Payne: Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid is Uber-riffic

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

‘How come Toyota makes such weird-looking cars?” a New York Auto Show visitor mumbled to me this month as we passed by the Prius display. Well, my friend, Hyundai has a hybrid for you.

I like the new Prius. From its goofy Pokeman face to its multiple-screen interior to its huge vertical taillights that were stolen off a ’59 Caddy Eldorado Seville, Toyota’s battery-powered icon is different. It’s a rolling billboard screaming “I saved the polar bear!” But it is polarizing, no doubt.

The 2017 Hyundai Ioniq is the anti-Prius.

Handsomely designed, the Ioniq fits at the Hyundai family table with its hexagonal grille, conventional dash screens and horizontal taillights. Sure, it also conforms to green convention with its slippery, 0.24 drag coefficient “potato” shape (as Car and Driver’s Aaron Robinson aptly describes it), split rear window and tiny, doughnut tires. It wants to be invited to all the Earth Day parties, after all. But like the Chevy Volt, the Ioniq’s aim is to widen its buyer demographic with a mainstream design.

By Jove, it just might work.

Timing is everything in the auto business and we are riding a ride-sharing revolution with well over 300,000 Uber drivers in the U.S. Hyundai unveiled the Ioniq last year at the New York Auto Show in stereotypically green fashion. Gazillionaire environmentalist David de Rothschild, heir to the Rothschild banking fortune, took a moment from globe-hopping to give a sermon declaring Ioniq “the right choice for the environment” to a crowd of rolling eyeballs.

Hyundai executives followed up this performance by conceding to reporters that the Ioniq would help the company comply with government green mandates (Ioniq will also come in pricier plug-in and pure EV versions) while selling Americans the Tucson SUVs they really want.

“We have to create demand where it doesn’t exist,” said then-North America CEO David Zuchowski.

But as it turns out, creating demand may not be so hard after all. Ride-share services crave hybrids.

Prius has proven the point. It is the most registered car in London, for example, for ride-sharing services, and it is ubiquitous in U.S. Uber/Lyft fleets, too. I hail Uber often and frequently end up in the roomy back seat of a Prius. The reasons are obvious enough: Ride-sharing drivers can put as much as 50,000 miles a year on their vehicles which means they prioritize fuel economy, seat and trunk space. It’s a cab, y’know.

Interestingly, it’s not a market that favors pure electrics. On recent rides in Los Angeles, I asked Prius Uber pilots why so few of their brethren drove EVs. Two big reasons: 1) the sticker price for EVs is generally $10,000 north of $25,000 hybrids. And, more importantly 2) EVs and plug-ins assume home garages for overnight charging. Many Uber drivers are apartment dwellers.

Even for those with garages, the plug can be a hindrance if the juice runs out on the road. A $40,000 Chevy Bolt EV, for example, will add 90 miles worth of charging distance in 30 minutes at a fast-charging station. In just five minutes, a Prius is filled with gas for another 600 miles.

So, hybrids it is. And Ioniq is poised to take advantage.

While Prius styling has helped it dominate the green market (more than 50 percent market share), most Uber drivers are in business for the greenbacks.

Where the Ioniq may have a hard time conquering tree-huggers, it should be embraced by ride-share jockeys who learn it has better interior space and gas mileage than Prius. And a cheaper sticker.

I played passenger while my long-suffering wife played Uber driver.

She drove me home from Detroit Metro after a recent trip, my suitcase and briefcase stashed comfortably in the 26-cubic-feet trunk. Your giraffe-necked, knob-kneed correspondent fit nicely in the rear seat (there are two more inches of leg space than the Prius).

Mrs. Payne, a compact car fan, declared herself satisfied with the well-rounded Ioniq except for rear-visibility issues.

After my week behind the wheel, I concur. Rear visibility is generous only of you compare it to a cave-like Camaro. The fashionable split-window and huge c-pillar make it seem like you’re peering out from inside a wedge of Swiss cheese. But otherwise the driving experience is pleasant. The interior is tomb-quiet, the Elantra-based chassis solid.

Despite just 104 gerbils — er, horses (11 more than Prius) — under the hood, the 1.56-kilowatt battery-assist makes for typically peppy hybrid acceleration.

Peppy enough to launch me into 90-degree right-handers at a pretty good clip — at which point the Ioniq’s eco-friendly rubber doughnuts hit the limit and the Ioniq dissolves into a sobbing heap of tire screams. Hey, if you want handling, get a Golf hatchback. Fuel efficiency? Get an Ioniq.

I got 47.9 mpg for the week, a far cry from the advertised 55 mpg. Still, with a range of 654 miles, the only thing I needed a service station for was a newspaper.

The cabin design is so driver-friendly, Ikea could adopt it for lounge furniture. Everything is where it should be: lidded bin, storage cup for wallet or phone, two cup holders, vertical slot for files or laptop. In a neat trick of packaging the Ioniq does away with the 12-volt starter battery. And then there’s Hyundai’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity advantage over Toyota — though, judging from Uber forums’ chatter, it’s not yet compatible with the Uber app.

Still, a ride-share winner the Ioniq is. The same qualities will endear it to greens. My wife’s pal Laurie is a longtime Prius owner and the Ioniq fit her like a glove. She liked the styling, increased room and the fuel economy — but balked at the deep well of trunk (compared to Prius) which means awkward lifts of heavy objects over the bumper.

The Ioniq’s $1,275 lower sticker price got her attention. Loaded Prius leases have been creeping into the low $400s-a-month leaving room to steal some customers with savvy pricing. Hyundai also offers a lifetime battery warranty and best-in-auto 10-year/100,000 mile drivetrain coverage.

Once dependent on government credits to sell, affordability and practicality are hybrids’ new secret sauce for owners and Ubers alike.

Toyota has the icon. Hyundai the Ioniq. The hybrid that doesn’t look weird. Game on.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Hyundai Ioiq Hybrid

Vehicle type

Front-engine, front-

wheel drive, hybrid hatchback


1.6-liter inline 4-cylinder with lithium-ion battery assist


Six-speed, dual-clutch automatic


3,172 pounds as tested


$23, 035 ($25,910 SEL

as tested)


138 horsepower (combined 104-horsepower gas engine and 32-kW electric motor)


0-60 mph, 10.5 seconds

(Car and Driver)

Fuel economy

EPA 55 mpg city/54 highway/

55 combined

Report card


Excellent interior accommodations;

55 mpg, ’nuff said


Poor rear visibility;

high mpg, low thrills


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★