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Korea¡¯s first electric car exceeds expectations

As recently as a few years ago, people thought of electric vehicles as being closer to golf carts than they were to functional cars. While rapid advances in technology in recent years have led to the development of a few low-speed EVs, these cars are largely impractical for city driving because they are too slow to keep up with traffic.

However, with the release of the Hyundai Motor BlueOn, Korea¡¯s first high-speed EV, we may soon be seeing more of these vehicles around.

The vehicle was introduced on Sept. 9, with President Lee Myung-bak taking it for spin during a press event at the Blue House.

I recently had a chance to test drive the vehicle for myself at Hyundai Motor¡¯s Namyang Research and Development Center in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi.

To be honest, I didn¡¯t have high expectations for the vehicle before my test drive, even though I found the company¡¯s efforts to promote it intriguing.

When I arrived at the Namyang Center, five BlueOn vehicles were waiting for me.

The first thing I noticed was the car¡¯s exterior is similar in design to the Hyundai i10, on which the BlueOn is based.

The other thing I noticed is that the hexagonal grill and sleek headlight design seemed to go along with the automaker¡¯s efforts to create a unified look for all of its models. And the words ¡°blue drive,¡± emblazoned on the driver¡¯s side door seemed to draw attention to the automaker¡¯s efforts to promote the vehicle as eco-friendly.

The car has two charging outlets. The primary outlet is inside the Hyundai emblem on the front of the vehicle, and the quick charger is on the left side of the car in place of the gas hatch.

The vehicle needs six hours on 220 volts of electricity for a full charge. A quick charge that yields an 80 percent charge takes 25 minutes with 380 volts of electricity.

Inside the vehicle, the center console is well organized with everything from a CD player and cup holders to an air conditioner control panel.

The 4.2-inch TFT-LCD (thin film transistor liquid crystal display) dashboard displays the usual gauges for speed and energy, but it also shows a graphic image of a polar bear to show the driver how efficient he is.

When I turned the key, the words ¡°EV Ready¡± lit up, along with a voice message telling me that I was ready to go. But I didn¡¯t hear a single noise from the engine, so I was momentarily confused as to whether I should really take off or not.

It was nice that it was so quiet inside, but I started to wonder about safety. I later learned that the car has a Virtual Engine Sound System to alert pedestrians on the street the car is approaching. This works when the vehicle is traveling at less than 20 kilometers per hour (12.42 miles per hour).

Before my test drive, I had heard so much about how slow electric vehicles are that I decided to test the vehicle at full speed. According to the company, the vehicle has a maximum speed of 130 kph and can travel 140 kilometers on a single charge.

After I drove over to the testing track, I stepped on the accelerator as far as it would go and I was off.

Soon enough, I was up to 130 kph without much noise or hesitation. The vehicle didn¡¯t wobble or struggle at the high speed and I felt completely safe. All I could hear was the sound of the tires rolling along the asphalt.

Next, I went up a hill with a 25 percent incline. Surprising me again, the BlueOn didn¡¯t hesitate once, either on the way up or going back down. The power was there and the vehicle didn¡¯t have any difficulty tackling the steep slope.

The BlueOn definitely exceeded my expectations and the first thing I thought when I finished the drive was that it would make a great vehicle for the daily commute.

However, it does face some obstacles before it¡¯s ready for the commercial market.

First, the country lacks the infrastructure to support a widespread adoption of EVs. Not only are there few recharging stations, but the length of time its takes to recharge the vehicle needs to be shortened.

Second, the vehicle is expensive. There is speculation that the current price may be close to 50 million won ($43,100). The vehicle¡¯s 200 kilogram battery, located under the seats, that accounts for a significant proportion of the total cost. If Hyundai is planning to mass produce the BlueOn, which the company is marketing as a ¡°City Commuter,¡± the price needs to be made more affordable for the average citizen. There also needs to be greater government support to boost the EV industry in Korea.

By Jung Seung-hyun [seungjung@joongang.co.kr]


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