RATING |

In 1986, shortly after I started writing about cars, a Hyundai operative showed up at the Inquirer with the South Korean automaker's first U.S. offering: the Excel Sedan. He came back to retrieve it a week later.

"Well, how did you like it?" he asked, brandishing a salesman's hopeful smile.

"Well," I replied, "when I tried to roll down the driver's window, the window crank came off in my hand."

The smile dropped to less than half mast. Suffice it to say that the Excel was a lousy car that almost nipped Hyundai's American adventure in the bud.

After spending a recent week with Hyundai's newly minted Ioniq Hybrid, I was struck by just what ancient history the Excel had become, and what a quantum leap Hyundai has taken.

The Ioniq I drove was nicely realized from the standpoint of both styling and workmanship.

It also boasted enough lovely, innovative engineering to give it EPA mileage numbers that crown it king of the hybrid hill. The base Blue model has EPAs of 59 city and 57 highway for a combined rating of 58. (The more upmarket Limited model I drove was 55 and 54 for a combined 55.) This surpasses the EPAs mustered by the Toyota Prius. The perennial hybrid gold standard is rated at 54 city, 50 highway, and 52 combined.

The Ioniq, a compact hatchback, will ultimately come in three flavors. The Hybrid and an all-electric model are already here. A plug-in hybrid follows later this year.

Like its corporate cousin, the Kia Niro, the Ioniq utilizes a 104-horsepower, 1.6-liter gas engine buttoned to a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission. That exceptionally efficient engine — it packs goodies such as sodium-filled exhaust valves and direct injection — shares the work with a 43-horse electric motor.

Under mild demand, the Ioniq can get along solely under the auspices of the electric motor. If your accelerator foot gets heavier, the engine is fired up and seamlessly joins the electric oarsman.

The Ioniq Hybrid is more fun to drive than its leisurely zero-to-60 time of 9.5 seconds might suggest. Its fully independent suspension makes this an agile car, and its responsive, accurate steering adds to the festivities.

The tester's fun quotient was also enhanced by placing it in "Sport" mode. That keeps the engine on all the time, cracks the whip on the gear changing, stiffens the steering, and gives you a tachometer readout.

The Ioniq is handsome in a clean, civil fashion, and the fastback slope of the roof and rear window make the car resemble a stylish sedan more than a hatchback. It also contributes to the Ioniq's exceptional aerodynamics. The trade-off? The roof slope means tall, rear-seat passengers will find their heads encountering the headliner before the headrest. And the steeply raked, split liftgate window diminishes visibility.

The tester's interior was comely in a spare way with a welcome Bauhaus need for form to follow function. Cargo space was a generous 26.5 cubic feet with the backseat up. The volume with the rear seat down was not available.

The Ioniq starts at an affordable $22,200. And that price includes an industry-exclusive lifetime warranty on that expensive hybrid battery. The more upscale Limited tester was very well-equipped for its price point ($27,500). Standard safety gear and hedonism included blind-spot detection with cross-traffic alert, lane-change assist, power sunroof, and leather seating. In addition to the battery guarantee, the Ioniq has exceptional warranties on the car itself (5 years/60,000 miles, bumper-to-bumper) and the power train (10 years/100,000 miles).

2017 Ioniq Hybrid Limited

Base price: $27,500.
As tested: $31,460.
Standard equipment: 1.6-liter engine, electric motor, front drive, and an extensive array of safety gear and conveniences, including leather and a blind spot alert.
Options: Includes a $3,000 package, which contains aids like automatic emergency braking, smart cruise control, lane departure warning, headlights with dynamic bending light function, rear parking sensors, and a navigation system.
Fuel economy: 55 MPG city and 54 highway.
Engine performance: Produces leisurely acceleration.
Handling: Crisp.
Ride comfort: Fine.
Styling: Stylish but civil.
Warranty: 5 years/60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper.
Four Bens: Excellent