If I were to ask you, "what’s the toughest vehicle segment in the world right now?” you’d likely not even bat an eyelid before responding that it’s hands down the subcompact crossover, and you’d be right. They’re budget conscious crossovers that can’t afford to feel cheap, and when the segment is as tech-laden and competent as it is, there’s no margin for error - success requires an ironclad assault with the best a brand has to offer. Hyundai feels up to the task, and after a year in the game, the Kona is fending well for itself as one of the top choices in the market. Spurred on by funky styling when Nissan has gone tame with the Kicks, there’s competence beneath the surface as the Kona presents a strong case for a spot in your garage.
While Nissan goes quiet on design, replacing the funky Juke with the sedate Kicks, Hyundai has taken up the mantle of quirky styling, blending it with on-form design trends that see the Kona being widely accepted without too much aversion.
Hyundai’s low-mounted hexagonal grille takes pride of place up front, with a narrow air intake mounted just above it, with a second, wider vent positioned beneath it. The top intake draws the eyes outwards to the slit-like LED daytime running lights that are standard on all Kona models as an integral design element. The main headlight clusters are mounted lower, surrounded by black body cladding that extends forward from the front wheel arches, with projector headlights on SE and SEL models, and LED units on Limited and above. The SE and SEL models feature black grille surrounds, while the Limited and Ultimate feature chrome surrounds and trimmings.
Housed in those muscular black-clad wheel arches, the SE gets 16-inch alloy wheels, the SEL 17-inch items, and the Limited and Ultimate benefitting from arch-filling 18-inch alloys in varying designs per trim. All models feature body-colored side mirrors, though only SEL trim and upwards get integrated turn signals. The base SE and SEL trims feature black lower door cladding, swapped out for chrome on higher trims. SEL and higher also receive roof rails. All models feature a blacked-out B-pillar and a signature black strip on the C-pillar to create a floating roof effect.
Black cladding on the rear arches mimics the front, stretching around to the back of the Kona where it houses one of the multiple light clusters with turn signals and reverse lights. The main taillights (LED clusters from Limited trim onwards) mimic the DRLs with their narrow design, tracing in from the shoulder line towards the Hyundai logo on the tailgate.
Hyundai offers the Kona with an array of exterior color choices, some of which are linked by trim. The base SE gets seven hues to choose from, Chalk White, Sonic Silver, Thunder Gray, Surf Blue, Pulse Red, Ultra Black, and the new-for-2019 Sunset Orange. The SE retains these choices but allows Surf Blue and Pulse Red to be equipped with a black roof - an SEL-specific option. The Limited and Ultimate models do without the two-tone options, but add the Kona’s signature hue, Lime Twist, to the available palette.
The Kona presents an engine line-up comprising two choices. A base 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline motor does duty on SE and SEL trims, developing 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque. Like other applications of this motor in the Hyundai range, we lament its use as it’s lazy and loathes being worked thoroughly to access peak outputs. It’s alright around town due to decent responses, but it lacks the potency we’d like. It’s mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox that does a decent job of swapping cogs efficiently and comfortably. The Kona Limited and Ultimate get a 1.6-liter turbocharged four that develops 175 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. Combined with the Kona’s subcompact dimensions and accompanying weight the turbo motor is a bundle of joy, rapid around town and on the highway, and is definitely the engine of choice provided you can stretch the budget. It has its own downside though, as the turbo motor is mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox that, while efficient once on the boil, is torrid at low speeds and is jerky and clunky when negotiating traffic and parking lots at low speeds. Despite this, the engine’s punch wins us over.
Both engines drive the front pair of wheels by default, but all-wheel drive is available across the range, bringing with it an independent rear suspension and a lockable differential, but also compromised fuel economy. In front-wheel drive format, the base 2.0-liter motor boasts a combined estimate of 30 mpg, with city and highway estimates of 27 and 33 respectively. With a 13.2-gallon fuel tank that’ll see you get just shy of the 400-mile mark with mixed driving. The turbocharged engine is more efficient in town at 28 mpg but loses a point on the highway at 33 mpg, while matching the combined figure of the lesser-powered engine at 30 mpg. The addition of all-wheel drive sees both engines’ figures reduced by 2 mpg in the city and 3 mpg on the highway and combined cycles, respectively. Read more about the Konas' performance.
There’s plenty of plastic in the Kona’s interior, but despite this, Hyundai has managed to pull off a premium look and feel to the cabin with a clean design and simple ergonomics paired with a high standard of specification.
Despite being a crossover, the Kona is low enough to climb comfortably in and out of without a massive step up or down on either action. The doors are relatively narrow but can be opened wide even in tight spaces. The compact dimensions do limit the height of the door openings though, and occupants may need to duck slightly to climb in, while rear occupants will find climbing in and out a little tricky due to the constrained knee room. Once inside, the driver and front passenger will find an abundance of space, and with six-way manual adjustment standard on the SE and SEL trims, there’s enough adjustment to find a comfortable driving position.
The gauge cluster is mounted low, which is somewhat awkward, but it enhances forward visibility, as do the narrow front pillars. The rear pillars are chunky but are well positioned for minimal visual interference. A standard rearview camera with dynamic guidelines also helps minimize rearward blind spots.
While space up front is generous, as is par for the class the rear is a little tight. Decent foot room under the front seats is a plus, but knee room is cramped for taller adults. Headroom is ample for most occupants, with only the tallest of adults likely to complain. While some aspects are cramped, the Kona is no worse than most in this segment, one that isn’t known for generous rear accommodation.
As far as appointments go, cloth upholstery is standard, but as you move up the trims power adjustment, heated seats, and leather upholstery all avail themselves. Infotainment is courtesy of a standard seven-inch touchscreen on SE through Limited trims, a system that features six speakers, Bluetooth functionality, and two front USB ports as standard. The SE gets AM/FM functionality, while higher trims add SiriusXM satellite radio and HD Radio to the mix. All models get full Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality as standard. The Kona Ultimate gets a larger eight-inch touchscreen system with navigation and an eight-speaker Infinity premium sound system. The Ultimate also gets a head-up display for the driver and a wireless charging pad for supported devices.
Despite compact proportions and equally compact looks, the Kona manages to provide storage comparable to the rest of the class at 19.2 cubic feet, surpassing both the Mazda CX-3 and Buick Encore, but is still a way off the 24.3 cubes of the Honda HR-V. Nevertheless, it’ll comfortably hold a week’s worth of shopping, and there’s a clever dual-level floor that allows storage beneath the floorboard as well as on top. The rear seats fold in a 60/40 split to enable a maximum cargo volume of 45.8 cubic feet. While the first figure is decent in class, the second is below what many in this segment are capable of.
The Kona’s overall party piece is wonderful driving dynamics that send it straight to the top of the subcompact CUV segment. Those dynamics are led first and foremost by the turbocharged 1.6-liter engine and the Kona’s light weight, which propels it rapidly from both standstill and whilst on the move, in spite of the dual-clutch gearbox retarding performance. But once you’re bored of the acceleration, there’s some genuine depth and breadth of ability as far as the Kona is concerned.
Upon initial inspection, the steering is dull and lifeless, and the resistance on the wheel is artificial and rubbery. The weighting is also false, but keep it in sport mode and as you push on there’s some genuine load and feedback that starts to work its way through the system. Lean on the steering through corners and you’ll find an abundance of grip and composure that begs the Kona to be driven in much the same way you would the Mazda CX-3, like a hot hatch. The suspension offers loads of support and just a touch of body roll through hard corners. But it keeps things glued to the surface and leaves you feeling one with the driving experience. If it had to be criticised, it’d be for the slight bounciness over mid-corner bumps, driven largely by the fact that the Kona weighs just 3,000 pounds on average. This is improved a little in all-wheel drive models that carry a little extra weight and also offer independent rear suspension.
The ride quality when relaxed is just as exemplary, and it’s not just the fancy suspension in the all-wheel drive model, but the standard setup too that really impresses with levels of comfort over large and small bumps alike, and the Kona shines brightest in this regard.
Where it could be improved is in the braking department, where the Kona just doesn’t quite have the same efficacy as many rivals. The pedal feels good and is easy to modulate, and the Kona is composed under hard braking, but 60-0 mph brake tests have yielded substandard results compared to rivals.
The Kona is new to the market, only being introduced in 2018. But build quality seems as tight as the rest of Hyundai’s burgeoning portfolio, and J.D. Power’s predicted reliability rating of 3.5 is ahead of the industry average and bodes well for future year models. Of course Hyundai’s wonderful 10-year/100,000-mile drivetrain warranty is a huge bonus and is leagues ahead of rivals, while there’s a certain amount of reliability garnered by the fact that most of the componentry here is used elsewhere in Hyundai’s line-up without issue. There have been no recalls for the Hyundai Kona as of yet.
Hyundai offers the Kona in four trim lines for 2019. The SE and SEL kick things off at $19,990 and $21,800 respectively for the front-wheel drive derivatives, with the SE breaking the psychological 20k barrier. Both derivatives get the 147-horsepower 2.0-liter motor and six-speed automatic gearbox. The SE features 16-inch alloys, automatic headlights, keyless entry, air conditioning, tilt and telescopic steering adjustment, and six-way manual driver’s seat adjustment as the standard features. On the tech front, you’ll get a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system with six speakers, two USB ports, Bluetooth, a rearview camera, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality. For 2019, the safety of the SE has also been bolstered with the addition of forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and lane keep assist.
The SEL works on the specification of the SE, but adds 17-inch wheels, roof rails, heated side mirrors with integrated turn signals, keyless entry and ignition, a leather steering wheel, heated front seats, a split-level cargo area, as well as SiriusXM satellite radio and HD radio functionality. Further safety enhancements are to be had on the SEL with blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert as standard. The SEL is also the only model to get the contrasting roof option for the exterior, and also comes with the option of the SEL Tech package. This package costs $1,600, but adds a power tilt-and-slide sunroof, power driver’s seat adjustment, fog lights, an Infinity premium audio system with eight speakers, and the Blue Link Connected Car System.
While the SEL with the Tech package might sound enticing, the pick of the range in our eyes is the Kona Limited at $25,550. You get everything the SEL and Tech package offers, but you also get the 175-hp turbocharged engine with dual-clutch automatic gearbox, 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and taillights, automatic climate control, leather upholstery, an auto dimming rearview mirror, and a universal garage door opener. The Limited trim also unlocks the Lime Twist exterior hue which gets a unique interior color scheme of black leather, a black headliner, and lime contrast stitching. This is the one to have, combining the best of all worlds at a relatively affordable price.
For $26,250 the Ultimate trim completes the range by adding rear park sensors, pedestrian detection for the forward collision avoidance system, automatic high beams, automatic wipers, a head-up display, and an eight-inch navigation touchscreen along with a wireless charging pad.
There’s also a limited edition Kona Iron Man, inspired by the suited Marvel superhero, not the triathlon in Hawaii, set to go on sale early in 2019. The Iron Man edition features bespoke matte black exterior with a scarlet roof and body accents, along with Stark Industries vinyl, LED daytime running lights reworked to look like the eyes of the Iron Man suit, and a redesigned hood with red inserts. Fender badges are of the Iron Man mask, as are the centers of the Iron Man edition wheels. The interior gets the full treatment as well. Based on the black and lime interior of the Limited model, it trades out green for red, and features extra red accents throughout the cabin. The gauges have custom graphics, and there’s a custom design for the head-up display as well. Pricing is yet to be announced at the time of writing, but the Iron Man is powered by the turbocharged 1.6-liter engine and can be equipped with either front- or all-wheel drive. Mr Stark, your car is here.
The prices above are for the front wheel drive derivatives. All models can get all-wheel drive equipped for an extra $1,400 which not only adds an extra driven axle, but also equips more sophisticated rear suspension and comes with a center differential lock for slippery situations.
While the affordability factor of the Kona SE and SEL might sound attractive, the Limited model presents huge value for money and equips you with a mighty turbocharged engine to boot. But even if that’s too far a stretch, any model in the Kona line-up still ranks better than much of what the competition has to offer. Hyundai combines quality driving dynamics, an upmarket interior, great standard safety, and high levels of specification in a subcompact package that deserves to take this booming segment by storm. While it’s still early on in its lifespan, and reliability remains to be determined, there’s little not to love about this funky crossover from Korea.