The Malaysian car market is fairly predictable, but every once in a blue moon, someone will spring a surprise. And as surprises go, the introduction of the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid late last year (yes, we’re in 2017!) was a huge one. It’s not just the availability of the Korean green car here either – the timing, the fact that it’s locally assembled, the pricing; everything was scarcely believable to pundits and competitor brands alike.

It has been awhile since a regular, non-plug-in hybrid car was launched in Malaysia. Ever since the tax-free window of opportunity for CBU hybrids (and electric vehicles) ended in 2013, the two Japanese companies that profited the most from the battery rush have stopped promoting the genre. Understandably so, as without government incentives, prices ballooned to the usual high levels that we pay for imported cars.

Hybrid cars made a recent comeback, but the proponents this time are premium brands pushing plug-in hybrids. The small batch locally assembled PHEVs may be great value compared to pure petrol/diesel variants within the range – thanks to tax breaks – but they are ultimately luxury cars that are out of reach for most. Enter the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid.

The Ioniq is Hyundai’s first global green car, and besides this conventional hybrid version, it was also designed to accommodate plug-in hybrid and pure electric systems from the start. That’s rather unique in the green car world. Toyota’s Prius is synonymous with hybrids, and there’s a plug-in version of it, but no full EV. Nissan’s Leaf is the world’s best selling EV, but you can’t have it any other way.

It’s not future-proofing on Hyundai’s part either – all three forms of propulsion are ready to roll. This three-in-one at one go move is both aggressive and impressive, and it allows customers to choose the level of electrification they’re ready to embrace. The regular hybrid – the first step of the ladder – is expected to be the strongest seller, and this is the sole option for Malaysia.

The Ioniq Hybrid went on sale in the UK in Q4 2016, and will only debut in the US this year, which means that we’re pretty quick off the mark here. Not bad for a CBU import, but it’s not – our Ioniq is locally assembled in Kulim to be eligible for CKD Energy Efficient Vehicle (EEV) incentives. That makes Malaysia the first and only location outside of Ulsan in South Korea to assemble the Ioniq.

The Ioniq Hybrid is powered by a 1.6 litre Kappa GDI engine, the direct injection Atkinson cycle unit producing 105 PS at 5,700 rpm and 147 Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm. Hyundai claims that this internal combustion engine has the world’s highest thermal efficiency at 40%. Interestingly, Toyota also claims the same 40% figure for the current fourth-generation Prius.

The engine is mated to a permanent magnet synchronous electric motor with 44 PS (32 kW) and 170 Nm, a 1.56 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, which sends drive to the front wheels. The combined system output from the engine and electric motor is 141 PS and 265 Nm.

High efficiency was a main goal, so that most of what is made is used. Besides the ICE’s minimal losses – helped by the Atkinson cycle’s reduced intake pumping loss, EGR system and split cooling for the head and block – Hyundai claims that the electric motor achieves over 95% efficiency and the DCT gearbox delivers class-leading transmission efficiency of 95.7%.

Hyundai’s choice of lithium-ion polymer batteries for the Ioniq is natural – it’s the best tech in town. Compared to the Ni-MH items in Toyota HSD and older Honda IMA hybrids, the more advanced LiPo batteries boast lower memory sensitivity, better charge/discharge efficiency and better max output. Before you ask, the Ioniq’s batteries are supplied by LG Chem, and not Samsung SDI of Galaxy Note 7 flame. I meant fame.

Located below the rear seats, the battery pack is shielded by a four-stage protection system. In any case, the Ioniq is not only a Euro NCAP five-star rated car, the safety body has included it in its ‘Best in Class Cars of 2016’ list.

The battery pack’s “extra low” position contributes to the Ioniq’s low centre of gravity. Not only is its CoG of 535 mm lower than the Elantra (562) and Veloster coupe’s (545) figures, it’s slightly better than that of the Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI at 538 mm, Hyundai points out. Other contributing factors that suck the car to the road are lightweight panels on the upper body and downforce that’s among the lowest in the C-segment.

To be efficient, a car has to be aerodynamic, and Hyundai has put in much effort to keep the Cd figure down. At Cd 0.24, the Ioniq matches the latest Prius in aero terms while managing to look a lot better.

Air resistance is minimised by a streamlined basic shape, air curtains that reduce vortex around the wheels (also helped by plastic inserts on the alloy rim spokes, which is a much more elegant solution than plastic wheel caps), an integrated rear spoiler and active air flaps on the grille, which open only when necessary. A smooth underbody with directed airflow courtesy of the front lip and wheel deflectors also aid the cause.

Hyundai has used aluminium whenever possible. Besides the aluminium hood and liftgate, which save a combined 12.6 kg, the lightweight material features in the front back beam, front lower arm and knuckles, rear carriers and even the front brake calipers. The company also used a high proportion of ultra high strength steel (53.5%) and expanded the use of structural adhesives to reinforce welded seams.

The tech is sound, but so is what’s under the new Prius. One of the key points that sets the Ioniq apart, for me, is how it looks. The basic “hybrid profile”, as seen on the previous-generation Prius and Honda Insight, is employed here for its aero qualities, but the shape has been fleshed out to look substantial and sporty. Good width, wheels pushed out to the edges and nice proportions – much like how a five-door Honda CR-Z would look, I imagine.

The measuring tape backs it up. Compared to the Elantra MD – one of the most dynamic-looking sedans in its class – the bootless Ioniq is 80 mm shorter (4,470 mm), but 45 mm wider (1,820 mm). The hatchback’s wheelbase is par for the C-segment course at 2,700 mm, which matches the Elantra, Corolla Altis and Civic FC. No high-profile eco tyres here – the Ioniq rolls on 17-inch alloys and 225/45 Michelin Primacy 3 rubber, and the arches are nicely filled as a result.

It was Hyundai’s intention to make the Ioniq look as normal as possible, and I think they’ve succeeded. The aero bits are well-integrated, exemplified by those trick wheel spoke fillers. Blue accent strips on the lower edge of the front and rear bumpers hint at the Ioniq’s eco status. Only if it doesn’t clash with the primary body colour, though – red and blue cars get grey strips.

To these eyes, while the Ioniq’s front end is bold (large grille, distinctive LED daytime running lights), the car’s best angle is from the rear three quarter, and I caught myself stealing glances at this K-pop star’s high-waisted, pert behind way too often. Not plain nor overdesigned – the Ioniq looks very good for an eco car.

The sense of normalcy continues inside, where the Ioniq sports a conventionally stacked dashboard with an instrument binnacle in the driver’s line of sight. No nonsense black on black is the theme here, livened by blue highlights ringing the air con vents and push start button. The locally-fitted leather seats have matching blue stitching, so does the piping of the floor mats.

No central controller here, so it’s a straightforward centre stack. The touchscreen is a factory head unit in this first batch of cars, but we understand that an Android system is under development. The latter will allow one to use popular navigation apps such as Waze on the car’s own screen, as seen in previous Hyundai-Sime Darby efforts.

I’m not sure if many would use it, but I like the ‘Driver Only’ AC fan button, which caters to my weird habit of using ‘just enough’ air con when driving solo. There’s a Qi wireless smartphone charging panel as well.

While the dash layout may not look sci-fi in the way the Prius does, there’s a high tech feel in here courtesy of the digital instrument panel. Proper speedometer aside (hybrids normally use a digital speed readout), it’s standard hybrid fare, with Power/Eco/Charge and battery level bars at each end. To the main dial’s right is a screen that shows the Ioniq’s range of active safety systems at work. An assortment of buttons on the steering wheel and below the driver’s AC vent control these functions. More on this later.

You’ve been waiting to hear how it drives, and well, the Ioniq drives a like a well-sorted normal car. Don’t be too quick with the ‘meh’ response though, because this is after all a dedicated hybrid model, and those things usually offer little in the way of driver appeal. The Prius, for instance, has marvelled with its well-integrated and effective tech over the generations, but only the deranged would drive it spiritedly – such is the Toyota’s focus.

Push the start button and the car comes alive in EV mode without engine noise. You inch away with a gentle right foot, but the engine fires up at the smallest prod, which might surprise those familiar with Toyota HSD. This is despite the battery bar showing adequate levels of charge. Also unlike the Prius, there’s no EV button to force the Ioniq to run on battery power alone. Hyundai claims that the Ioniq can glide in EV mode up to 120 km/h, but from experience, this will be hard to achieve.

So, is this more like a Honda IMA-style ‘assist’ hybrid rather than Toyota’s ‘full’ hybrid? No, because while Honda’s engine is permanently on and the e-motor assists whenever possible, the Ioniq’s ICE goes to sleep when conditions permit, which you’ll know when the EV ECO light in the meter panel comes on. The Hyundai is capable of running purely on electric power, but on its own terms. Remember, the point was to make it as ‘normal’ as possible.

So you stop fretting, drive it like you would a normal car and leave the power juggling to the hybrid system. You will notice the seamless entry and exit the Kappa makes, which is more like the Prius than regular cars with shuddering auto start-stop. After awhile, you’ll forget that it’s a hybrid, such is the cohesiveness of the system.

It’s easy to do so, because with a dual-clutch automatic, the Ioniq feels more dynamic and ‘connected’ than any other hybrid with the exception of the unicorn Honda CR-Z manual. Unlike everyone else in the CVT camp, the Ioniq driver gets to enjoy rev and sensation that’s in sync with his right foot input. Feels pretty liberating for me, who like most of you, have been conditioned by the Japanese to believe that there’s only one type of automatic gearbox for a hybrid.

It’s a good DCT too, this in-house effort. This is my first time sampling it, and the six-speeder is very smooth and invisible in urban driving, which is not a given for dry dual-clutch units. Shifts are smooth overlaps instead of the snappy changes made popular by Volkswagen’s DSG – lending a conventional auto feel to things, which is suitable for this application.

The seamless urban progress could be because there’s reduced interaction between the DCT and the ICE at low speeds, where the electric motor normally does its job. This makes the transmission’s job easier, which should also boost reliability as standing starts, low rpm work and partial clutch situations in traffic are high on friction and stress for DCTs.

On the same note, Hyundai tells us that its DCT was designed to have various serviceable parts – if one part surrenders, it can be changed independently of the gearbox. By the way, the Ioniq comes with a five-year/300,000 km warranty. The hybrid battery has an eight-year unlimited mileage warranty, and it costs less than RM10k should you need to replace it after the warranty period.

Back on the road, you step on it and realise that there’s no strong electric torque wave to push you along, which caught this hybrid driver by surprise. The Ioniq accelerates in a more natural and progressive nature than some hybrids, which again ties in with its ‘normal car’ ethos. Ditto the amount of engine braking. The Japanese might argue that it’s a less efficient way to arrive at the speed you desire, but it sure feels better.

The slightly soft delivery led us to try out the Sport mode, which perked things up considerably. Clearly not an afterthought, the racier mode sharpens up the throttle and response, while adding more resistance to the steering. The speedo morphs into a red-tinged rev counter, with digital speed readout in the middle. Never mind the latter though, because it’s a difference one can tell blindfolded.

We started by saying that the Ioniq drives like a well-sorted non-hybrid car. Done with how ‘unhybrid’ it is, let’s zoom in on the ‘well-sorted’ part. The fact that the half-day drive event included some twisty backroads plus a slalom and high speed lane change exercise on an airstrip were clues that this is no ordinary hybrid, but one that won’t feel like a fish out of water when hustled.

True enough, the Ioniq is game for being driven enthusiastically. It surprised with a low rate of body roll and impressive grip on the road (it rained in parts), with steering that’s quick and direct enough for winding roads. No funny feeling from the energy-harvesting brakes, although pedal response isn’t the most progressive and lacks some initial bite.

Best of all, the suspension delivered a good blend of control and comfort, despite the rather large wheels. That’s something that has often tripped up Korean cars that our region gets, but the Ioniq is well-damped and feels Euro-tuned. There was one particular mid-corner dip in the road that I thought would have troubled the Hyundai, but no, it didn’t lose balance or trajectory. It was only later that I realised a multi-link rear suspension was specified over the expected torsion beam, but independent or not, tuning is crucial.

The slalom and emergency lane change exercise firmly sealed our on-road observations. The Ioniq’s low centre of gravity delivers real world benefits – its inherent stability meant that ESC wasn’t needed even in the hard, almost violent switchbacks we attempted in the enclosed area. Miles better to drive than an Elantra and not too far from the best of the Continentals, I’d say. Never mind the dynamic comparison with hybrid cars, the Ioniq is a good drive, period.

It does the mundane pretty well too. Rolling refinement is good, and the Ioniq’s well-grounded nature comes to the fore in high speed cruising as well – with three onboard, we held a constant 150 km/h without realising it. I like the driving position too; the seat goes down very low for a non-sports car. The many buttons and menus might take some learning, but once familiar, should pose no ergonomic issues. The rudimentary foot-operated parking brake is rather jarring in a high-tech package, though.

Some notes from the back seat. Rear headroom wasn’t a problem for this 175 cm passenger and the seat base length was just nice, which means that those who are taller might have to try the rear quarters for size. The Ioniq’s long wheelbase might lead some to expect generous legroom – while adequate, it’s not as roomy down there compared to sedans such as the Honda City and Civic (think Euro C-hatch). The dual-zone air con remains cold when the engine is off, and there are rear vents.

Last but not least is the Ioniq’s long list of safety features. Top level crashworthiness aside, the RM100k standard spec car comes with seven airbags (dual front, side, curtain and driver’s knee), ABS, brake assist, hill-start assist and Vehicle Stability Management, which is good.

But our top spec HEV Plus tester grabs headlines by adding on blind spot detection, autonomous emergency braking, lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control for just RM111k. It’s unprecedented at this price point. All the functions were sampled and work as advertised.

One big question that a half day session shared between three drivers couldn’t answer is fuel consumption. HSDM is probably not highlighting the official figure – which is 29.4 km/l in the European cycle – to avoid high expectations and the inevitable disappointment (or worse, anger) when the claimed FC isn’t achievable in the real world.

As a guide, the US Environmental Protection Agency released fuel economy figures for the Ioniq last month, and the Hyundai’s 54 mpg highway, 55 mpg city and 55 mpg combined figures beat the Prius’ 50/54/52 score, so good FC is somewhat assured. It might not drive like a typical hybrid, but the Ioniq sure sips fuel like one.

So, what do we make of the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid? On paper, this was the deal of 2016, hands down. But it’s more than just a good deal, it’s a good drive too, and proof that it’s possible to deliver hybrid economy without completely ignoring driver appeal. The Ioniq does not conform to the hybrid template set by the incumbents, and is the better for it. New thinking and new possibilities indeed.

UPDATE: We’ve had another go in the Ioniq to gauge fuel consumption in normal, everyday driving. Over my 236.6 km of mixed driving (urban plus highway), the car returned an average of 19.9 km/l, according to the trip computer. According to the car, 48% of my driving was classified as ‘economical’, 47% ‘normal’ and 5% ‘aggressive’. Without one fast blast down the highway, I would have done over 20 km/l, which is realistically achievable. Decent returns for a hybrid without a lock-in EV mode.