Test Drive

2018 Hyundai Kona Test Drive Review: Youthful Exuberance

It’s a swing at twenty-something buyers. Is it a miss or a home run?

They see you, Millennials. They see you, and they’re trying to figure out how to convince you to buy their cars.

And it’s with good reason. Now that you’re finally getting on with your later-in-life marriages and families, you’re starting to discover that owning a car adds a lot more convenience to your lives than you thought. In fact, 40 percent of the car-buying market in the United States is expected to be made up of Millennials by the year 2020. What do automakers think they know about you? Your budget isn’t huge, so you tend to shop for entry-level cars and crossovers (and more so the latter since you care about trends and that’s where the market is going). And you use the internet, particularly social media, as a major part of your shopping, which means that image matters.

Enter the Hyundai Kona.

This is Hyundai’s brand-new subcompact crossover, aimed directly at attracting young buyers with distinctive styling, upbeat driving characteristics, bright colors, and an affordable price point.

Shopping starts by choosing between the two available engines. The base engine is a 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle (read: tuned for fuel efficiency) naturally aspirated four-cylinder that makes 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm and comes paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. (It’s pretty great that Hyundai continues to put traditional, non-CVT gearboxes into even its most efficiency-oriented cars, isn’t it?)

The upgraded mill is a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 175 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque between 1,500 and 4,500 rpm. This one is mated with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission dubbed EcoShift due to being mapped to shift at lower revs to use less fuel.

With either engine and at any trim, front-wheel drive is standard and all-wheel drive is optional.

I spent a week in a tester fitted with the 1.6-liter engine, and I found it to be an ideal match for what the Kona aims to be. It’s not the quickest to get going among its competition, but once up to speed it’s upbeat, peppy and engaging – in short, it’s fun, which is exactly what someone considering buying this car would expect at a glance.

I’d say the power level in the 1.6T Kona is just about perfect for its weight, which varies between 3,043 and 3,276 lbs depending on whether it’s equipped with, for example, the all-wheel-drive system. While the 2.0-liter’s overall weight is lower, going down to as low as 2,890 lbs, it seems to me – though, having not driven it, I can only guess – that with its lower power output and lack of turbocharging it wouldn’t be nearly as good of a fit.

The 1.6T also doesn’t come with much of a fuel efficiency penalty. Both engines are rated to get 30 mpg combined (27 with all-wheel drive); the naturally aspirated engine, of course, does a little better on the highway while the turbocharger helps in city driving. Where you spend most time driving could thus factor into your decision if fuel savings are important. (Indeed, if that’s your priority, there are other cars in this segment you could consider, like the Mazda CX-3 or the Subaru Crosstrek.)

In discussions of crossovers, especially little ones, ground clearance can become an important factor. The Kona has a 6.7-inch minimum ground clearance, which is on the lower side for the segment – the Jeep Renegade and Subaru Crosstrek both have 8.7 inches, for instance, while the new Ford EcoSport has 7.8 – so it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s set up more for city streets than snow or rough road driving.

Once you’ve made your powertrain choice, that’s where things get a little more complicated.

Love the lime green version that you’re seeing in these photos? You can have it, but not with the 2.0-liter engine – you’ll have to shell out for the 1.6T and therefore either the $24,700 Limited or $27,400 Ultimate trim. You can have the black interior with the lime green stitching and upholstery and vent border accents from the Limited level, too – but only with the dark gray or lime green exteriors, not with black or white. There’s a two-tone exterior color scheme with a black roof, but you can’t get it at the $19,500 base price, nor can you get it with the 1.6T engine. The $21,150 SEL trim is the only way it’s available, and only with a silver, red, or blue body color.

It’s nice to have options, but finding the exact combination you’re looking for is a bit head-spinning. The best way to figure out what’s going to make you happiest is to go to the Hyundai website and play with the configurator.

Whichever scheme you choose, well, exterior styling is very much a matter of taste, and the Kona certainly is different. It doesn’t do a lot for me, but I seem to be in the minority among my peers. Consider this a judgment-free zone.

Inside, you’ll find a quality fit and finish for the price point with a good amount of attention to detail. My primary gripe is that I wish it was possible to set the seat lower. I’m tall in the torso, and I feel uncentred in the windshield and uncomfortably high, even on the lowest position. However, I did still have plenty of headroom left despite feeling raised, so taller people who are used to a higher vantage point may not be as bothered by it. It’s also worth pointing out that there’s no zoned climate control and no rear-facing climate control panel at all, and you can’t option your way out of it.

What you can count on is a great infotainment system with great usability and plenty of radio presets, including some that live record SiriusXM channels. Navigation is only available on the Ultimate trim, but since Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality are standard across the board, this isn’t nearly as important a feature as it might be otherwise. You’ll also find a wireless charger in Ultimate trim, but since you’ll need to plug your phone in to access the car’s smartphone functionality anyway, most people will find this feature redundant, too.

Packaging of safety features is interesting. Some of the most popular ones are equipped on every trim but the base model, including blind spot collision warning and rear cross-traffic collision warning. There’s another set of options – lane keep assist, forward collision-avoidance assist with pedestrian detection, and driver attention warning – that’s not available at base, optional on the SEL trim (which is the top trim with the 2.0-liter engine), not available on Limited (the entry level for the 1.6T engine), and standard on the top-tier Ultimate trim.

While all new cars are now required to come with a rear-view camera, the parking distance warning feature is available on the Ultimate trim only. Overall, I didn’t find this car to be the easiest in its segment to park despite its relatively small size – the resolution from the camera is great, but the parking guidance lines never quite seemed to line up with what I was seeing in the mirrors.

Minor quibbles aside, expect to see a lot of these on your local suburban roads in the very near future. With the new Kona, Hyundai has really hit its marks, and the Millennials they’re aiming to please are going to love it.

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