Toyota and Hyundai have become direct rivals in the plug-in hybrid market, with today's New York motor show introduction of the Toyota Prius Prime and Hyundai Ioniq. Both companies hope to secure a larger share of the growing global segment, but what sets the two apart?
Like the Toyota Prius, the Hyundai Ioniq is available in both standard hybrid and plug-in hybrid - as well as full-electric, which puts it one-up on the Prius. But, for both line-ups, it’s the new plug-in hybrids that are likely to prove ground-breaking and a stepping-stone to full-electric vehicles for most buyers.
Hyundai Australia has already indicated that it will seek to bring the plug-in version of the Ioniq next year while Toyota Australia has ruled out plug-ins for the foreseeable future, claiming that the Australian market is not ready yet for such a car.
Nonetheless, with the Prius Prime a seemingly wasted opportunity for Toyota in Australia, the Ioniq plug-in may be Hyundai Australia's answer for an affordable plug-in city car that has reasonable electric-only range with the advantage of an extended and very fuel-efficient total range.
But is it a comparable choice to the Prius Prime, or will it be a case of being the only choice in our market?
The Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid has a 35-kilometre pure EV range, while the Ioniq plug-in hybrid claims more than 40km. Relatively even, then.
Both use a lithium-ion battery, with the Prime’s at 8.8kWh while the Ioniq gets a slightly larger one at 8.9kWh.
The difference is more evident in the drivetrain, with the Prius matching its petrol engine to two electric motors (with the pair reportedly producing an unconfirmed 66kW of power), against the Ioniq's petrol engine and single 45kW electric motor.
The Prime is stuck with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), while the Ioniq is equipped with a dual-clutch six-speed transmission for a better driving feel. This is also the case for the standard Prius and Ioniq hybrids.
According to Hyundai, this adds an extra element of sporty drive that is missing from eco-friendly cars today.
To the Prius Prime’s advantage, the interior is almost a mini-Tesla with a floating vertical 11.9-inch screen that controls a great deal of functionality. Also its exterior design is refreshing, and a huge step above the standard fourth-generation Prius. On the other hand, the Ioniq is more conservative in its appearance and the interior is not as sophisticated or futuristic.
What the Hyundai Ioniq plug-in hybrid has going for it, more than anything, is the potential pricing. The standard fourth-generation Toyota Prius starts from $34,990 for the base spec, while the higher-grade iTech is priced at a staggering $43,990.
In contrast, CarAdvice believes that Hyundai Australia is aiming to bring the Ioniq plug-in hybrid into the country at or under $40,000, which will mean the standard Ioniq hybrid (if it even comes) will be well below that.
That’s without mentioning the fact that, unlike the new Prius, even the regular Ioniq hybrid uses lithium batteries instead of the relatively 'old tech' Nickel-metal hydride still used in the Toyota.
On paper, Toyota not having a plug-in hybrid available locally - and having to compete with a more advanced product - would likely put a dent in Prius sales.
But, even Toyota America, which will offer the Prius Prime against the Ioniq plug-in hybrid, is hoping the car’s reputation will carry more weight than its South Korean rival’s better specification.
“We think not focusing on one thing but focusing on the whole vehicle itself [will be the Prime’s selling point]. There’s an awful lot of advantages to the consumer and a lot that we will be able to market,” Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota division at Toyota USA, told CarAdvice at the New York motor show today in response to how Toyota will deal with the Ioniq’s better specification.
“They have a new product, it’s great that they are in the market and they will be pushing it, but I think with the Prius name in the market and the reputation that it has, we will benefit from that as more and more people learn about and understand the difference between hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electrics. I think that will only benefit the segment and Prius long term.”
That may be the case in the US, but, in Australia, Hyundai understands that having a plug-in hybrid first in that price segment will help it get the jump on Toyota, with Hyundai Australia communications manager, Bill Thomas, admitting that being first is important.
“In theory, launching a conventional hybrid would just make us a follower or an also ran, so [our] early preferences are for the higher-tech PHEV.” Thomas told CarAdvice.
With the drop in petrol and diesel prices, regular hybrid models have become less appealing to buyers than they have been in the past. The shift “has made it difficult to forecast how things will shape up,” he said, “and the market seems to be trending away from simple green options”.
“While Ioniq is a brand statement and not about volume, we need to be sure that the market finds our car appealing.”
In contrast, Toyota Australia product public relations manager, Stephen Coughlan, told CarAdvice today that “at this time, we have no plans to offer the Prius Prime or any plug-in models locally.”
Toyota sold just 459 Prius last year, down from 487 the year before, making it only second-last to the Rukus in its passenger segment.
Whether the Ioniq can beat those numbers with its plug-in hybrid remains to be seen, but even if it doesn’t, it will help create the required awareness at a certain price point, which currently doesn’t exist.