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Electric Vehicles

Hyundai and Kia Know the Secret to Selling Electric Cars

Americans want a variety ... of crossovers.

Kia and Hyundai EVs.
Heatmap Illustration/Hyundai, Kia, Getty Images

America’s electric car market has a new champion. The automaking alliance of Hyundai Motor Group and Kia Motors is now the second biggest seller of electric cars in the United States, according to new data released last week by Bloomberg BNEF.

The two companies sold more than 117,000 electric vehicles in the United States last year, or about 8% of all new EVs nationwide, according to the research firm. Only Tesla, the industry’s longtime leader, sold more electric cars: It still commands about half of U.S. market share.

The two companies’ success is an encouraging sign in what was more broadly a weird year for the EV market. Scarcely more than a year ago, the public’s demand for electric cars overwhelmed available inventory, and dealers were selling every EV they could get their hands on.

But as gas prices have fallen, the growth in EV sales in the United States has slowed, and the market has gotten more uneven. Tesla, looking to shore up its market position, launched a price war last year that juiced sales but cut deep into its profits. Ford and General Motors, meanwhile, are suffering anemic sales and cutting back on their short-term EV plans.

Amid this patchy landscape, Hyundai and Kia’s growth stands out. While the two companies are technically independent, Hyundai owns about a third of Kia Motors, and they collaborate on vehicle design, engineering, and manufacturing. They also use the same vehicle “platforms,” a common set of parts that can be used across models.

Since the news came out last week, I’ve seen climate people on Twitter and elsewhere try to explain why it’s happening. Many of these explanations conform to the views that the urban, progressive climate commentariat already hold about the car market. Look, Hyundai and Kia are winning because they’re making smaller cars, not behemoth SUVs.

But the answer, while not quite the opposite, doesn’t line up with what many might wish. In fact, Hyundai and Kia are dominating the EV market right now by churning out a mostly unbroken stream of crossover and SUVs. All but one of their electric cars qualifies as an SUV or crossover; all of their plug-in hybrids are SUVs. It is this commitment to repetition — to giving the consumer a lot of choices on a central theme — that sets their product lines apart right now.

You can see the importance of this by looking at their models in more depth. Take the Hyundai Ioniq 5 and the Kia EV6, for instance, which have led EV sales at the two brands and which are built on the same platform. Each is an electrified take on the type of car that, for years now, Americans haven’t been able to get enough of: the compact crossover SUV. The Ioniq 5 and EV6 each have two rows of seating and 25 cubic feet of trunk space. They drive more or less like a car, sit high on the road like an SUV, and fall in the broad category of cars that — as a friend’s wife puts it — looks like a fist with its thumb stuck out.

The Ioniq 5 and EV6 are also really, really similar to the Mustang Mach E, Ford’s attempt at an electric crossover. In fact, if you look only at specs, they’re basically the same car. All three have the same length and width and take up about 95 square feet of road space. All three have five seats. All three have roughly the same size trunk, although the Ford’s is maybe slightly bigger. And all three have an entry-level model starting at about $42,000 — although the lowest trim Ford has slightly more range and horsepower, and costs about a grand more.

As you might expect from those specs, the Mach E narrowly outsold the Ioniq 5 and EV6 in the United States last year. Ford sold more than 40,000 Mach Es in 2023, while Hyundai moved nearly 34,000 Ioniq 5s and Kia sold 19,000 EV6s. But here’s the thing: The Mach E did not outsell the Ioniq 5 and EV6 combined. And unlike Ford, which only sells one electric SUV, Hyundai and Kia continued to flood the zone with SUV options for consumers.

How many options? Hyundai sold plug-in versions of its Tuscon and Santa Fe SUVs. Kia sold an electric version of its subcompact Niro SUV and a plug-in hybrid version of its Sportage SUV. And even though Kia only started selling its new three-row SUV, the EV9, in December, it had already delivered more than 1,000 of them by the end of the year.

In fact, only one electric car from Hyundai-Kia — the new Ioniq 6 — was designed like a traditional sedan. But it made up only around 8% of the alliance’s total sales. Hyundai and Kia achieved their commanding position by giving Americans what they want: a seemingly endless stream of SUVs and crossovers.

Now, it matters here that Kia and Hyundai are two different companies, so there is some automatic duplication in their product lines. It might never make sense for Ford or GM to sell cars as similar as the EV6 and Ioniq 5. But if we’re being honest, their SUV lineups are already pretty duplicative: Do most consumers understand the difference between a Ford Edge and a Ford Escape? There’s no reason Ford couldn’t add an Escape EV to its lineup — something a little smaller and a little cheaper. That’s exactly what Kia does with the EV Niro, after all.

It helps, too, that lots of Kia and Hyundai’s cars look like great deals for consumers. Many of their key offerings hover in the high $30,000s to mid $40,000s, seemingly the sweet spot for new family cars today. Even though Hyundai and Kia’s cars don’t qualify for the new EV tax credit, Americans can use the $7,500 federal tax credit if they lease a vehicle instead.

Hyundai especially has used this credit — and a creative mix of rebates and low-interest-rate offers — to bring down the monthly payment for consumers. (Nearly half of new Ioniq 5s are leased, according to BNEF, which is a much higher rate than normal for Hyundai’s cars.)

Finally, it helps that Kia and especially Hyundai are making more interesting-looking vehicles than any other automaker right now. Compared to the staid peoplemover that is, say, the Volkswagen ID.4, the Ioniq 5 is striking, novel, and seems to push EV design forward. Its pixelated taillights are unlike anything else on the road, and it’s an extremely charismatic vehicle to drive; it’s just a better product, overall, than other cars out there.

And that might be the most important lesson behind Hyundai and Kia’s success. For the past few decades, decarbonization advocates have gotten used to thinking about electric cars primarily as a market abstraction: Are they cheap? Are they available? Are they growing as a sector? But as the EV transition continues, we are going to have to think about them more as products, as specific tools that can improve someone’s life by their presence. The EV companies that ultimately win will make better products than their competitors — cars that bring together capability, design, and price in a special way. Right now, Hyundai and Kia are pushing to the front of that race.

Green
Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

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