Hyundai on the Straight and Narrow?

My opinion on Hyundai/Kia is far from black and white. I’ve been impressed by their styling – often decent, yet inconsistent. Rental Hyundais of yesteryear have seemed well equipped, especially in the infotainment department. The last one I rented had Android Auto back when that wasn’t common. Don’t get me started on their apparent struggle to ship a reliable gasoline engine.

This is the headspace I was in when I was handed the keys to a 2023 Hyundai IONIQ 5 SEL AWD. I walked around it in my driveway thinking to myself, “$50,000 sure is a lot for a Hyundai.” Despite this, I was determined to give it a fair shot, and I’m really glad I did.

I’ve seen a lot worse-looking clusters than this.

Sitting in the driver’s seat, I was impressed right off the bat by the fit, finish and layout inside. Just the right balance of straight lines and curved edges makes the IONIQ’s dash feel cohesive and well compartmentalized simultaneously. Landscape display panels – my favorite orientation – provide a decent infotainment screen on the right. Meanwhile, a the screen on the left focuses on the driver with the important info kept close to the center and visible through the well thought-out steering wheel. The A/C controls are unobtrusive and moderately responsive capacitive touch buttons – not my favorite, but acceptable in this form. Below the dash, a delightfully empty space where most vehicles have needless bulk filling the void.

It feels like the EV design team is separate from the rest of Hyundai.

The materials inside the IONIQ feel quality, like someone spent some time sitting in a mock-up and fine tuned it until they felt happy to be there. I’m not sure about the white bezel around the dash screens, which make my preferred dark mode setting look like it’s on an old Samsung tablet. But I’m fond of the cloth-like material on the steering wheel, and the pleasing cloth grille to the left of the cluster screen. It reminds me of the virtual assistant in my living room.

Hey Google, turn the lights on.

The seats were exactly fine, keeping me in place during spirited driving and never offending me or my passengers. Sitting in the IONIQ, I noticed a nice wide field of view out the windshield, and found the seating position completely unremarkable – in a good way – there was nothing that jumped out at me about it. Driving the IONIQ felt natural, and I began to feel like I could get used to this car.

It looks like the kind of car a villain might arrive in.

The IONIQ has three drive modes: Eco, Normal, and Sport. In most cars, these modes mean little to nothing meaningful. In most cars, I default to sport mode, because why would I sacrifice power or responsiveness for a dulled experience? In most cars, drive modes are a gimmick at best. Not so in the IONIQ. Switching drive modes while pressing the accelerator to any degree yields an immediate, significant difference in power, and I felt like each mode actually mattered. Normal mode allows access to the car’s horsepower and lets the driver accelerate aggressively when desired, but moderates the throttle response so the car doesn’t jerk upon giving it gas. Sport mode unlocks the full potential, and in this mode the car will easily throw you back in the seat and lay rubber. Eco mode felt horrible, severely restricting power even under heavy throttle. The car will still move relatively quickly, but felt sluggish and unresponsive – ideal for conserving range, which it also achieves by restricting climate control while in this mode. Conveniently, the drive mode can easily be switched on the fly by pressing the drive mode button on the steering wheel.

Where do I put in the cassette tape?

I loved the power output in this car, owing in part to its modest curb weight of about 4,500lbs. This is on the lighter side for an electric SUV and lets the 320 horsepower powertrain shine. I felt the confidence to make a left turn into thick traffic and reach the speed limit without holding anyone up, or make a passing maneuver with plenty of time to spare. Power was noticeably reduced as the charge level dropped, but was still enough for all of the above even at lower percentages. Naturally, if someone is driving the car so far that the battery is depleted, they’re probably not looking for power as much as range. Still, it was a breath of fresh air when the car had a fresh charge and a new sense of vigor in sport mode.

When it came time to stop in the IONIQ, I had my choice of four different regen modes, selectable by the paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Single pedal driving is optional, and regen can even be entirely turned off at the expense of range. I did appreciate the ability to turn off the regen because it felt the most like a traditional car while coasting, and probably makes it easier for skeptical buyers to get comfortable with this EV.

It’s hip to be square.

The IONIQ handled exceptionally well for an EV, not feeling overly heavy or unwieldy. It felt more like the ICE small SUVs that share its weight class. The suspension did a nice job of smoothing out the worst bumps in the road, while still allowing for good road feel. On dirt paths and gravel roads with large potholes, not a single jolt was felt. I wouldn’t call it a driver’s car, but it has a lot of other EVs beat in the cornering department despite its lackluster turning radius.

Speaking of handling, the driver can rest easy and let the car do the work with adaptive cruise control and autosteer, sort of. In testing, the autosteer was prone to disengaging often, which it does without giving any indication to the driver except the small green steering wheel icon on the cluster changing to gray. No audio warning, no vibration, just a sudden absence of autosteer. If the driver is to keep watch on the autosteer icon for indication of disengagement, it means routinely taking their eyes off the road. Otherwise, they’ll just have to notice when the IONIQ starts to act like no one is holding the wheel and intervene before something happens. Worse, the times when autosteer disengaged were inconsistent, so it wasn’t even possible to expect it to struggle or do well on a particular street. When autosteer was working, it was passable on city streets and most useful on highways. In town, the car had a tendency to gravitate to one edge of the lane, then the other, then back again. I found myself disengaging it sometimes because I didn’t want to appear to be under the influence.

The IONIQ uses an 800-volt battery system, which sets it apart from the majority of EVs and their 400-volt systems, at least for now. The benefits of the 800-volt system are significant, and chief among them (for the user experience) is charging speed. With twice as many volts charging the battery pack, half the amperage is needed to achieve the same charging rate as a 400-volt car. This enables the IONIQ to take advantage of ridiculously fast charging at supporting stations. Hyundai advertises 18 minutes from 10%-80%, a 350-kW max. The best I have access to is a 125-kW charging station, which the IONIQ took full advantage of, eventually reaching 120-kW during a brief charging session. I would have liked to see an explanation of why charging speeds were relatively low at first, starting around 60 kW and eventually reaching the faster speed. My best guess is that the pack needed to reach an optimal temperature, but some feedback from the car would be nice. Without it, I might be wondering if the station I am charging at is the limiting factor. It is widely reported that advertised charging capacities of charging stations are not attainable, and it would be great if the car would tell me where the bottleneck is until there isn’t one.

This kind of fast charging makes the IONIQ viable even for someone who takes road trips, since a stop for fuel will usually take about 20 minutes by the time people stretch their legs, visit the convenience store, and get a bite to eat. EV charging can still be a challenge with the current state of charging stations, but at least the car won’t be the limiting factor.

While charging, the IONIQ’s active aero comes into play, opening a pair of sleek vents on the front bumper to give the cooling system access to airflow. This might also happen during driving, depending on circumstances that Hyundai doesn’t seem to say much about. It didn’t even happen all of the times I charged it, but it sure was neat to see when it did.

It’s pretty much a racecar.

Speaking of technology, the IONIQ is well equipped with even more tech – heated seats and steering wheel, a good infotainment system, and customizable ambient lighting in the front and rear. The sound system was good, not great. It sounded nice, but lacked bass, even with the bass EQ turned up all the way and volume at max. Bass was audible, but failed to vibrate the interior quite as much as I’m used to with other stock sound systems.

Half the pleasure of driving the IONIQ happened each time I parked it and walked away. They say if you don’t look back at your car when you leave it, you’ve got the wrong car. Not so with the IONIQ – I cannot give enough praise to the design team for the exterior of this car. Modern Hyundai angles are present throughout, heavily offset by squares everywhere. This car has squares for days, some obvious, some not so much. Even the headlights and taillights are adorned with squares within squares in an exciting symphony of retro-futurism.

To say that the visuals are stunning seems like a lot to say about a crossover, but Hyundai has pulled it off and shown that they’re not afraid to be bold in today’s landscape of bulbous, angry-grilled econobubbles masquerading as premium vehicles. In a dark parking garage, the aesthetic of the IONIQ’s glowing headlights creates an intimidating presence when paired with the vague choir of its low-speed pedestrian warning audio, occasionally tempered by the soft reverse-alert pulsing while backing out of a parking space. The attention to detail inside and out is noticeable. I cannot express enough how much I appreciate a car that actually looks really cool.

The IONIQ 5 is top notch Instagram fodder.

With Hyundai’s history of ICE troubles, it seems like they might be looking for a new lease on life in EVs. As much as I resent the release of bad products, I hope Hyundai finds success in affordable, quality EVs. Only time will tell if their EVs fare better in the long term than their ICE vehicles, though some initial reports of Hyundai/Kia EVs being recalled have tempered my excitement. The coolest car in the world is only as good as its stand-in if it goes down for major repairs. I’ll give them a chance, since this is still new technology. I would really love to get behind a company that makes EVs this cool.

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