It was a long time coming, but Hyundai’s Ioniq Hybrid is its answer to the Toyota Prius and truly the first head-to-head alternative to the car that defined the term “hybrid.”

Rumors since the beginning of this decade of a so-called Hyundai “Prius fighter” indicate the Ioniq Hybrid benchmarked against the Prius was something they took time for in getting the details right.

And all this is characteristic of the Korean automaker’s usual modus operandi of moving into competitors’ markets. The company whose Genesis brand has also nearly cloned the design language of Mercedes Benzes matches the famous Toyota Hybrid in many important metrics. It arguably improves its product in ways as well, and prices it as much as a few thousand dollars less.

While Hyundai was at it, it also made a plug-in hybrid Ioniq variant to go head-to-head against the Prius Prime, and as an extra added bonus, a battery electric version was made as well.

We’ll have a review with video of the battery electric version in a couple weeks or so as well, but meanwhile the hybrid is the top seller, albeit yet trailing behind the incumbent Prius Liftback.

Through October, its 8,997 U.S. sales lag the 55,443 U.S. sales of the Prius even though this is the worst sales year the Prius has had since 2004. But what might you expect of the Hyundai? The Prius yet has an established fan base, broad name recognition, known resale value and reputation for durability and functionality.

It’s those factors the Hyundai also must overcome but it is off to a good start. The Ioniq Hybrid is rated 55 mpg combined in the middle SEL trim and the top Limited trim, and it’s rated 58 mpg as delivered in the base Blue trim we tested.

These numbers outdo the 52-mpg rating of most Prius trims, and the 56 mpg Prius Eco version, and mean the Ioniq has the highest EPA-rated fuel economy in the land among non-plug-in electrified cars.

Yes, the Ioniq matches the Prius where it counts, but while they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Hyundai also might be said to snub its nose at its target as well, by departing in significant ways.

One such way is its dual clutch manually shiftable 6-speed automatic transmission instead of a continuously variable unit as used in the Toyota and most other hybrids.

Another is in the looks department, and this second detail especially may be more than just a little bit important. While parroting the general theme of the Prius including a stellar 0.24 drag coefficient, Hyundai has made the Ioniq normal looking to the point that it’s about as radical a green car statement as a plain vanilla Elantra.

Couple with that slightly more interior roominess, competent handling and a bit more power, then factor pricing from $23,000 to $28,000, and you can start to see a recipe for a winner.

Motive Power

Defining the “hybrid” is of course the powertrain, and under the hood lies a gas-electric system with superlative credentials.

The 1.6-liter Kappa series Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine boasts a chart-topping 40-percent thermal efficiency right up there with the Prius and Honda’s latest Earth Dreams engine used in the Accord Hybrid.

Mated to the engine is the 6-speed dual clutch transmission which you might chalk up to Hyundai’s institutional aversion to what some consider a boring experience from droning CVTs.

Hooray for innovation. Hyundai deleted the 12-volt under-hood lead acid battery by carving out space in the under-seat-mounted li-ion battery’s space. Both conjoined li-ion batteries are covered under a lifetime failure warranty for original owners. Also nifty is should the 12-volt battery lose power, the high-voltage hybrid battery can jump start it via an in-car button.

CVTs do however maximize fuel economy, and whether Hyundai might have squeaked another mpg or two or three with one is unknown, but even with the DCT, it’s ahead.

Sandwiched between the tranny and gas engine is a thin electric motor. This single motor system is another deviation from the Prius formula which employs two electric motors.

As it is, the Hyundai makes more power and better fuel economy from a system with 200cc less engine displacement. Specifically, the gas engine contributes up to 104 horsepower (78 kilowatts) and 109 pounds-feet of torque. The electric motor adds in 43-horsepower (32-kilowatt) electric motor that provides up to 125 pounds-feet of torque.

Combined with the gas engine, the total peak system output is rated as 139 horsepower comparing favorably to the Prius’ 121 system power. Acceleration is thus quicker in the Hyundai by close to a couple seconds in a 0-60 mph sprint. Times have been in the 10-plus second range for the Prius versus low 8s for the Ioniq.

Being a full hybrid system, the Ioniq like the Prius may switch between EV mode or gas plus electric assist but of course EV mode is only for minimal duration as the 1.56-kWh battery can muster.

When required and as able, the system control computer seamlessly starts the engine and turns it off. A computer graphic illustration – which has become the norm for hybrids – shows power flow through the vehicle’s drivetrain between engine, motor, and wheels for those just curious or those attempting to hypermile.

Design

Hyundai chose a far-less standout approach in penning the Ioniq’s fluid lines. A large grille dominating the front merges into a relatively innocuous liftback body.

Its 0.24 cd is aided by a nearly flat underbody, aero wheels, all meant to merge a semi-sporty look into an eco car. Contrasted to the Prius with its hodge-podge of lines some have called incongruous, and others have said they like, the Ioniq simply fits in with siblings.

Prius Liftback.

Inside the mainstream ethos continues centered around buttons and knobs surrounding instrumentation and a 7- or 8-inch infotainment screen permitting the expected Nav, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Available is wireless charging of smartphones.

The Ioniq is actually a large-class car by EPA interior measurement standards compared to the midsize Prius, with 96 cubic feet passenger volume versus 91. Luggage volume is the same at 27 cubic feet, says the EPA, but by Toyota’s measurements, Prius models have a couple cubic feet less, depending on trim.

Seat comfort and leg space is also up to par and roomy front and back for up to and a bit over six-footers. The Ioniq’s headrests also happen to be canted forward less than the Prius’ headrests – apparently a feature that helps reduce whiplash force in frontal collisions but which adversely affects ergonomics. Between the two, as stated in the video, the Ioniq is a bit more comfortable. We’d however like the option to push back the head rest further if desired in the interest of not bending the occupants’ head and neck forward unnaturally.

Rounding out the package is available advanced safety tech. This includes Automatic Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross-Traffic Alert and Smart Cruise Control, for high levels of both active and passive vehicle safety.

Road Test

Like the rest of the car, a single descriptor of the drive experience could be “normal.”

Starting the Ioniq to life with the pushbutton and shifting via the hefty, conventional shifter, will see the Ioniq default to EV mode assuming battery charge is sufficient (typical) and HVAC does not require extra energy from the gas engine.

Hard acceleration from a stop can induce a brief wheel slip from the instant-on 125-pound-feet of electric torque. Keep your foot in it, and the car can get up to pace with traffic and then some without fuss. Noise, vibration and harshness are not excessive due to a fair amount of sound deadening packed in.

All duties from round town to backroads to highway cruising all day is no worries in the car meant to be as un-different from mainstream cars like an Elantra as can be.

Cornering on the low rolling resistance Michelin tires is alright, but it’s here you remember you are not in a pure sports car. Grip is adequate and body roll is within realm, not excessive.

Braking is controlled, and the regenerative brake pedal feel is smooth enough.

Fuel economy is easily within realm of the advertised numbers. Stomp on it, and the numbers can plummet to the mid 40s. Take it easy and high 50s, low 60s is no problem without even broaching into hypermiling techniques. Best fuel economy is in the Eco mode, and Sport mode provides the lowest fuel economy which can go into the mid 30s, but it does provide the best power and is noticeable when switched into.

Cold weather will reduce fuel mileage. The EPA reports all cars lose some efficiency with heaters and defrosters on, and slippage on occasion in ice and snow. Hybrids suffer those energy robbing effects plus their batteries do not like the cold, so the mileage can dip further.

This said, the Ioniq is the most fuel efficient non-plug-in car sold in America, so you’ll be well ahead of the game in any event.

The Hybrid For You?

The Ioniq Hybrid is available in three trims, the Blue (tested), SEL, and Limited. Pricing for these respectively before destination and fees is $22,200, $23,950, and $27,500.

We expect as the word gets out on Hyundai’s new alternative to the Prius sales will increase, and this would only be good and right.

The base Blue model with highest fuel economy we drove particularly makes the case against non-hybrids that may net mpg in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, yet be priced within its realm. With fuel savings estimated at $800/year over an average 26 mpg car, the Ioniq stands to scoop up savings, while rewarding the driver with a car as normal and mainstream as can be.

While the jury is a bit out on the long-term durability, Hyundai has merged learnings from its hybrids dating back to 2011 and given the Ioniq a class-leading warranty.

The Ioniq is a very strong value proposition in all.