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Payne: Hawaii-inspired Hyundai Kona EV meets Detroit winter

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I have been to Kona, the beautiful western region of Hawaii’s big island from which the Hyundai Kona electric SUV got its name.

Kona’s sandy beaches, palm trees and temperate climate contrast with the frigid Detroit January snow globe in which I first tested the cute new ute.

The Hyundai EV’s 258-mile battery range might have been calculated in the 80-degree paradise where cars cruise the sun-kissed coast, popping into the Kona Commons Shopping Center charging station to top off on electrons while browsing the local Target. If it had been calculated on my snow-caked commutes around Metro Detroit’s winter tundra desperately seeking a charging station, the figures would have been more modest.

Like half.

Your mileage may vary. The 2019 Hyundai Kona EV advertises 258 miles of range — better than the Chevy Bolt — but in Michigan's sub-20-degree polar vortex, range dropped by 50 percent.

Which is a shame because I really, really like EVs like the Kona. The Hyundai is a direct competitor to the Chevy Bolt, the hatchback that beat the Tesla Model 3 to market as the first electric to boast 200-plus miles of range. Like the Tesla and Bolt, the Hyundai’s inherent physics make for a fun, different daily driver.

With its batteries under the floor (Hyundai’s clever architecture can accommodate gas or electric drivetrains without altering interior space), the Kona’s low center of gravity offers excellent handling despite its taller sport-utility stature. And the Kona copies the Bolt’s clever regenerative paddle feature — steering-wheel-mounted paddles that use the electric motor to brake and recharge the battery.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s no Model 3 — the Tesla sedan’s rear-wheel-drive layout puts it on par with the best German luxe athletes. But the Bolt and Kona front-wheel-drive platforms offer better all-weather potential.

Which is why EV’s battery Achilles heel is so maddening.

With temps in the low teens on the last Saturday of the Detroit auto show, I aimed my $44,650 Kona Ultimate model downtown. The robust 64-kWh battery pack stores about 75 percent of the energy of my $57,500 Model 3. But it still packs an impressive 290 pound-feet of torque so I could nail the throttle for quick passes on the Lodge.

Stoplight acceleration is similarly instantaneous. The front tires chirping on the cold pavement for a healthy 6.4-second zero-60 dash (a 10th of a second quicker than the Bolt).

Toggling the regen paddle as well as using the Eco drive-mode setting for maximum regeneration, I never touched the brake pedal on the trip downtown. I told you EVs are different.

We're a long way from Hawaii, Toto. The 2019 Hyundai Kona EV gets its best electric range in warm climates.

But the fun stops at the parking garage. My go-to garage near Cobo has only a few spots for EV charging and they usually aren’t available when I arrive for work. My Saturday luck was better — but as I plugged in to the Chargepoint-managed meter, the clock began to tick. EV courtesy demands you plug in for a limit of three hours before vacating the space for another electron-starved soul.

I returned after two hours having gained 45 miles of range on the 240-volt Level 2 charger. That’s a lot of time for so little range. Especially in Detroit’s cold.

The 2019 Hyundai Kona EV's range dropped quickly in Detroit's 20-degree weather.

My 28-mile trip home in 20-degree weather sucked 56 miles of range out of the Kona’s battery. That translates to a total battery range of just 129 miles, not the 258 in Hawaii’s climate (Car and Driver got 160 miles in their December test). And it’s a long way from the 360-mile range of the gas-powered, all-wheel drive, 1.6-liter turbo-4 Kona.

Which is why most folks will buy the more affordable, $29,775 gas Kona Ultimate ($15,000 cheaper than the Kona EV Ultimate) I tested last year. And it's why the Kona EV is only on sale in nine states that mandate zero-emission vehicles (the closest ZEV state to Michigan is New York). If you want it here, you’ll have to special-order.

But, if ...

1. you have a second gasoline-powered car for out-of-town trips to grandma’s house, and
2. you just need an EV for Metro Detroit commuting, and
3. you are willing to invest in a 240-volt charger for your garage

... then the Kona EV might just be the car for you. At a base price of $37,495 (without the leather and safety-assist frills of the Ultimate trim) it fills the space promised by the mythical $35,000 Tesla Model 3.

The 2019 Hyundai Kona EV swaps out the gas car's tall shifter for transmission buttons in the center console.

And, like the Model 3, it looks cool — cooler than its geeky, gas-powered sibling. The EV sheds much of the excessive ornamentation (not to mention unnecessary grille to feed the gas-engine air) of the standard Kona for a simpler wardrobe. The grille is replaced by barely noticeable chicken feet that help disguise the front charging plug door. And the cladding has been removed from the mid-face headlights.

The result is the upper running lights — connected by a thin chrome strip — dominate the face like a Tesla Model X SUV.

Add aero wheels and the Kona EV is a looker, even when buried under six inches of snow. I grunted into the blizzard, toggling on the Kona EV’s welcome heated steering wheel and heated seats. Like the Bolt, the Kona is well-appointed inside, including the latest electronic goo-gaws like Apple CarPlay and an e-shifter that opens up a nice sub-console storage pocket.

The EV is limited to front-wheel drive, which puts it at a disadvantage to much cheaper subcompact utes (the gas Kona, Chevy Trax, Ford Ecosport, etc.) as well as bigger, comparably priced compact luxury utes like the Acura MDX or Cadillac XT4.

The $37,000 2019 Hyundai Kona EV is expensive for a small ute, but is a good Metro Detroit commuter car for those who like EV torque, operation, and have a 240-volt charger in their garage.

Managing 290-pound feet of torque through the front wheels on a zero-60 run is fun. But in snow, it’s diabolical as the Kona EV’s traction-control system struggled to manage grip.

On hills, traction-control would starve power, forcing me to flick off traction-control altogether and claw my way to speed, the front tires flinging snow like a dog digging for a bone. Ah, my kingdom for all-wheel drive.

All this churning about in snowy, 21-degree conditions continued to burn nearly two miles of battery range for every mile traveled (not to mention about 10 miles in vampire losses overnight in the cold).

Like other EVs, Kona is a niche product for enthusiasts looking for something different — one-pedal-driving, drive-by-paddle, spartan design — that never has to visit a gas station.

But its optimal performance would be realized by someone living in Kona, Hawaii. Which is where all us freezing Detroiters would like to live about now.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Hyundai Kona EV

Vehicle type: Front-motor, front-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $37,495 base, including $1,045 destination fee ($45,695 Ultimate model as tested) 

Powerplant: AC motor with 64-kWh lithium-ion battery pack

Power: 201 horsepower; 290 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: One-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 110 mph

Weight: 3,767 pounds 

Fuel economy: 258-mile range (129 miles observed in polar vortex)

Report card

Highs: Snazzy looks; all-season utility

Lows: Pricey for a subcompact ute; range plummets in cold temps

Overall: 3 stars