Hyundai Ioniq targets Prius, but not in sales

Hybrid plays crucial role in brand’s electrification push

Hybrid plays crucial role in brand’s electrification push

The Ioniq’s hybrid technology forms the basis for more green cars to come.

SEOUL — Hyundai Motor Co. aims to beat the Toyota Prius at its own game with the new Hyundai Ioniq hybrid, the Korean brand’s first dedicated hybrid.

The Ioniq not only targets Prius-like fuel economy, it edges the world’s best-selling hybrid on power, performance and size. Its styling is also arguably less polarizing.

The Ioniq’s modest sales target of 77,000 a year globally shows that Hyundai grasps the challenge ahead in taking on a car almost synonymous with hybrid driving.

In contrast, the fourth-generation Prius has booked 100,000 orders in Japan alone since going on sale there in December.

Even if the Ioniq doesn’t come close to the Prius’ volume, though, the new nameplate plays an equally important role for its brand.

For starters, it kicks off a bold electrification push for Hyundai and its sibling brand, Kia. The Ioniq’s hybrid technology is the same that underpins the Kia Niro hybrid crossover and forms the basis for a blitz of other upcoming hybrids and plug-ins.

Hyundai plans to introduce 22 eco-friendly models by 2020.

It also bolsters another important strategy for Hyundai: the birth of its Genesis luxury brand. With Genesis’ lineup of big and powerful engines, exemplified by the G90’s 5.0-liter V-8, Hyundai needs more green cars to meet corporate average fuel economy rules.

The new hybrid offerings should also improve Hyundai’s reputation as a laggard in electrified drivetrain technology, said Andy Bae, IHS Automotive’s senior analyst for Korea.

In some ways, the Ioniq matches or even exceeds the Prius.

It starts with the car’s superslick aerodynamic hatchback silhouette. Unlike the Prius, which pushes the styling envelope with jagged angles and bold tail fins, the Ioniq cleaves closer to conventional. Hyundai executives take pains to emphasize the car does not look like a hybrid.

That styling may cast a wider net of potential customers.

Hyundai Ioniq vs. Toyota Prius

While Toyota touts the redesigned Prius as low and sporty, the Ioniq is lower and wider. It generates more horsepower and pips the Prius in 0-to-60 mph times. Hyundai’s hybrid also gets a responsive six-speed dual-clutch transmission, which purists may favor over the Prius’ continuously variable one.

The Ioniq has not yet received an EPA fuel economy rating; the car goes on sale in the U.S. in the second half of the year. But under South Korea’s testing regimen, it scores a 52.7 mpg, putting it in the same realm as the Prius’ 52 mpg city/highway combined. Hyundai has not yet announced U.S. pricing.

Unlike Toyota, Hyundai can’t count on a solid base of home-market hybrid sales.

In hybrid-hungry Japan, Toyota sells around 70,000 Priuses a year. In South Korea, though, less than 4 percent of passenger-vehicle sales are hybrids, vs. around 20 percent in Japan.

Korean drivers like bigger, more powerful cars and when they think eco-friendly, they tend to think clean diesel, said Toru Hatano, an IHS Automotive powertrain analyst.

Toyota sold only 1,600 Priuses there in 2015. Hyundai aims to sell 15,000 Ioniqs a year in South Korea.

North America, however, is expected to account for more than half of the Ioniq’s global volume, Rhim Byung-kwon, senior vice president for international sales, said at a drive event here. That implies around 40,000 sales. The Prius hatchback’s U.S. sales in 2015 totaled 113,829.

In the U.S., the biggest challenge may be cracking Prius’ stranglehold on environmental street cred.

“The Prius is so well known on a global basis, it is almost a legend,” Bae said. “The fight will be very competitive.”

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