Sport utility vehicles have been dominating the automotive landscape for years. People love them because they’re practical. They can haul people and cargo like a truck or van, can provide the same comfort and level of amenities as a sedan, and are equally adept at traipsing through dense brush or chauffeuring a date to the opera. They sit higher for better visibility, are relatively fuel efficient, and for many, are affordable.
We started with full-size SUVs, then came midsize SUVs, and then compact SUVs. Now, the manufacturers have downsized again to subcompact SUVs, or, as the lines blur, crossover SUVs. But just because they’re smaller doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality, ride, performance, or versatility. These mini cute utes have been coming out of the woodwork lately, with close to a dozen being introduced within a five-year span. The lineup includes the Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR, Mazda MX3, Ford EcoSport, Nissan Kicks, Jeep Renegade, and a few more waiting for their debuts. Not to be left out of the game, Hyundai introduces the Kona, its entry into what’s becoming a red-hot segment.
According to Hyundai, the small SUV segment is seeing impressive growth, with a 16% bump in sales over a 10- year period. Right now, those numbers translate to over a half-million-unit sales. People who are buying these entry-level models are looking for styling first, then value. Which is exactly what the new Kona delivers.When you do a press launch for a vehicle named Kona, there’s only one logical place to go to drive it; so we did. A few hours on an airplane and we were in Kona on the big island of Hawaii, where black lava blankets the landscape like the entrance to Hell. Drive toward the coast, however, and you’ll find the entrance to Heaven. Palm trees swaying in the warm trade winds, soft, warm sand beneath the feet, and clear ocean water inviting everyone to come for a swim. It was almost too hard to concentrate on driving a car, but we managed to get plenty of seat time behind the Kona as we traveled the two-lane highway that circles the island. Because Hawaii makes its own climate, over the course of several hours, we experienced both dry sunny roads and rainy mountain passes, and went from sea level to 6,000-feet elevation.
We’ll talk about our driving impressions soon, but first let’s check out the styling of the Kona. Instead of flowery terms that mean nothing to us common folk, Hyundai designers focused on the basics: proportion, stance, and line. Get the right mix of these three, and you’ve got a beautiful vehicle. And you must get all three right, or even the untrained eye will notice that there’s something amiss. Proportion means balance. On the Kona, the front overhang is longer than in the back, and a lot of that has to do with packaging, or fitting in the components, such as engine, transmission, and suspension parts. Form has to follow function. It also goes a long way toward creating an attitude. What do you want the car to say? When it comes to stance, how does it look front to back? Hot rod designers spend more time on getting the stance of a vehicle correct because it can mean the difference between an award-winning car or just another ride. Finally, it’s about line, or how to lead the eyes from the front to the rear of the vehicle.
With the Kona, the designers really got it right. The proportions are balanced and clear, the stance gives it a fun but business-oriented attitude, and the lines, which Hyundai says were inspired by lava flowing, show fluidity and movement, something Hyundai has used before in its car designs. It wins here because it’s neither boxy like the Jeep Renegade, or quirky like the Toyota C-HR. The Kona will appeal to a lot of customers because this combination of styling cues make it look more upscale than the broad spectrum of its competitors.
Part of the design approach was based on how the three sections of the Kona represent the natural surroundings of Hawaii. The top third of the vehicle represents the sky, encompassing the greenhouse. Smooth, serene, and open; Hyundai’s goals here are all achieved. Visibility all around is excellent, and the openness of the design is felt inside, where there’s plenty of head room for all occupants. The middle section of the Kona represents the mountains, with interesting lines and angles that create movement, also important for a vehicle that isn’t designed to be stationary. The bottom third of this design pyramid is the ground: stable and solid, which in the Kona translates to substantial lower cladding and tires that are proportional to the wheel wells.
Inside, the designers focused on the word “companionship,” meaning the environment should be welcoming and ready to go with you anywhere. Fabric or leather interior is available depending on trim level, and there’s even some contrasting trim inside to match the Lime Twist exterior color. Also inside, “exposed technology” was another key focus of the designers. All controls should be easy to find and operate — intuitive and functional. For the most part, that’s what we discovered here. We have a slight leg up with Hyundai interiors because we own a Kia Sedona, and the sister companies tend to favor the same layout for buttons and switches. In our eyes, however, that’s not a negative because they are in the right place, and the ergonomics of the interior work exceptionally well.
Fit and finish are beyond reproach, and if we could change something, we’d like to see some padding on the door armrests instead of hard plastic pieces. Seating in the Kona is surprisingly impressive. Front seats are supportive with good side bolstering, comfortable enough on long drives that you don’t give them a second thought, and provide good seat travel for both driver and passenger. Our biggest whine about the Kona is that there isn’t a way to height-adjust the front passenger seat. We’ve gone down this road before with Kia and they responded; now it’s Hyundai’s turn to step up. Otherwise, you feel as if you’re sitting in a hole and are straining to look over the dashboard. On the plus side, we did voice our displeasure to Hyundai, and no less than Kenny Lee, Hyundai’s President and CEO, will bring that message back to Ulsan, Korea, where the Kona is built.
The Kona is available in four trim levels: SE, SEL, Limited, and Ultimate. While many may be quick to pass by the SE for a higher trim, they need to take second look. The SE is nicely equipped with a long list of standard features such as a 7-inch touchscreen display, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth, cruise control, LED Daytime Running Lights, automatic headlamps, remote keyless entry, and more. For a base price of $19,500 (excluding $950 destination charge), Hyundai is delivering a tremendous value, especially considering its 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Step up to the SEL for an additional $2,150 on top of the SE base price and you get bigger wheels and tires, heated front seats, proximity key, blind spot collision warning, and more. There’s an available Tech Package for this trim level that includes power tilt/slide sunroof, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, lane keep assist and driver attention warning for an additional $1,500.
The Limited starts at $24,700, and includes an engine change, 18-inch wheels and tires, power tilt/slide sunroof, LED headlamps and taillamps, leather seating surfaces, 8-way power driver’s seat, automatic temperature control, fog lights, and more. Finally, the Ultimate is loaded with a larger LCD touchscreen, wireless phone charging mat, head up display, driver-assist features, Hyundai’s Blue Link connectivity services, an Infinity premium audio system, and more. The Ultimate comes in at a $27,400 base price. An all- wheel-drive option is available on all trim levels for an additional $1,300. We spent our time on the island driving in the Ultimate AWD model, which had an as-tested price of $29,775.
Compared to the others in the segment, the Kona across the board comes in below comparable models, and includes more features and a better warranty as well. We mentioned earlier that value was important to customers in this segment, and Hyundai did its homework and beat the competitors hands down.
Just a couple more notes on the interior: the head-up display on the Ultimate trim is a feature only found on one other vehicle in the segment: the Mazda CX-3. The difference between the two is that the Kona offers an 8-inch projection screen versus the 3.2 inch on the Mazda, and it’s considerably brighter also. It’s power operated and raises and lowers behind the steering wheel, and works great if you like to have information projected ahead of the driver. It also works with Polarized glasses, which we appreciate. Ergonomics are good on the Kona; we had no problem reaching and using knobs, buttons or switches. Even the back seats are comfortable and with enough leg, hip, and shoulder room to make rear passengers complaint free.
For a younger buyer, the audio system can be a deal breaker or maker. They SE Kona starts with an AM/FM/MP3 audio system with six speakers. SEL and Limited add SIRIUSXM satellite radio and HD Radio capability (sorry, but this should be standard on any car since it’s a subscriber-based system after the free trial period). Ultimate comes standard with an 8-inch touchscreen, navigation, and the 8-speaker Infinity audio system with Clari-Fi technology. Clari-Fi is impressive because it helps bring back the fullness of sound that tends to get lost with compressed MP3 music files (songs stored on your phone).
Around back and inside, the Kona crossover carries more cargo than many in the segment despite its shorter overall length. Kona’s 19.2 cubic feet of cargo area just edges out the Chevy Trax, Jeep Renegade and Toyota CH-R, and destroys the Mazda CX-3, with almost 7 more cubic feet of space. There’s also a hidden compartment under the floor to keep items out of sight from opportunistic thieves.
While we’ve spent considerable time discussing styling and usability, the Kona also has a lot going for it under the skin, starting with the build quality of the body. It’s a lot easier to build a stronger large vehicle because you have more size and weight for strength. It’s a little trickier with a smaller ride because you have to watch both weight and size. Hyundai tackled this problem by making the Kona’s body over 50 percent advanced high-strength steel. Then it incorporated almost 400 feet of structural adhesives that are both incredibly strong yet lightweight. This allowed the engineers to create a body that not only will have better ride and handling qualities, but also be more crash worthy. Hyundai is targeting top ratings from both NHTSA and the IIHS (as does every other manufacturer). We assume it will hit those targets easily.
Speaking of safety, the Kona offers the requisite standard safety features, such as electronic stability control, rearview camera with dynamic guidelines, Hill Start Assist, ABS, and more. On SEL trim levels and above you also get the blind spot warning and rear cross traffic alert, plus lane change assist. More driver-assist safety features are included in the Tech Package available on SEL as previously discussed, or standard on the Ultimate trim.
Saving the best for last, let’s talk about performance. The Kona is available with two engines: SE and SEL come with a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated (Atkinson Cycle — there’s a Kona Hybrid on the way) inline four that produces 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to a 6-speed automatic with overdrive and a lock-up torque converter. The Limited and Ultimate get the Gamma 1.6-liter turbocharged four making 175 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. With this engine, max torque is available starting at 1,500 rpm, which gives the 3,400-lb. Ultimate model plenty of get up and go. Only the Jeep Renegade beats the Kona by 5 hp in top-line trim, but the Kona wins on torque across the competitive set. The GTDI is mated to Hyundai’s impressive 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. Both trannys come standard with the Shiftronic manual shift mode operated via the shifter and not paddles on the wheel. We aren’t fans of CVTs, which both the Honda HR-V and Toyota C-HR use, so we were really happy to see a standard trans with torque converter used in the Kona. Both engines in front-wheel-drive configurations receive 28/32/30 city/highway/combined mpg ratings (Ultimate trim) from the EPA, while AWD Ultimate models are EPA rated at 26/29/27 mpg.
For FWD models, the suspension setup is McPherson struts in front with a torsion beam axle rear and stabilizer bar, and on AWD models is the more sophisticated dual-arm multilink design with stabilizer bar. In addition to good road-holding capabilities of AWD, the Kona also features standard torque vectoring. It uses the brakes to help rotate the vehicle around corners; on FWD models it uses the front inside brake, and on AWD models it brakes both inside front and rear wheels. While it’s not the most sophisticated torque vectoring system on the market, it does the job helping the Kona around the curves. While we didn’t take the Kona off-road, a few of the more adventurous journalists who didn’t mind getting soaked through to the skin did, and they had nothing but good things to report.
Also helping the Kona provide great handling is its motor-driven rack-and-pinion power steering system with a respectable 13.8 steering ratio. Hyundai (and Kia) have been using this system for years, and as bad steering feel is one of our greatest pet peeves, this system has always felt direct, true, and responsive.
With all the technicalities out of the way, let’s talk about driving impressions. The Big Island of Hawaii is fairly easy to navigate because all roads are two lane in a loop around the island. We probably drove close to 200 miles from Kailua-Kona to Hilo and back. We had one stretch in the middle where we experienced some whoop-de-doos and curves, while the rest was fairly straight roads at or near the speed limits. (There are no cop cars on the island; officers are encouraged to use their own cars with small blue lights on top, so any car could be the one to nail you.) Bottom line: the Kona’s ride and handling feels as good as the Kona looks. It stayed planted at higher speeds on all road surfaces, especially the really wet ones in the hills, and the suspension felt composed and compliant. You can tell the structure is solid, as there is minimal body twist in corners, and the brakes were linear and responsive. We appreciated the good seat side bolsters for support, and how the cabin was impressively quiet.
We’ve driven our share of turbocharged four-cylinder engines, and while we often pine for more power, we didn’t feel that way in the Kona. On the big island you need to pass other vehicles if you want to get anywhere in a reasonable time (the locals are all on a laid-back timetable); we did that more than a few times on the route. During passing, the Kona kicked down a gear and had enough power so that each time we made a pass, we stopped talking and mentioned how quickly and smoothly it handled the task. Only one time up a steep hill in second gear did we wish for a bit more power when we pushed hard on the pedal. But for the majority of Kona drivers, the decent torque and horsepower will do all that’s asked of it. We didn’t get a chance to drive the 2.0-liter four, but will later in the year when we can get one scheduled. We noted fuel economy numbers in the 20s, but we always drive a little harder than the average Joe or Josephine. Again we’ll wait till we get a Kona on the mainland and do a real-world mpg run.
The Hyundai Kona is an impressive vehicle wrapped up in a smart little package. It’s affordable, loaded with great features, is aesthetically pleasing, and will be for years to come. If you’re looking for a small crossover or SUV, the Kona should definitely be at the top of the list.