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Hyundai Kona electric car 2021 review: Electric Highlander


I was a huge fan of the original Hyundai Kona electric. When I first drove it in 2019, I considered it the best EV on sale in Australia.

And it wasn't just because it was relatively good value and offered the right amount of range for Australian commuters. It also offered the feedback early adopters would be after, with the convenience first-time EV owners would need.

Now that this entirely new-look facelift has arrived, will those factors still ring true in a rapidly expanding electric car landscape? We’ve driven a top-spec Highlander to find out.

Price and features - Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?

The Kona Electric is still expensive, don’t get me wrong. There’s no denying small SUV buyers will be turning their collective noses up when the electric version costs literally twice as much as its combustion equivalent.

When it comes to electric vehicles, though, the value equation is quite different. When you place the balance of range, features, size, and price against its rivals, the Kona actually comes out a lot better than you might think.

Look at it this way, the Kona is significantly more expensive than the base Nissan Leaf and MG ZS EV, but also significantly cheaper than rivals which offer more range, like the Teslas, Audis, and Mercedes-Benz models now sitting within Australia’s broadening EV landscape.

The Kona EV could be the best electric car in Australia. The Kona EV could be the best electric car in Australia.

And range is the key. Able to make use of a whopping 484km range (on the WLTP test cycle), the Kona is one of the few EVs actually capable of matching a petrol car between ‘refills’, essentially removing the idea of range anxiety for suburban commuters.

The Kona electric is also much more than just another variant, with some significant changes to its specification and interior to at least partially make up for the massive price delta between it and the petrol version.

Leather seat trim is standard on the base Elite, as is a fully digital instrument cluster, 10.25-inch multimedia touchscreen with EV-specific function screens, an overhauled bridge centre console design with fly-by-wire controls, a wireless charging bay, extended soft-touch materials throughout the cabin, halogen headlights with LED DRLs, acoustic glass (to deal with the lack of ambient noise), as well as rear parking sensors and a reversing camera.

Inside is a 10.25-inch multimedia touchscreen. Inside is a 10.25-inch multimedia touchscreen.

The top-spec Highlander gains LED headlights (with adaptive high beams), LED indicators and tail-lights, front parking sensors, power adjustable front seats, heated and cooled front seats and outboard heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, the option of either a glass sunroof or contrast roof colour, auto-dimming rear vision mirror, and a holographic head-up display.

The top-spec Highlander gains LED headlights. The top-spec Highlander gains LED headlights.

A full suite of active safety functions, which we’ll explore later in this review, is standard across both variants, and each is motivated by the same motor, so no differences there.

It’s disappointing to see the Elite, or any electric car in 2021, with halogen light fittings, and the plethora of heating functions for the seats and wheel are interesting as we’re told they’re a more battery efficient way of heating the vehicles occupants, and therefore maximise range. You have to keep some things for the top-spec car, but again, it’s a shame Elite buyers won’t be able to benefit from these range-saving measures.

Design - Is there anything interesting about its design?

One look at the EV, and the Kona’s most recent facelift starts to make a lot more sense. While the petrol variants come across as a bit wacky and divisive, the sleek and pared back look of the electric version has me thinking Hyundai designed this facelift for the EV alone.

The Kona feels futuristic. The Kona feels futuristic.

The front three-quarter is eye-grabbing, with its distinct lack of facial features, and the look pairs nicely with the new hero 'Surfy Blue' colour. Some may consider the EV's eco-look 17-inch alloys a bit dorky, and again, it’s a shame Halogen headlights take away from the Elite's futuristic design points.

The electric Highlander wears 17-inch alloy wheels. The electric Highlander wears 17-inch alloy wheels.

On the topic of futuristic design, the Kona electric’s interior is almost unrecognisable from the petrol variants. This is good news given the price discrepancy, with the brand not only adopting the floating ‘bridge’ console design, adorned with fly-by-wire controls from its more upmarket models, but also upgrading the materials throughout to make for a much nicer cabin environment.

The Kona electric’s interior is almost unrecognisable from the petrol variants. The Kona electric’s interior is almost unrecognisable from the petrol variants.

Door cards and dash inserts are clad in soft-touch materials, while many of the finishes have improved or been switched for a satin silver to lift cabin ambiance, and the heavily digitised cockpit makes it feel as cutting-edge as any electric car should.

There's a fully digital instrument cluster. There's a fully digital instrument cluster.

That said, it doesn’t have the over-the-top minimalism of the Tesla Model 3, and is perhaps better for it, especially when it comes to appealing to someone coming out of a combustion vehicle. The layout and feel of the Kona is futuristic, yet familiar.

Practicality - How practical is the space inside?

Hyundai has done its best to lean into the benefits of the Kona’s electric underpinnings. The front seats are where this is most felt, as the brand’s new bridge console allows for a huge new storage area underneath, complete with a 12V socket and USB outlet. 

The front seats are power adjustable with a heating and cooling setting. The front seats are power adjustable with a heating and cooling setting.

Above, the usual storage areas remain present, including a small centre console armrest box, decent size dual cupholders, and a small stowage bay below the climate unit with the primary USB outlet and a wireless charging bay.

In each door there is a large bottle holder with a small trench for objects. I found the cabin very adjustable in the Highlander, although one thing worth noting is the light seat trim in our test car was wearing dark from jeans and the like on the door side of the base. I’d be picking the darker interior trim for practicality purposes.

Up front is a small centre console armrest box and decent cupholders. Up front is a small centre console armrest box and decent cupholders.

The back seat is a less positive story. The rear seat of the Kona was already pretty tight for an SUV, but it’s worse here because the floor level has been lifted up to facilitate the huge battery pack beneath. 

This means instead of having a small gap for my knees, they are lifted to a position hard-up against the driver’s seat, when set to my own (182cm/6'0"tall) driving position. 

The rear seat of the Kona was pretty tight. The rear seat of the Kona was pretty tight.

Thankfully, the width is okay, and the improved soft-touch trims continue into the rear doors and drop-down centre armrest. There are also small bottle holders in the doors which just fit our large 500ml test bottle, flimsy nets on the backs of the front seats, and an odd little tray and USB outlet on the back of the centre console. 

Rear passengers don’t get adjustable air vents, but in the Highlander the outboard seats are heated, a rare feature usually saved for high-end luxury vehicles. Like all Kona variants, the Electric has two ISOFIX child-seat mounting points on these seats, with three top tethers across the rear row.

Boot space is 332L (VDA) which is not great, but not bad. Smaller cars in this segment (petrol or otherwise) will land a bit over 250L, while really impressive examples will sit above 400L. Take it as a win that it’s only around 40L down on the petrol variant. It still fit our three-piece CarsGuide demo luggage set, with parcel shelf removed.

  • Boot space is rated at 332L VDA. Boot space is rated at 332L VDA.
  • The Kona managed to fit still fit our three-piece CarsGuide luggage set. The Kona managed to fit still fit our three-piece CarsGuide luggage set.

The boot floor comes with a convenient net for when you need to carry around a public charging cable as we did, and under the floor there is a tyre repair kit and a tidy storage case for the (included) wall socket charging cable.

Drivetrain - What are the key stats for the drivetrain?

No matter which Kona electric variant you choose, it is motivated by the same permanent magnet synchronous motor producing 150kW/395Nm, which drives the front wheels via a single-speed ‘reduction gear’ transmission

This outpunches many lesser electric cars, as well as most small SUVs generally, although it falls short of the kind of performance offered by Tesla’s Model 3.

The Kona is powered by a permanent magnet synchronous motor producing 150kW/395Nm. The Kona is powered by a permanent magnet synchronous motor producing 150kW/395Nm.

Three levels of regenerative braking are available through this car’s paddle-shift system, and the motor and associated components sit in the Kona’s usual engine bay, so there’s no extra storage up front.

Energy consumption - How much does it consume? What’s the range like, and what it’s like to recharge/refuel?

Now the interesting stuff. A few weeks before this review I tested the updated Hyundai Ioniq Electric, which impressed me with how efficient it was. In fact, at that time, the Ioniq was the most efficient electric car by kWh I'd ever driven.

I didn’t think the Kona would best it, but after a week of testing in mainly urban conditions, the Kona returned a stellar figure of 11.8kWh/100km against its large 64kWh battery pack.

 The Kona’s battery pack is charged through a single European-standard Type 2 CCS port. The Kona’s battery pack is charged through a single European-standard Type 2 CCS port.

Alarmingly good, especially since this car’s official/combined test figure is 14.7kWh/100km, which would normally grant 484km of range. With our as-tested figure, you’ll note it could return well over 500km of range.

Important to remember that electric cars are significantly more efficient around town (thanks to the constant use of regenerative braking), and note the stark difference the new ‘low rolling resistance’ tyres have made to this car’s range and consumption.

The Kona’s battery pack is a Lithium-ion type and is charged through a single European-standard Type 2 CCS port located prominently at the front. On DC combo charging, the Kona can power up at a max rate of 100kW, allowing for a 10 – 80 per cent charge time of 47 minutes. Most chargers around Australia’s capital cities, however, are 50kW locations, which will do the same in around 64 minutes.

On AC charging, the Kona’s max rate is just 7.2kW, charging from 10 – 100 per cent in nine hours. On AC charging, the Kona’s max rate is just 7.2kW, charging from 10 – 100 per cent in nine hours.

Frustratingly, on AC charging, the Kona’s max rate is just 7.2kW, charging from 10 – 100 per cent in nine hours. It would be nice to see at least the option of an 11kW inverter in the future, allowing you to add much more range in an hour or two at convenient AC spots which are popping up around local supermarkets.

Still, the Kona has excellent range and the best efficiency for the money you’re paying.

Safety - What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?

There’s no compromise on safety in these highly specified electric variants, with both getting the full Hyundai ‘SmartSense’ treatment.

Active items include freeway-speed auto emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane keep assist with lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring with collision assist, rear cross-traffic alert and rear auto braking, adaptive cruise control with stop and go function, driver attention alert, safe exit warning, and rear occupant alert. 

The Highlander grade scores the addition of auto high-beam assist to go with its LED headlights and head-up display.

On the expected front, the Kona has stability management, brake support functions, traction control, and the standard suite of six airbags. A bonus is tyre pressure monitoring, rear parking sensors with a distance display, as well as front parking sensors on the Highlander.

It’s an impressive suite which is up there with the best in the small SUV segment, although we should expect this on a $60K+ electric vehicle. As this Kona is a facelift, it will carry over its maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating it was awarded back in 2017.

Ownership - What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?

The Kona is covered by the brand’s industry competitive five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, with its lithium battery components covered by a separate eight-year/160,000km promise that appears to be emerging as the industry standard. While this promise is competitive, it is now challenged by its Kia Niro cousin which carries a seven year/unlimited kilometre warranty.

The Kona is covered by Hyundai's five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. The Kona is covered by Hyundai's five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty.

At the time of writing Hyundai had not yet locked in its usual capped price servicing program for the updated Kona EV, but the pre-update model was outstandingly cheap to service at just $165 per yearly visit for the first five years. And why shouldn’t it be? There aren’t as many moving parts.

Driving - What's it like to drive?

The Kona EV drive experience matches its familiar-yet-futuristic looks. From behind the wheel everything will be instantly familiar for anyone coming out of a combustion vehicle. Aside from the lack of a shift lever, everything feels more or less the same, although there are plenty of areas where the Kona electric will delight and surprise.

For a start, there's the ease of using its electric features. The car offers three levels of regenerative braking, and while I prefer diving it with the maximum setting. In this mode it's essentially a single-pedal vehicle, as the regen is so aggressive it will bring the vehicle to a halt quickly after letting your foot of the accelerator.

It also has a familiar zero setting for those not wanting any braking from the motor, and an excellent default automatic mode, which will only max out the regen when the car thinks you’re pulling to a halt.

The steering is nicely weighted, feeling assisted but not overly so, and allowing you to position this heavy little SUV with ease. I say heavy because the Kona electric feels it in every sense of the word. A 64kWh battery pack is a lot of weight, with the Electric tipping the scales at around 1700kg.

It’s a testament to Hyundai’s focus on suspension tuning, globally and locally, that it still feels so under control. While it can be abrupt at times, the ride is generally great, balanced over both axles with an edge of sportiness in the corners. 

It’s easy to take this for granted, as I learned the week prior in my test of the MG ZS EV. Unlike the Kona Electric, this small SUV newcomer struggles to deal with the weight of its batteries and tall ride height, serving up a spongy, uneven ride.

Points for taming gravity, then. Push the Kona too hard and the tyres will struggle to keep up, with dabs of wheelspin and understeer when pushed, perhaps related to the fact that this vehicle started life as a petrol car. 

It doesn’t quite have the surreal grip of, say, a Tesla Model 3. Nor does it have the raw power and acceleration the Teslas provide. At least the motor feels like it has a little too much power rather than not quite enough as can be the case with the tame-but-smooth Nissan Leaf. Either way, the Kona’s ride and demeanor is a pleasure around town.

Key to this car’s success for early adopters, though, is not just its balance of ride and performance, but its powertrain feedback. Those who are looking for how their driving behaviours are directly affecting efficiency and range will love this car’s numerous screens and functions, tied in with the nav system which will point you to the nearest charging bays and give you a top-down view of your max range on the map as you drive.

Again, it’s not as sleek and internet-era ready as the impressive Tesla operating system, but it’s familiar and accessible for someone looking for an EV which is a bit more approachable.

On a final note, this car makes a cool sci-fi noise. It’s a pleasant choral ringing sound it generates at low speeds to alert pedestrians of its presence (who are often puzzled by the note it emits). It also makes a quiet bonging noise in reverse. 

Sounds like a small thing, but in my recent Tesla Model 3 review I found its silence annoying and potentially dangerous when there are pedestrians around. 

I’m pleased to say this update of the Kona Electric confirms my initial thoughts about it. This is still my favourite electric car on sale in Australia. It’s the most approachable for first-time EV buyers while also offering enough of a futuristic touch and all-important feedback for keen early adopters.

It faces tough competition, however, from Tesla’s very good entry-level Model 3, which is an impressive but perhaps less approachable package - which also offers slightly less range, at a slightly higher price.

We hope to bring these head-to-head at some point, so stay tuned. For now, Hyundai’s Kona Electric updates have served to make an already-good EV even better.

$66,000

Based on new car retail price

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

Score

4/5
Disclaimer: The pricing information shown in the editorial content (Review Prices) is to be used as a guide only and is based on information provided to Carsguide Autotrader Media Solutions Pty Ltd (Carsguide) both by third party sources and the car manufacturer at the time of publication. The Review Prices were correct at the time of publication.  Carsguide does not warrant or represent that the information is accurate, reliable, complete, current or suitable for any particular purpose. You should not use or rely upon this information without conducting an independent assessment and valuation of the vehicle.