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Is India ready for EVs? Are we ready for EVs? We spend a month with the Kona Electric to find out with the help of evo India's principal correspondent Aatish Mishra who sets to go about town and put this EV through a unique set of tasks.
I have driven an electric car before for evo India, but only at a racetrack. As much as I wish it was the record-breaking Volkswagen ID R, it wasn’t. Instead, the two cars in question were the more pedestrian Mahindra e2o and Hyundai Kona Electric and both are about as useful on a track as a hang-glider in a dogfight. I had the privilege of sampling the e2o at our annual awards a few years ago, where I concluded the only reason I would get into one again is if Gul Panag pulled up in it (she legit owns one!). Meanwhile I drove the Kona at the BIC because that is where Hyundai (inexplicably) had the first media drive. Sure, it impressed with its dynamics and acceleration but I’m willing to bet my kids that not one Kona Electric owner is going to bother chasing lap times in that car.
Which brings me to the point of this story. I needed to drive and experience an EV in its natural environment, on streets that regular people who buy them would drive them on. If you want a road-test, look elsewhere. Because this is a story where we put the Kona Electric up to some (un)necessary, (un)scientific challenges to answer questions that no body really asked. So here’s a story that involved fitness trackers, a friend’s bungalow and my bald head. I promise you there’s a story here.
Question 1: Is the Hyundai Electric better than a regular car?
When talking about EVs these days, it is hard to not bring up a regular internal combustion engined car. They are the current benchmark, after all and all our perceptions of motoring so far, have been formed through them. When someone says an EV is ‘silent’, they mean ‘silent in comparison to a petrol car’. Similarly, when they say EVs aren’t fun, they mean ‘I haven’t driven a Porsche Taycan yet’. It’s only normal for the human brain to use the known to understand the unknown, but perceptions can only tell you so much. We wanted data. Hard data. And so we pulled out the big guns.
Well actually, a small gun: the Apple Watch Series 5. This nifty little device can monitor your heartbeat in real time to give you all sorts of data about your resting heart rate, your sleep cycle and also sound the alarm if your heartbeat goes haywire right before a heart attack. The Kona Electric is no Rimac so I wasn’t too worried about that last bit, but what I wanted to get at is something the entire motoring community has been up in arms about since EVs started elbowing their way in to the mainstream. How exciting is the electric car?
With Series 5 strapped to my wrist, I did two identical runs through Pune traffic in the Kona Electric and our long-term Hyundai Tucson. Since heart rate is directly proportional to excitement, I wanted to see which one caused a bigger spike. The results will shock you. If you think an engine is inherently more thrilling that an electric drivetrain, you sir, may put your foot in your mouth. As much as the old-school chest-thumping enthusiast in me wanted the fire-power to win, it didn’t. Peak heart rate in the Kona: 102bpm. Peak heart rate in the Tucson: 100bpm.
Allow me to explain why. There was one patch of road on this run which was relatively empty, and allowed me to floor the accelerator on both cars. And where the Tucson momentarily dropped a gear, picked up revs, and then delivered a wave of torque — the roar from the engine acting like a warning to impending surge in speed, the Kona just darted forward as soon as I touched the accelerator. No sound. No warning. Just a whack to the back of the head and a speed breaker approaching faster than I expected. You can argue that this — short bursts of acceleration — is the only department an electric can thrill in. But hey, it got my heart beating faster, that’s for sure.
The second part of my test when comparing it to a conventional car has to do with the noise inside the cabin. Manufacturers keep harping on about the silence EVs promise. The lack of an engine droning on in the background was bound to make a difference, but what I wanted to measure was how much. Same drill, but instead of tracking my heart rate we put a decibel meter in the car to measure the ambient noise. The Kona Electric had an average decibel level of 72. The Tucson? 73dB. Honestly, this had me stumped. I thought there would be a chasm between the two, but it was 1dB. One-bloomin’-decibel. Beethove… err, wait… Mozart wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. There could be a number of reasons for this: one is, diesel engines have become supremely refined. The diesel engine in the Tucson is genuinely one of the nicer ones around when it comes to noise and clatter, and that certainly worked in its favour. Secondly, I think the Tucson has more sound insulation built in to it, and this compensates for the noisy engine. It also cuts out a lot of the honking and road noise, and keeps the cabin nearly as silent. However, the Kona feels much quieter when you’re driving around in it, there’s no denying that
Question 2: Does the Kona Electric get you attention?
Priorities. I wanted to know if the electric car was capable of showboating. More specifically, I was primarily interested in was whether it would indulge my peacocking to get the attention from the fairer sex. So I took to a dating app: Tinder in particular. I’ve seen plenty of men upload pictures of them in G-Wagens and Mustangs — symbols of masculinity and alpha-ness — hoping this would impress women. Could an electric car do the same?
I hypothesised that EV represents my progressive my thinking is. It showed my awareness for the issues this planet was facing. More importantly, it showed my willingness to take charge of and create change in my immediate vicinity. I’m no expert but I’d like to think that women dig that sort of thing.
To cut a long story short, I didn’t get any more matches than I normally do. The few women who found me interesting enough to have a conversation with me said that while the car is cool, they are more interesting in my personality. Is that a thing? I thought it was all about big cars and bigger biceps. Nevertheless, I didn’t see the spike in activity that I expected. An intern in the office recommended I replace the cars with dogs. Apparently that really reels ’em in.
However, I got plenty of attention from elsewhere. Mostly from men. The Kona Electric looks funky and it draws a crowd. The lack of a grille, the green plates, even the fact that it whizzes around silently all over the place gets people to turn heads! People strike up conversations at signals, at parking lots and even my neighbour who normally does nothing but glower at me, asked me a couple of questions about the car. Including if I had bought it, with a glimmer of hope in his eyes. To be fair though, I do start up my KTM at 5am on a regular basis, much to his annoyance.
Question 3: How real is range anxiety?
I drove the Kona Electric down from Mumbai, starting off from Bandra with two bars down on the charge meter and 280km of range, plenty enough for the 170km drive to my place. Crawling through Mumbai’s hellish traffic the range actually went up — the city in fact is the perfect environment for a city car where the stop-go traffic plays into the strengths of an electric. Then I hit the expressway and discovered, oh wow, the Kona gets a proper move on. This is one quick electric car, not just in terms of acceleration but also in terms of cruising speed.
The Kona Electric might have low rolling resistance tyres but on the twisties it’s actually great fun, grips very well and has a sharp pointy front end. I don’t want to say this but I have to say this, an EV can also deliver thrills.
Except all this kills range. At the toll booth on the Pune side the range had dropped to 60km. And home was 40km away. That was my cue to stick to the speed limit, range went up, and I got home with 30km range left — something that I’d need to search for a charging station.
Question 4: What is all this charging business about?
Look, I’m not the owner of this Kona Electric. If I was one, Hyundai would have very kindly set up a charging box in the parking space allotted to me in my society. For the sake of argument though, let’s assume I stay in a rented flat doesn’t have an allotted parking spot and I have to park on the street. How do I charge the car then?
In Pune, I could not find any public chargers. Google Maps throws up a bunch of irrelevant electric scooter stores and the one charging station it actually did recommend, isn’t operational — something we found out when we actually went to check it out. Hyundai has an 7.4kW fast charger at one of its dealerships in the city, and Hyundai will pick your car up when it is running low on charge, top it up and return it to you when it is full. Other manufacturers like MG and Tata should be sprouting up chargers in their dealerships but I’m not sure a Hyundai will get access to it. Other public infrastructure is coming. Tata Power has announced plans for a public grid in five cities, and Ather should be launching the Ather grid in Pune and other big cities soon. Mumbai does have some semblance of public charging infrastructure, with a few stations scattered across the city. But there’s close to no infrastructure on our highways yet, and that limits EVs to being urban vehicles at the moment.
I did swing by a friend’s bungalow to see if I could charge it up at a regular 15A socket. Hyundai provides a connector cable for this free with the car, and yes, I can verify the car does charge up, even showing how long it would take to top up. A full charge from empty like this could take 19 hours though, and isn’t viable on a regular basis. The infrastructure sure needs work!
Question 5: What happens when you run out charge?
Okay, we have established that range anxiety is a real thing. The question here is, what are we getting anxious about? Yes, the fact that your car will stop moving is obvious, but what next? In our final test in this series, we pretended to run out out of charge, and called the toll-free road side assistance number in the Kona Electric’s owner’s manual to find out. Here’s how things went down.
First, we provided the regular details you need to furnish when you make such a call. Name, car model, chassis number, location were all shared over the phone. One hour in, a technician from Hyundai’s roadside assistance partners turned up on a scooter with a regular lead-acid battery and jumper cables. He popped the hood, scratched his head and made another call. Within another half hour, another dude turned up in a car with a bunch of tools. More head scratching ensued, followed by more calls. It was then that we got a call from Hyundai’s HQ in Delhi. Turns out, Hyundai normally has a recovery car especially for the Kona Electric — it is fitted with a generator, so it can drive up to the stranded Kona, and juice it up enough to be driven to the nearest plug-point. However, Pune hasn’t received its allocation for a recovery vehicle yet. Two hours after we made the first call, a rep from Hyundai turned up and took custody of the car and promised to return it fully juiced up.
In my opinion, the service was rather prompt. I had support by my side within an hour of making the first call and though the technicians were a bit stumped initially, they managed to relieve me of the car pretty soon. Something like this happening is an inconvenience, sure, but it isn’t as apocalyptic as our brains make it out to be when the range drops below 50km.
Question 6: Does the Kona Electric add to your stress?
Honestly, no. Charging, as we have established, isn’t such a big deal. More than that though, driving the Kona Electric is surprisingly relaxing. I particularly enjoyed the 2-pedal driving that you get when you ramp up regeneration to its maximum and the car slows down strongly when you get off the accelerator. Keep the left steering wheel paddle pulled and the car will come to a complete stop so you actually don’t have to touch the brakes at all.
Then there’s the obvious silence. There’s a serious novelty factor associated with zipping around in absolute silence, something that did not wear off even after a month of living with it. I can’t figure out why but the Hyundai Kona Electric is actually easier to drive than, say, an automatic Creta. And, finally, the Kona Electric actually made me feel like a cleaner, more responsible citizen of the world. Everyday I looked forward to taking out this bubble of silence in to the chaos of our city streets. It made me feel, dare I say it, good. And isn’t that what we enthusiasts are always on about — how a car makes you feel?