Hyundai speeds into green space

Peter Atkinson
The new Hyundai Ioniq features a choice of hybrid of all-electric drivetrains

Meet the Korean Prius.

Korean maker Hyundai has marched confidently into the world of emissions-free motoring with its new Ioniq - and they're about to turn the segment on its ear.

Having launched in Australia some weeks ago with a four-cylinder hybrid engine, the Ioniq this week added electric-only and plug-in hybrid variants - in the process pushing the needle for fossil-fuel-free cars closer to everyday motorists.

And it's yet more proof that the Koreans are rapidly taking over every segment of the automotive industry.

Having first annexed the cheap and cheerful category, they quickly upped their quality game to start producing small cars to equal those from Japan or Europe.

They've gobbled up a huge chunk of the lucrative SUV market, waded strongly into the luxury market with Hyundai's emerging Genesis brand - and even made strides in the performance category with Kia's impressive Stinger and Hyundai's equally potent i30N - this week named Australia's best car by News Corp's motoring press.

So what's next? Well, saving the planet, of course.

Which is where this Ioniq comes in.

The mid-sized hatchback - it's comparable in size to its Elantra or i30 siblings - has one-upped its logical rival, the long-established Toyota Prius - on price and practicality.

It broke cover in October with a petrol-electric drivetrain, but set the cat further among the pigeons this week by unveiling two greener options - one a plug-in hybrid with extended EV range and the other a fully-fledged electric model that is fossil-fuel free.

Best of all, it becomes Australia's cheapest all-electric vehicle with a starting price of $44,990.

The Ioniq range starts at a very approachable $32,000 for the entry-level hybrid - which combines a modest 77kW, four-cylinder petrol engine with a 32kW electric motor. While its performance is nothing to shout about, the appeal is its Prius-like thirst of just 3.9L/100km.

For a substantial extra spend, you can get into the Premium model tested here at $39,000, complete with a long and impressive list of luxury and technology inclusions.

Despite its higher price, Hyundai is predicting that the EV (electric only) variant will account for as many as half of all Ioniq sales - perhaps threatening Toyota's long-standing stranglehold on environmentally-conscious market by pushing the price of electric motoring towards the means of many ordinary families.

The EV will start at an approachable $44,990 - or $48,990 with the Premium trim level we've tested here. Mid-range will be the plug-in hybrid, combining the same modest four-cylinder petrol engine with a more powerful electric motor - giving more than 60km of emissions-free electric motoring between charges. That model costs $40,990.

We drove the Ioniq Premium on a slightly extended loan of almost two weeks - plenty of time to get to know the car if not enough to get to love it.

We found it easy to live with but perhaps a little bland. No doubt the extra power of the electric model would add some further performance and interest.

The Ioniq is light and nimble - not necessarily what you'd expect from a car carting around a considerable weight of battery storage - with well-resolved ride and handling and well-weighted steering.

It offers similar performance and ease of operation to Toyota's hybrids, including the iconic, class-establishing Prius and more recent arrivals like the Corolla and Camry hybrids. As a driving experience we preferred the more responsive performance we enjoyed in the revamped Corolla hybrid a couple of weeks back.

The Ioniq even looks a bit like the Prius - handsome enough from some angles but with what seems to be an obligatory humpy rear hatch somewhat spoiling its lines.

Like the Prius the rear window is bisected by a cross-beam, slightly compromising rear vision with no tangible benefit. Perhaps it's there to prove that a car built to be a game-changer shouldn't look conventional.

The Ioniq's roofline has the pleasant effect of adding some passenger space in the rear seats, as well as maximising the hatchback's cargo capacity.

For a car costing less than $40-grand it gets plenty of little gadgets - some of them useful, others less so.

The comfort seat option that automatically slides back the driver's seat for entry and exit is thoughtful but hardly necessary. Those leather seats are both heated and ventilated - the kind of pampering you'd expect from a much more expensive vehicle.

The main annoyance was the foot-operated parking brake - something of a dinosaur considering this car's high-tech persona - and an irritating one at that. More than once I drove off with the car chirping an alarm to tell me that I'd failed to properly disengage the foot brake - not that it seemed to slow the car much anyway.

The centre stack is nicely presented - with the obligatory colour screen at the top displaying useful information including satellite navigation, climate control information, as well as various means of displaying the hybrid system's mode and how much fuel you were managing to use - or not use - at any particular time.

And that, by the way, is the seriously impressive part of this car.

It is miserly in its consumption, and in around-town conditions we managed to stick fairly close to the official combined figure of 3.9L/100km.

That's very comparable to the numbers achieved by the likes of the Prius, which has spent almost two decades perfecting and refining their hybrid system. For the Koreans to get so close with their first attempt warrants some praise.

That said, the Ioniq feels perhaps a rung behind the Prius in its driveability and general fit and finish. The Hyundai is good - but we've found the Toyota to be a bit better. But for how long is anyone's guess.

HYUNDAI IONIQ PREMIUM

HOW BIG? A mid-sized hatch with ample room for four adults and a generous cargo compartment.

HOW FAST? A bit sluggish, to be honest - although if you want guilt-free performance you might need to spend a few extra bucks on the all-electric version.

HOW THIRSTY? A miserly 3.9L/100km average consumption is no trick - we managed to replicate it across the length of our test.

HOW MUCH? Starting in the low $30s the Hyundai will get plenty of attention. The Premium pack on our test machine pushed closer to the $40k mark, which might be better spent on the all-electric option.