KONA, Hawaii — When it comes to small, value-oriented cars, Hyundai has long been near the front of the pack. While the Korean automaker missed the initial small crossover boat, it’s aggressively playing catch-up, leveraging its experience with compact hatchbacks like the Accent and Elantra GT to create the 2018 Hyundai Kona.
If your impression of the subcompact crossover segment is that it’s nothing but a bunch of penalty boxes, spending time with the Kona will quickly change your mind even if you’re not entirely sold on its funky styling elements. As is increasingly common, the front of the Kona features LED daytime running lights above bumper-level headlamps, which are embedded within a piece of plastic trim that provides some protection from potentially expensive parking lot mishaps. A similar story takes place out back, with turn signals and rear backup lights embedded in black plastic at bumper level while the taillamps themselves sit below the tailgate glass. The cladding extends to the wheel wells at both ends of the car, adding to the crossover feel.
Four trims are available: SE, SEL, Limited, and Ultimate. The first two receive an efficiency-focused Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter inline-four good for 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque, which comes mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Powering the two higher-level trims is a 1.6-liter turbo-four good for 175 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, while a seven-speed dual-clutch auto takes over gear shifting duties. Interestingly, the SE and SEL can be had with a black roof as well as a body-color one, while Limited and Ultimate don’t receive that option.
All-wheel drive is a $1,300 extra for all trims, but a second, possibly even more significant upgrade, is included: a multi-link independent rear suspension, which replaced the front-wheel drive model’s torsion beam rear. But aside from the AWD upgrade, there’s all of one package available on the Kona, a Tech Package for the SEL that adds a sunroof, power driver’s seat, foglamps, front collision assist, lane keep assist, and an attention warning system (the safety features are standard on the Ultima, but for some reason are not available on the Limited).
We spent the better part of a day driving around the northern half of the Big Island, much of it in the rain, behind the wheel of an all-wheel drive variant of the range-topping Kona Ultimate, which comes standard with 18-inch wheels, leather, nav, wireless phone charging, a head-up display, and a full suite of active safety features save for adaptive cruise control, and came away mightily impressed. Despite its small stature and value-focused positioning, the small Hyundai offered a near-premium driving experience with surprisingly low NVH levels. Pavement quality on the island varies greatly, but the Kona handled all of it with grace, compliance, minimal shake, and barely existent tire noise. Body roll was minimal as well, while the standard brake torque-vectoring system helped it rotate through turns on twisty sections of highway. Steering was pleasant, too, offering enough resistance to easily keep things steady while cruising along with a good amount of speed and weight while turning to ensure smooth inputs.
The 1.6-liter turbo-four impressed in the Elantra Sport GT and it impressed in the Kona as well. The engine offers plenty of power for safe passing on two-lane roads, while the DCT’s work through its seven cogs was barely noticeable. About the only downside to this Kona is the price. With a $29,775 sticker, the Kona Ultimate AWD is deep in compact crossover territory and some may balk at paying that kind of scratch for a hard plastic-filled interior despite the well-executed design. It should be noted that the hard plastics are used in appropriate places and their presence does not detract from the in-cabin experience unless you have an OCD fixation for such details.
Fortunately, we found some time to sneak into a Kona SEL AWD that Hyundai also had on hand, which stickers for $23,550 without the $1,500 Tech Package and comes with cloth seats instead of leather ones, rolls on 17-inch wheels, and dispenses with automatic climate control, navigation (which isn’t that necessary given that all Konas come standard with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay), power driver’s seat. While there was no noticeable difference in ride quality and road handling, the naturally aspirated four-banger struggled with inclines and called for ample straight-line visibility when it came to going for a pass. The conventional six-speed automatic wasn’t as smooth as the DCT, either, but on the whole, given the price point, the Kona’s entry powertrain is adequate for the job of pulling slightly under 3,000 pounds of crossover. Fuel economy ratings are similar for the two engines. The 1.6-liter turbo is rated at 26/29 mpg city/highway with all-wheel drive equipped, while the 2.0-liter earned a rating of 25/30 mpg city/highway.
Space-wise, the Kona has more than plenty up front despite being one of the smallest entries in an already small field, measuring in at just 164.0-inches long. The lack of length is noticed in the back, however, where occupants are offered just 34.6 inches of legroom. While that’s perfectly suitable for a young family, you may want to look elsewhere if you’ll need to use that rear seat for adult transport with any sort of frequency. At 19.2 cubic feet, cargo room with the rear seats up is near the top of the class as well. Fold the seats down and you get an ample 45.8 cubic feet. There’s also a secondary storage area below the cargo floor that’s handy for storing smaller objects.
While it’s unfortunate that the cloth interior can’t be had with the upgraded engine, save for the lack of flexibility when it comes to equipment, the complaints department has little work to do when it comes to the 2018 Hyundai Kona. Its size makes it perfectly suited for a childfree couple that lives in the city, while its efficient fuel consumption makes it a good pick for a suburban commuter as well. Regardless of why you’re looking at options in the subcompact crossover segment, you won’t go wrong by checking out whichever version of the Kona lines up with your budget and feature needs.
2018 Hyundai Kona Specifications
|PRICE||$20,450 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/147 hp @ 6,200 rpm, 132 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm
1.6L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/175 hp @ 5,550 rpm, 195 lb-ft @ 1,500-4,500 rpm
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic, 7-speed twin-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||26/29 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||164.0 x 70.9 x 61.0 in|