Kia's concept EV restraint overshadowed Hyundai's excess in LA

You wait for one three-row all-electric SUV, and along come two at the same time. Well, two concepts at least, with both Kia and Hyundai bringing their vision of electrified seven-seaters to the LA Auto Show 2021 this week. For the two South Korean automakers it's a chance to show off just how their shared E-GMP architecture can be applied, but it also proved to be an unexpected competition pitting glitz against relative restraint.

"Restraint" isn't a common theme at auto shows, where concept cars typically liberate designers and engineers from the constraints of production reality, safety regulations, and the like. In more recent years we've seen an uptick of nearly-production-ready cars masquerading as barely disguised concepts, true, but the recipe is typically one of dropping jaws first and then demurring when it comes to explaining the practicalities.

You can't question Hyundai's ambitions. The Hyundai SEVEN Concept – expected to be massaged into the production IONIQ 7 three-row SUV in the not-too-distant future – didn't stint on the common show car themes. As well as the pillar-less rear-hinged rear doors, allowing both the promise of easy entry and the convenience of exposing the interior to eager LA Auto Show crowds, the cabin itself is more a lounge than what you'd expect from an SUV.

Individual armchairs so stylish they wouldn't look out of place on a furniture inspiration Instagram account, a huge display mounted on the ceiling for beaming media or showing animated screensavers, and of course atypical controls all appeared. A retractable joystick could override the SEVEN Concept's autonomous driving, but really, Hyundai clearly expected the EV's occupants to be relaxing or napping rather than considering the road.

Kia's EV9 cabin, in contrast, is a little more down to earth. Sure, you still get the rear-hinged doors, but the interior they reveal has seats that are recognizable as seats you might find in a car; a steering wheel that – though angular – still looks like a steering wheel; and a general sense that this is all a whole lot closer to production-ready than anything Hyundai showed.

While it's more simple than the Hyundai SEVEN, it also draws attention to some of the EV9's more promising detailing. One of the interesting challenges automakers face at the moment is trying to translate expectations of luxury in materials, in ways that satisfy demand for environmentally- and animal-friendly ways. Less leather, less wood, and more recycled content like technical fabrics.

Kia used that opportunity to experiment with some neat features that are refreshing in their practicality. The touch-sensitive HVAC controls that glow through the fabric-wrapped dashboard not only look great, but they don't feel too far from something Kia could actually use in a production vehicle. The same goes for the integrated storage, and the way the seats are mounted which emphasize the benefits of an EV's flat floor.

The production EV9 we're expecting won't have the fancy doors, and Kia will probably succumb to more recognizable buttons for things like the power windows. Nonetheless, the exterior is in part distinct for how close it is to the automaker's current design language for models like the EV6. Switch out the vast wheels and add more realistic lights, and it's not too hard to see how this big, three-row SUV could be tamed, just a little, for real roads.

Kia, like Hyundai, is blunt that we shouldn't read too much into production intent from what's clearly billed as a concept. Nonetheless, the promises it makes for the E-GMP architecture which underpins both automakers' concept SUVs isn't just auto show hot air. Dual electric motors, a 77.4 kWh battery, and talk of around 300 miles of range sound eminently achievable too, as does 350 kW DC fast charging support.

Just what, in fact, you'd hope for from a three-row EV, a category which currently is underserved in the fledgling market. Maybe not as sexy or as eye-catching as an electric coupe or sports sedan, or as fashionable as a pickup, but the sort of vehicle that plenty of families have been waiting for as they weigh their transition to electrification.

According to Kia, the production EV9 is likely to debut in 2023. What's notable, then, is how big of a preview the automaker has given us at this early stage, and all by resisting the urge to let too many flights of fancy take hold at the LA Auto Show.