GOLETA, CA – When Hyundai began development five years ago of a lineup of green compact hatchbacks, the U.S. auto-industry landscape was much different.

Toyota’s Prius hybrid was enjoying strong popularity and the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle and the extended-range hybrid Chevrolet Volt were a year old and off to a good start.

The national average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline was $3.64 in current dollars, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, about a buck more than today.

Making the outlook even better stateside for cars? Sales of them actually were outperforming light trucks.

All that has changed. In 2016 cars accounted for just 39.4% of U.S. light-vehicle sales, WardsAuto data shows.

Into this evolving market with a weaker appetite for green cars, Hyundai launches its new 3-car Ioniq lineup, made up of an on-sale hybrid and still-to-come plug-in hybrid and all-electric models. All are well done and represent a good value for anyone who still cares about high fuel economy and low emissions.

And the Ioniqs, on a dedicated platform shared with sister-brand Kia’s new Niro hybrid CUV, offer a decent amount of utility despite their car-ness.

The Ioniq hybrid boasts more cargo volume than some grades of the Prius (Prius Two, Three and Three Touring grades), and the Ioniq EV has more cargo capacity than others in its class. Each has one of the bigger passenger volumes in their segments too, although the Niro and Ford’s C-Max and C-Max Energi nip them.

The PHEV and EV’s large lithium-ion battery packs, with capacity of 8.9 kWh and 28 kWh, respectively, sap nearly 3 cu.-ft. (0.08 cu.-m) of the hybrid’s cargo space. The hybrid also could have lost cargo space if not for Hyundai consolidating higher- and lower-voltage Li-ions into the same pack beneath the car’s second row, with the low-voltage Li-ion standing in for a traditional 12V lead-acid battery. A driver-selectable “12V batt reset” button on the hybrid’s dash resets the smaller Li-ion when it is depleted. The setup also saves 26 lbs. (12 kg), weight being the enemy of good fuel economy.

The Ioniq hybrid is rated at 58 mpg (4.1 L/100 km) combined in its Blue base model and 55 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) in the SEL and Limited upper grades.

We don’t see 55 mpg driving an Ioniq Limited in Goleta or later in San Diego, where we have the car over a 3-day weekend. But we come much closer to that mark in San Diego, hitting 52 mpg (4.5 L/100 km) after putting more than 300 miles (483 km) on the odometer.

The Ioniq’s fuel-economy meter seems to be a slow-builder, requiring a hefty amount of miles on the car before it approaches its on-paper average. In short jaunts around Goleta, the best we see is 42 mpg (5.6 L/100 km); in a November 2016 loan of a pre-production Ioniq hybrid for a Wards 10 Best Engines evaluation, we tally 48 mpg (4.9 L/100 km) after 76 miles (122 km) of driving around Metro Detroit.

But 52 mpg is good given how much of our San Diego route is over hilly terrain and our liberal use of the air conditioner during one warm day.

Still, the Prius easily achieves its average and oftentimes overshoots it. In a November 2015 drive, WardsAuto tallied 59.3 mpg (4.0 L/100 km) in a Prius Two Eco rated at 58 mpg combined. The gap between the Ioniq’s real-world performance and stated average could result in unhappy customers.

The Ioniq EV and PHEV do much better. As with Hyundai’s Sonata PHEV, winner of a 2016 Wards 10 Best Engines award, both use fewer miles of range than they travel.

Strong regenerative braking is the secret behind the Sonata PHEV’s performance, and Hyundai says the Ioniq PHEV and EV use a third-generation system, claiming the highest energy recovery of any competitor measured by looking at energy going in and out of the electric motor. (Paddles in the EV allow for driver-selectable levels of regen, with Level 3 slowing the car the most when easing off the accelerator.)

The Ioniq hybrid, PHEV and EV use 32-kW (43-hp), 44.5-kW (60-hp) and 88-kW (118-hp) electric motors, with the 32-kW motor boasting greater torque density and efficiency than the Prius’ 60-kW (80-hp) motor due to flat-type copper wire allowing for denser coiling.

The hybrid and PHEV motors are paired to Hyundai’s direct-injected Kappa 4-cyl., whose 1.4L turbocharged variant was a winner of a 2017 Wards 10 Best Engines award in the Elantra Eco compact sedan. However, the Ioniq’s version of the engine displaces 1.6L and lacks turbocharging but adds Atkinson-cycle combustion.

In an Ioniq EV, we drive one 8.6-mile (14-km) route in Goleta, but use only 7 miles (11 km) of range. In a longer route, our driving partner regenerates 2 miles (3 km) of range during one short stretch of downhill coasting. The Ioniq EV is rated at 124 miles (200 km) all-electric on a full charge, just a notch below the Volkswagen e-Golf’s 125 miles (201 km) but well off the Chevy Bolt’s 238 miles (383 km). Because of the Bolt’s $37,495 starting price, Hyundai doesn’t foresee much cross-shopping with the less-expensive Ioniq EV.

It’s trickier to express real-world fuel economy in the Ioniq PHEV, experienced in pre-production form here, as we switch from EV to hybrid mode halfway through our 13.4-mile (22-km) route. But we spend just 8 miles (13 km) of electric range and pat ourselves on the back as our car tells us our driving style is 61% economical, 39% normal and 0% aggressive.

The PHEV is not yet rated, but Hyundai expects a full lithium-ion battery to go 27 miles (43 km) all-electric, above the Prius Prime plug-in’s 25 miles (40 km), but below the Chevy Volt’s 53 miles (85 km).

Should you wish to hot-dog it in your Ioniq, all three have a sport mode, accessible via button in the EV and leftward movement of the shifter in the hybrid, that quicken acceleration and firm-up steering. The engine stays on in hybrids placed in sport mode.

All Ioniqs save for the EV have independent front and rear suspensions. The EV uses a torsion beam rear for battery packaging reasons, Hyundai says. Even with their independent suspensions, the hybrid and PHEV have rides that lean toward stiff, not surprising as a senior Ioniq engineer says company leadership stipulated the car needs to be fun to drive.

In California, ride isn’t much of an issue due to near-perfectly smooth roads. In Michigan, we feel darn near every rut. Increasingly a smooth ride is hard to find in green cars, as many automakers take a “Who-are-you-calling-soft-and-boring?” stance in the segment.

Hyundai has developed a strong reputation for quality interiors, and the Ioniq’s cabin continues that. While it isn’t flashy, and you certainly wouldn’t call it luxurious, the car’s passenger space (virtually identical between all three models, except for the hybrid’s available beige interior instead of standard charcoal) has high-quality materials, interesting patterns and textures and a just-right level of information, largely accessible via physical switchgear.

Cars with a charcoal interior use white stitching and frosty-white hard-plastic trim as subtle accents. Hybrid charcoal-interior models have blue piping on seats.

The upper instrument panel and front doors use soft-touch materials, with an alluring crosshatch texture a change from the usual faux-leather grain.

Small amounts of volcanic rock and powdered wood are included in hard-plastic door trim for eco-friendly cred and weight reduction.

The fuzzy headliner, also a green material with 20% sugar-cane content, is one area where the sub-$30,000 starting price of the hybrid is reflected. The lack of a driver grab bar also shows some cost-cutting measures were taken.

The four outboard seating positions are comfortable, with good headroom. The center seat is suitable for kids or shorter adults, as it lacks a full-extend head restraint.

Functions are controlled with large hard buttons easy to reach for the driver thanks to their placement on the lower center console.

Knobs for temperature and fan speed have a nice feel when turned, as do volume and tune knobs.

Voice recognition is so-so in Ioniqs, with the system failing to recognize most of our radio-station-related commands. But it finds spoken addresses quickly and easily, and physical entry of an address for navigation is easy and fast, too.

Not surprisingly, the Ioniq was styled for maximum aerodynamic-ness and has the familiar profile of most green cars: rounded corners, tall decklid.

Hyundai’s hexagonal-shaped front grille, open for the hybrid and PHEV and solid for the EV, gives the clean, modern-looking car a pleasant face. The Ioniqs’ subdued appearance could be a boon for Hyundai as some find the Prius too aggressively styled.

Although the Prius has been on a year-long losing streak, it still is the No.1 seller among hybrids and thus the Ioniq hybrid’s biggest competitor. The Prius’ 11,630 sales through February nearly are double those of the next-best-selling hybrid, Toyota’s own RAV4 CUV.

Toyota expects to sell 75,000 Prius liftback variants this year, while Hyundai is keeping mum on the sales potential for the Ioniq hybrid, as well as the PHEV and EV.

Officials hope spec wins and EPA calculations of lower operating costs for the EV ($0.81 to drive 25 miles vs. $0.92 for the Bolt) and Blue grade of the hybrid ($1.00 per 25 miles vs. $1.04 for Prius Eco) will motivate buyers.

But truly Hyundai’s best hope for success will be pricing.

Ever the value leader, Hyundai starts the Ioniq hybrid well below the Prius at $22,200. The EV begins at $29,500, undercutting the Bolt and Nissan Leaf. Pricing for the PHEV, on sale this fall, has yet to be announced.

Prices likely will dip even further with incentives. If gas prices remain below $3-per-gallon and Americans stay CUV-obsessed, it’s only a matter of when, not if, spiffs arrive.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com