—enough to power a home for up to three days. 

Hyundai is still in the “portable appliances” camp for the Ioniq 5, which is limited to a maximum of 1.9 kW of power output. That’s not enough to power your house like the Ford F-150 Lightning, but it could keep your fridge or water system running—along with the boom boxes and other gear you’ll see in the glossy ads.

While the company has made broad statements of intent about electrifying, industry sources suggest it is preparing to slash its lineup of combustion engine and transmissions—all developed in-house, and now one of the broadest of any large maker—to invest in EVs at a far more rapid pace. 

Brand Challenges Differ

As we roll into the 2020s, the Hyundai brand has joined Toyota, Honda, and Nissan among the high-volume Asian brands you can depend on. Toyota is known for reliability, Honda for more fun driving, and both Nissan and Hyundai fall into the “value” end of the spectrum. Each new generation of Hyundais—and they come more often than new models from, say, Nissan—is notably more stylish, more enjoyable to drive, and better equipped than its predecessors. That’s not a bad place to be.

Kia

Kia has a different problem, best encapsulated by Rolling Stone magazine’s old “Perception / Reality” ads. In the U.S., Kia may be the auto brand whose perception most lags the reality of the vehicles it sells today. It’s only been part of Hyundai since 1998; before that it was an independent Korean maker that had to declare bankruptcy during the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s. Now, the two brands share engines, platforms, and components buyers don’t see developed by the parent corporation’s technical center. But Kia and Hyundai compete fiercely in the market, and their offerings are nowhere near the mirror-image model lineups other makers have cloned.

Through 2019, the highest-selling U.S. Kia model was the Soul “square box” compact hatchback. It’s immensely practical, but an odd-looking hatchback advertised by singing hamsters isn’t the image Kia deserves. For 2020, the Soul finally gave up its sales crown to Kia’s Forte subcompact sedan, Sportage small SUV, and Sorento midsize SUV.

But the brand’s future direction was set last year by the Telluride three-row crossover, which looked superb, drove and handled well, racked up critical acclaim like that was its entire job, and represented an amazing value that required no compromises by the buyers who stampeded into dealers to order one. It deservedly won the North American Utility of the Year award in 2020. [Disclosure: This author is one of 50-odd jurors who vote each year to determine winners of that trio of awards.]

Since the launch of the Telluride, Kia has dumped the hamsters, redesigned its logo, and continued to launch good-looking new vehicles. Every model it sells is stylish, with shapes that seem more refined than its sister brand’s occasionally trying-too-hard design efforts. The one fly in the ointment is a new “global” naming system that dumped the well-known and recognizable Optima model name for the anodyne “K5”. (Apparently its EVs will share a similar pattern, starting with “EV6,” just as VW has ID.4 and so forth. Feh.)

Kia has always been the clever underdog within the Hyundai universe. The Niro, its version of the Hyundai Ioniq high-mileage hybrid, wasn’t styled to echo the Prius hatchback. Instead, Kia launched this small, almost-SUV wagon on the same underpinnings—and handily outsold the Ioniq. When GM launched the Bolt EV with more than 200 miles of range, a fast rethink of the Kia Niro EV gave that car 239 miles for its 2019 launch—versus the 124 miles of its Ioniq Electric counterpart. So we’re eager to see how the Kia EV6 stacks up against the forthcoming flurry of EV crossovers.

Finally, there’s Genesis, the luxury brand that now stands on its own after starting as a line of high-end Hyundais. It started slow, with sedans that got good reviews but missed the center of the market: premium SUVs. The GV80 and GV70 crossover utilities released over the last two years, however, are deeply impressive.

Genesis

We expect the GV60 to meet the same standards, though unlike its larger gas-powered siblings, it doesn’t use a dedicated rear-wheel-drive platform but adopts the standard E-GMP formula. Expect it to have the longest list of standard and optional features, along with two performance tweaks: a ‘Boost’ mode to deliver extra power for a short period, and a ‘Drift’ mode that sound intriguing, about which little has been said so far. 

Who’s Worried Now?

It’s always dangerous for writers to attempt to predict the future, with reliability, charging infrastructure and overall adoption rates as gigantic open questions for now. But received wisdom in the auto industry suggests that Toyota—the world’s most profitable mass-market car company—isn’t afraid of GM, VW, Stellantis or the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance. Based on Hyundai having grown to the world’s fifth-largest maker over just 30 years, however, Toyota is rumored to be scared of the Korean company.

As the EV transition shakes up the global auto industry, it’s clear VW and GM intend to offer more EVs in more segments than the decade-old leader, Tesla. Watching Hyundai working to join them should bring us some truly competitive electric cars. Errrr, crossovers.

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