It’s taken two decades for the world’s most famous hybrid to face a direct rival. Can the Prius hold its ground against Hyundai’s first petrol-electric play, the Ioniq?
Is the poster child of the hybrid-car generation, the Toyota Prius, becoming the forgotten ‘green’ car? Last year, the world’s most famous petrol-electric model recorded its lowest sales figure in Australia since its 2001 debut (when back then it was very much a novelty).
A 2012 anomaly aside – when sales of the regular Prius were seemingly boosted by interest in an expanded Prius family, including the Prius C city car and Prius V people-mover – Prius sales have been in decline since they peaked at 3413 units in 2008. In 2019, just 180 Priuses were sold – down 23 per cent year on year. It reflects a global picture.
The Prius can hardly be considered a failure, however. The Prius (silently) propelled hybrid vehicles into the mainstream and laid the foundations for a raft of hybrid variants in Toyota’s regular models.
You can now get petrol-electric versions of the C-HR, Corolla, RAV4 and, of course, still the Camry. More than half of Camry sales are the hybrid, Corolla hybrid sales have never been higher (now more than a third), and there’s a waiting list for hybrid versions of the all-new RAV4 (accounting for 40 per cent of the SUV’s sales).
They all have broader appeal than the Prius, of course, so it’s no coincidence hybrid sales have rocketed in 2019 – up 65 per cent in the private passenger car market, and by 731 per cent for privately purchased SUVs, given the RAV4 is the first hybrid SUV outside of the prestige market (government/fleet/commercial hybrid sales are also up in significant numbers).
Staying with the Prius, though, Toyota’s halo hybrid has rarely faced a direct rival.
Honda, the first manufacturer to offer a hybrid here with its quirky two-seater Insight, has since dabbled only with electric assistance for its internal combustion engines.
But in late 2018, Hyundai decided to make up for lost time in the ‘green car’ arena by introducing not one but three types of electrified vehicle, all badged Ioniq: a regular hybrid, a plug-in hybrid and a pure electric variant.
As Toyota has continued to snub plug-in versions of the Prius already available overseas, it’s the regular Hyundai Ioniq hybrid that steps into this contest.
Pricing and features
The Hyundai Ioniq range has been refreshed already for MY20, bringing design tweaks to the interior and exterior, a new infotainment system, and uprated battery for the Electric model.
Pricing for the Ioniq hybrid has increased $800 to $34,790 for the entry Elite, or by $1000 for the $39,990 Premium.
Hyundai’s new 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen – set to eventually roll out across the Korean brand’s vehicle line-up – is standard on the Elite. Driver-aid technology includes monitoring for blind spots and rear cross traffic, lane-keep assist, auto high beam, and low- and high-speed AEB.
New-design 15-inch wheels with hubcaps are less about tight-fisted product planners and more about lower fuel economy.
The high cost of battery technology, however, is evident in the extra $5200 required for the Hybrid Premium – because only then does a long list of extras bring virtual equipment parity with an i30 N Line Premium that costs $34,990.
It also means that the base Toyota Prius, while starting higher at $36,590, trumps the entry-level Ioniq Hybrid with adaptive cruise control (with stop-go functionality), LED headlights, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, head-up display and wireless smartphone charger.
(We’d also recommend saving thousands by skipping the $44,050 i-Tech Prius, which is a big jump for a model only adding leather-accented seats with heating up front, keyless entry all doors, 17-inch wheels, and blind spot and rear traffic monitoring.)
Toyota and Hyundai both offer five-year warranties for the vehicles while varying factory cover for the hybrid batteries. Hyundai’s battery warranty extends to eight years or 160,000km; Toyota’s battery warranty goes up to 10 years (unlimited kilometres), provided the owner adheres to official servicing checks.
Servicing schedules are more of a hassle with the Prius, though. Toyota dictates maintenance visits every six months or 10,000km, if at least at a reasonable $165 a time. Hyundai spaces service visits out at 12-month or 15,000km intervals
It’s strange considering other Toyota hybrid variants – such as from the Corolla and Camry ranges – are 12-month/15,000km arrangements (though a bit more expensive).
Toyota's capped pricing is $165 per visit for the first six visits (three years or 60,000km), then $220, $423, $280 and $482 to five years. Service costs quoted for the Ioniq’s first five years are $265 per visit, with the exception of the fourth check-up, which is $465.
The hybrid systems
The Toyota and Hyundai hybrid systems share some commonalities, though also have some technical differences.
Both petrol engines employ the Atkinson cycle approach that trades some low-down torque for better thermal efficiency – making them more effective than your average petrol combustion engine at converting burned fuel into mechanical movement.
The engines make better sense for hybrids, which can compensate for the lower initial torque courtesy of their electric motors. (The Prius’s CVT auto is also calibrated to keep it away from that lower rev range as much as possible.)
Toyota opts for a 1.8-litre petrol engine, whereas Hyundai’s four-cylinder is a 1.6-litre.
Hyundai employs a more advanced lithium-ion battery – packing more energy density into more compact dimensions compared with the Prius’s nickel-metal hydride battery that Toyota has persisted with, and continually developed, since the start. (The Prius plug-in available overseas uses a lithium-ion battery, however.)
The Prius’s battery is now positioned under the rear seats, moving from beneath the boot floor.
Power and torque are similar for the two petrol engines. The Ioniq’s 77kW/147Nm plays the Prius’s 72kW/142Nm. The Toyota counters with a more powerful electric motor – 53kW versus 32kW – though the Ioniq presents the higher combined power output.
The Hyundai’s dual-motor drivetrain produces 104kW compared with 90kW for the Prius (which, as with the Corolla hybrid, drops from the 100kW of the previous-generation model as updates prioritised efficiency and responsiveness).
And for another differentiator: the Prius uses an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (e-CVT), whereas the Ioniq mates its petrol engine with a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
The Prius has continually improved its rate of fuel use over 18 years and four generations. The 2001 original had official consumption of 4.6L/100km (city) and 4.2L/100km (highway), yet today’s model is down to 3.4L/100km despite being larger and heavier.
Kudos to Hyundai, then, for matching that impressively low figure straight out of the hybrid box with the Ioniq.
Or another perspective is that it proves Toyota has done its utmost to optimise fuel economy for a mid-sized vehicle combining electric and internal-combustion motors.
In terms of emissions, the Ioniq is rated the smallest of fractions ahead: 79 grams of CO2 per 100km versus the Prius’s 80g/km.
Driving and fuel economy
All the variations above result in some key differences between the two hybrid vehicles on the road.
The Prius, with its more powerful electric motor, can be driven using electrons only for more sustained periods at low speeds – up to about 60km/h, provided the road is mainly flat. An EV mode can help delay the introduction of the petrol engine.
The Ioniq can get underway with electric power alone and for a short period at low speed, but for the majority of driving the petrol engine is involved – either assisted by the electric motor for more meaningful acceleration or getting up hills or working alone in steady-cruise driving.
This is reflected in the respective energy-flow monitors, which provide a dynamic graphic guide to what the petrol engine and electric motor are doing. It seemed easier to keep the Prius running purely on electricity than the Ioniq (the Hyundai’s graphics are much better, mind you).
But how does this all translate into the real-world fuel economy that’s at the very heart of a hybrid vehicle’s appeal?
As the identical official consumption quotes of 3.4 litres per 100km suggest, there’s little to split this dual-motored duo – though one model had a consistent edge during our testing.
In the first phase of our test drive in rush-hour traffic – where hybrids are at their best thanks to their ability to take off and run at low speed on electric power only – the Prius’s trip computer indicated consumption as low as 2.9L/100km compared with 3.1L/100km for the Ioniq.
The figures later increased to 3.8L/100km (Prius) and 3.7L/100km (Ioniq) after higher-speed travel through suburbs and some freeway time – when hybrids rely more on their petrol engines for acceleration.
And with further testing with a cruise through a national park and more suburban driving, the figures ended up with the same difference, albeit slightly lower: 3.7L/100km and 3.8L/100km.
How were we driving? Well, the Ioniq is good enough to tell you exactly how via one of its information displays. In our case we drove 75 per cent of the time economically, 23 per cent normally, and two per cent dynamically.
We were also on mostly flat, or flattish, roads. If you have more of a lead right foot or encounter hills on a daily basis, fuel consumption will inevitably be higher. But for two cars that never need to be plugged in to charge their battery pack, these are standout figures.
Interestingly, the Prius’s official consumption is based on the i-Tech variant on 17-inch wheels, and the company believes the figure would be even lower if they bothered testing the base model.
The Premium version of the Ioniq Hybrid suggests that would be the case. With bigger, 17-inch wheels and heavier kerb weight, official consumption for the Hyundai climbs to 3.9L/100km.
For hybrid-car buyers interested in performance, the Ioniq turns the tables – and relatively convincingly.
Using our GPS-based timing equipment (and averaged two-way runs), the Ioniq reached 60km/h from standstill in 4.6 seconds versus 4.9 seconds for the Prius. (Both quicker than your average city car or small car.)
For the more commonly used 0–100km/h measurement, the gap increased to more than a second: 10.1 seconds for the Hyundai; 11.2 seconds for the Toyota.
Using simply objective judgement, the Ioniq’s in-gear performance is also clearly superior. The Prius’s e-CVT, though, is much smoother than the obvious steps of the Ioniq’s dual-clutch auto. (The Ioniq also has a tendency to roll back on hills.)
The gearbox can make the Hyundai feel less responsive when wanting some incremental acceleration on light throttle, though the Ioniq is the more urgent when more is asked of the drivetrains. The Hyundai’s petrol engine also sounds more refined, even a touch sporty, in such cases.
Throttle response is also noticeably improved by switching to Sport mode (by flicking the Ioniq’s conventional gear lever to the right) – and more marked than if the Prius is put into Power mode (via a console button).
Overall, there feels like a more seamless operation of all the Toyota’s various, complex components.
And while the Ioniq has the performance advantage, the Prius arguably has all the performance you need in everyday driving. It’s both smooth and brisk getting underway from stationary, or from low speed if you’re looking to accelerate quickly into a traffic gap.
Lift off the accelerator pedals or press on the brake pedals, and both cars use the resulting kinetic energy to recharge their batteries (with battery levels indicated on both cars via displays). The Ioniq’s level of regeneration can be adjusted using the paddles behind the steering wheel. The higher settings are more effective at recharging the battery, but deceleration is more aggressive.
Both cars feel easy to drive and each hybrid provides a generally relaxing ride. The Prius just doesn’t fully absorb larger bumps or ridges, though the intrusions are fairly minor rather than rude jolts. The Ioniq’s suspension feels busier on bumpier sections of country roads.
Surprisingly, Toyota has struggled to improve the Prius’s brake pedal feel after nearly 20 years, whereas, first time out, it’s easy to judge how much pressure to apply to slow the Ioniq. You can gradually get used to the Prius’s braking, but Toyota has had more success with the Corolla and RAV4 hybrids, for example.
The Ioniq is also better to drive away from the city, with more accurate and slightly more direct steering that makes driving along scenic routes more satisfying. The Hyundai also has the grippier economy tyres of the two.
The Prius’s steering is vague on-centre, and on the gradual curves of multi-lane carriageways or freeways, and winding roads, it requires constant attention if the Toyota is not to start wandering left or right.
It’s much more agreeable in the city at lower speeds, especially as the steering is nothing but smooth and the Prius has the tighter turning circle.
Cabin comfort and practicality
Hyundai’s MY20 update for the Ioniq range includes a completely revised dashboard. It no longer looks as visually related to other Hyundai models, though CarAdvice understands the Ioniq’s impressive 10.25-inch, tablet-style infotainment touchscreen – literally central to the cabin upgrade – will gradually roll out across other models.
With its smartly and sharply presented graphics, swipeable menu pages and wealth of functions, it’s a step up in more than size compared with the 8.0-inch display typical of other Hyundai models. The rear-view camera image is also very clear.
The centre stack also looks less like a black slab of plastic when both the infotainment display and heating/ventilation panel – with its blue-lit LED touch-buttons – are on.
A bit more colour to the cabin wouldn’t go amiss, either. With its vast swathes of mostly grey plastics and grey upholstery, the Ioniq Hybrid’s interior is about as vibrant as an overcast day.
And a foot-operated park brake (as in the Prius) isn’t exactly advanced motoring.
Ahead of the driver, the instrument panel includes another digital display offering an array of information options. They include a digital speedo (as an alternative/complement to the main, analogue version), driving style (as previously mentioned), energy flow diagram, vertical rev counter bar, and trip details.
Australian versions of the MY19 Prius missed out on the major multimedia upgrade the hybrid received in the US – a huge, vertical touchscreen clearly inspired by Tesla. Toyota Australia says this is because the US Prius “runs on a different audio platform”.
There are infotainment updates here in the form of expanded voice commands, pinch-swipe-flick functionality for the 7.0-inch touchscreen, and a JBL audio system, though the graphics and buttons all look a bit yesterday in quality and presentation.
Good news for owners who would prefer to use iOS or Android set-ups on the display, however: since October 2019 builds, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have finally been available as standard on the Prius. Additional smartphone-based app features are available via either Hyundai Auto Link or Toyota Link.
Hyundai’s telematics system allows some basic remote functions, such as vehicle start and status checks for battery and fuel (and more advanced on Link Premium). Toyota’s version is limited to a handful of real-time information, such as weather, plus the ability to find parking spots and petrol stations, or plan trips with stopovers in conjunction with your smartphone.
Integrated navigation is standard on both cars. Of the two base variants, only the Prius provides wireless smartphone charging.
Good leg room is to be found in the rear seats of both cars that share identical wheelbases of 2.7m, even though the Prius is the longer car overall.
There’s equally good bench comfort, plus centre armrests with cupholders. Toe space is tighter in the Prius, and its rear air vents are tucked away under the front seats, where they are more effectively placed on the rear console in the Ioniq.
The Ioniq’s rear doors also open wider and take more than just a bottle in their pockets.
Quoted boot capacities suggest a decent luggage-storing advantage for the Ioniq (456L) over the Prius (297L). The Hyundai’s boot is a bit wider at its narrowest point (100cm v 96cm), though otherwise other measurements are virtually identical according to our tape measure. And the Prius’s cargo floor is the flattest when the respective 60-40 split-folding rear seatbacks are lowered.
The Ioniq hybrid manages to fit a full-size spare under the floor, whereas the Prius opts for a temporary spare.
The Prius remains Toyota’s most camel-like hybrid, and it’s more practical than a Corolla hybrid – its closest in-house challenger for limited fuel use.
More pertinently to this comparison, our test figures suggest the Prius should be the pick over the Ioniq hybrid for the most intense hyper-milers who want to extract every kilometre possible out of a single tank. It’s also the better-equipped model here.
Hyundai’s first-ever hybrid, however, counters with the better overall drive, better performance and a superior infotainment system. And it gets our verdict by a margin as slim as the difference in fuel economy between the two petrol-electric models.