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Despite making a fashionably late arrival to the small crossover market, the 2018 Hyundai Kona has certainly made a grand entrance on appearances alone. Funky? You bet. Even against the hot sellers and mover’n’shakers – CX-3, ASX, XV, HR-V – largely responsible for skyrocketing the popularity of form and fashion over pure family-friendly functionality, the Kona appears, literally, to lob into trendy leading edge of style.

But it’s really the recent arrival of the funkier-than-James-Brown Toyota C-HR that’s hit the crossover market with biggest impact, both stylistically and critically. Of its win against three key rivals from Honda, Mazda and Mitsubishi in comparison back in March, our verdict was that “the most interesting Toyota on sale bar the 86” is “the coolest car in segment by a mile” and “that moves the segment forward enough to be our first recommendation, whether the C-HR in question is in base form or Koba spec.”

With Kona’s first chance to challenge the small crossover set in comparison – for style, for goodness, for any measure that matters – we just had to roll out the tallest poppy in the fertile field. And, besides, c’mon, on naming alone, Kona versus Koba screamed for a match-up.

And luckily enough, too. Had we chosen entry-level variants, the base C-HR front-driver with CVT, at $28,990 list, would’ve struggled terribly on value alone against the entry Kona Active, which lobs for just $24,500 before on-roads. A fight for another day, perhaps.

Instead, we climbed to the opposite end of the fiscal ladder in search of a much closer, and perhaps juicier, match-up…


Pricing and Specification

At $36,000 list, the Kona Highlander 1.6 AWD sits as the absolute range-topper of Hyundai’s fledgling crossover range. And, fortuitously, all the C-HR that good money can buy is in flagship Koba spec which, at a slightly more affordable $35,290, nets the top-dog all-wheel drive version.

So far, so even. But before we let this at it, it’s worth considering that if a buyer is chasing particular wants and needs, there’s a lot of choice within each nameplate’s range, and different choices between the brands.

Want a manual transmission? C-HR offers one in base front-drive spec. Prefer CVT? Toyota’s your guy with a choice of front- or all-paw drive. For conventional automatics, Hyundai will oblige in front drive form paired with a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine, while the Korean brand pairs a dual-clutcher specifically with all-wheel drive and a turbocharged 1.6L four. Meanwhile, the C-HR is fitted exclusively with a 1.2-litre turbo four for both front- and all-wheel-driven variants.

Confusing matters further, the C-HR is offered in two trim levels: base and Koba. Meanwhile the Kona can be had in three specs: Active, mid-range Elite, and all-you-can-eat Highlander. And that’s before you delve into the healthy degree of personalisation, be it no-cost or on-cost, throughout each range. The Toyota, for example, has around 60 different options and accessories to make your car more, well, yours. There’s a lot of choice within the C-HR and Kona ranges.

In Kona-Land, there’s a choice of nine body and two roof ($295) colours, with a possible 22 different combinations. In C-HR-Ville, you can mix eight body and two roof ($450 extra) hues for a total of 15 different choices.

There’s a fair amount of commonality between the pair, including leather trim, rear-view cameras and rear sensors, multifunction steering wheels, touchscreen infotainment with brand-specific app integration, front seat heating, Bluetooth, and LED headlights/taillights/daytime running lights. And each covers the other off in safety gear such as AEB, blind-spot monitoring, rear-cross traffic alert functionality and both lane departure warning systems.

However, there are also more than a few differences in equipment and spec between them.

The newcomer Kona, in top Highlander trim, is the only one to get electric folding mirrors, a heated steering wheel, seat cooling (because: Australia) to complement heating, electric seat adjustment, auto high-beam, Qi inductive smartphone charging, a head-up display and, a big deal for some, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. It also has lane-keep steering intervention tech not fitted to the C-HR.

For it’s part, the CH-R trumps its challenger on airbag count (seven versus the Kona’s six), proprietary sat-nav, a CD player and active cruise control. At the time of writing, the Kona has yet to be ANCAP tested, though clearly safety credentials fare admirably compared with the five-star-rated C-HR.

All of which makes choosing the better-equipped car a case of ‘depends’. For instance, if you live vicariously through your smartphone and have familiar urban travelling habits, the Kona’s infotainment system may offer huge appeal. Live or travel regularly outside of mobile range and frequent parts unknown, the C-HR’s alternative could make much better sense.

Equally, it’s worth sifting through the goodies you mightn’t want in choosing between the two though, if you’re happily parting with $36k for a small SUV… erm… crossover, you’ll want more goodies than you’ll have use for. In which case, the Hyundai’s stash is a little more generous, so it gets the nod here.


Styling

In such a style-driven segment, it would be remiss to not touch on fashion sense. There’ll be no judgement in which looks ‘better’ – that’s for you to decide – but styling, design and packaging does impact and inform more objectively critical areas of appraisal.

From 50 paces, the C-HR is still the funkier, more ‘crossover’ design, be it body lines, proportions or in the details. And while the Kona lacks nothing to its nemesis in general impact, it clearly retains more concessions to SUV convention. What is very unconventional is the Hyundai’s exterior lighting: what you presume are the headlights are its DLRs, what you think are the driving lights are in fact the headlights. Yes, just like Citroen’s Cactus…

While tricky and elaborate lighting, over-fender grey cladding and fancy tailgate styling drag the Kona away from its SUV roots, the C-HR really is an utter departure. The slope of the cargo door is pure hatchback, no doubt impacting luggage space, the chunky plastic sill garnish serves purpose beyond the visual, and those high set rear door handles will frustrate any child below the ages of puberty as they’re so high and out of reach.

It all suggests that the C-HR makes fewer concessions to the role of mini-family hauler, playing the sporty youth pitch card harder than anything else in segment including the fresh-faced Korean. And you sense the Kona wants a piece of the younger – or younger at heart – market without forgetting good old functional practicalities.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest as much the moment you climb inside.


Cabins

Compared with its exterior design, the Kona’s cabin space is downright conventional. Bar the neat, attractive and stylised steering wheel – i30 anybody? – it’s exactly what you’d expect from a contemporary Hyundai SUV. It’s clean, clear, relatively unfussed, and far more pedestrian than you might’ve expected. Perhaps the absence of optional Acid Yellow or Red accent trimwork is letting the team down, but its wash of black and very dark greys on our test car, while neat, lacks visual interest and fanfare. Mature and just little Germanic? You bet.

The Kona’s built is solid, the materials are decent, the leather comfy. Designers have maintained logical and control placement and sound ergonomics, though I do admit to hitting the drive mode button on the console half a dozen time before realising the Start button is actually somewhere else, hidden behind the steering wheel.

The C-HR, though, goes for an asymmetric dash design that angles the controls, the infotainment and even access to the console oddment bins angled towards the driver. The message is clear: its design favours one occupant only. Again, little concession to SUV convention.

It’s a darker, more intimate space than airier Kona, too, though the material choice is more varied and more flamboyant: lots of conspicuous piano black; lashing of satin silver; ornate skin-like texture on the fabric inserts and diamond motifs along the headlining. There’s variety of surfaces, visually and tangibly, and more allround fanfare than a New Orleans Mardi Gras.

The seats are lower slung and the dash top is higher than the Kona. You sink into the C-HR. It’s much more the sportscar vibe than the more moderate ‘sporty SUV’ vibe the Kona deftly strikes. The controls aren’t quite as clean and logically laid out as the Hyundai, though it’s far from the confusing mess of design prevalent elsewhere in the small crossover segment.

Despite having dedicated sat-nav and a CD player – at $36k, why not? – the C-HR’s infotainment system is a letdown. No smartphone integration is glowing omission, particularly for this segment, and there’s not much joy in breadth of functionality, features, slickness and speed within its small 6.1-inch screen.

Like a great many of today’s designs, the Kona’s seven-inch infotainment relies on your smartphone to do most of the technical heavy lifting. It’s clear, responsive and intuitive enough and offers handy shortcut buttons, but lacks the depth and slickness of properly premium system on the market and, at this price point, should have proprietary navigation. And before you get too excited about the inductive charging feature, ensure that your brand and model of phone is Qi compatible.

Of the two, it’s somewhat surprising the C-HR is roomier in the second row, noticeably in knee- and headroom. The Toyota’s ‘scalloped’ rooflining is a real boon. It would provide exceptional four-adult long-haul comfort if for the simple fact that it’s like crawling into a cave back there: the upswept window line which anchors the exterior styling provides precious little outward vision for adults in the rear. Imagine the misery your seven-year old must endure staring at nothingness on long trips and without air vents or USB ports or 12V socket to charge their devices.

The Kona’s rear seating is tolerable if a bit cramped for taller adults and, like the Toyota, lacks facility for airflow or power. Its larger glasshouse creates a far less claustrophobic ambience, though. For sheer sunlight and outward vision the Hyundai would undoubtedly be the more enjoyable rear accommodation for the younger kids for which the small crossover format is so obviously skewed. But, like its Japanese rival, the feature available are pretty much limited to cup and bottle storage in the doors.

The C-HR has a largely academic 17-litre luggage space advantage with the rear seats in play: a paltry 377 litres plays 360L for the Kona, which does have a handy elasticised net for securing oddments on the floor.

Both are modest even by measure of their competitive segment set, ideal for groceries, a couple of soft overnight bags or a single set of golf clubs. Today’s toddler addenda – prams and such – would be a very tight squeeze.

Both offer 40:60 splitfold seatback flexibility but if your aim is to use either crossover as a push bike or surfboard-lugger for weekend recreation, do your homework with a tape measure first. Of course, if milking cabin and luggage space for all its worth is a priority, you might be better off shopping around in the larger, medium SUV segment, where that $36k buys a decent spec Tucson or RAV4…


On the road

Clearly, then, splurging a mid-thirties budget on a small crossover should return broader dividends than just modest SUV-ness wrapped in funky styling. Either would want to impress to a fair degree on road. And, with on-demand AWD, some light-duty off roadability, too.

The single largest disparity in the hands-on experience between this pair is engine outputs and, of course, their willingness to get a move along. At 85kW and 185Nm, the 1.2-litre turbocharged four in the C-HR has just about the least energy in class. Meanwhile, boasting a heady 130kW and 265Nm, the Kona’s 1.6 turbo four is something of a segment powerhouse.

But those shopping in small SUV don’t care about power or torque, right? You’d think as much… right until the point where you need pull out onto a highway, you need to merge from a short freeway on-ramp or want to overtake a B-double, in all cases with your loved ones aboard. Why ‘make do’ when, for similar money, there’s more on offer in an alternative?

The Kona is lusty off the mark, effortless at a cruise, responsive to changes of pace on the move. It’s essential the same unit as used in the larger Tucson and, in a smaller Kona package, is a very satisfying engine that rarely leaves you wanting for more.

Typically, too, dual-clutch transmissions – as is fitted to all-wheel-driven Konas – perform better tied to a big, fat spread of torque. And this seven-speed unit is smooth and satisfyingly positive operator for the most part, particularly under hard acceleration and a constant throttle. Start to modulate part throttle, though, and it can get a bit grumpy, particularly at low speeds.

The C-HR’s lacks of punch hasn’t hamstrung its overall appraisal – and victory – in comparison testing in the past, but climbing into the Toyota from the lusty Hyundai throws sobering light on the former to how much the latter might’ve shifted expectations within the crossover segment.

The 1.2-litre isn’t a sluggish engine, it just works hard for its keep at anything more than a cruise. On balance, the CVT transmission fitted is a smoother operator than the Kona’s DCT, but as a powertrain marriage, it’s nowhere near as driveable and satisfying under the right foot. From the ‘pinned yelp’ frequently emanating from under the bonnet, and the elastic transmission calibration intent on keeping high-rpm sonic din planted in your eardrums, you’re constantly reminded how deceptively large the C-HR is and how conspicuously small is its powerplant.

Thankfully, there’s a compliant yet surprisingly sprightly chassis underneath, and wickedly darty steering conspiring to deliver a very sporty on-road character. The C-HR’s playfulness entices you to wring its engine’s little neck. The form guide suggests a combined consumption of 6.3L/100kms, against the Kona’s slightly less favourable 6.7L best, but real-world thirst is more or less even for the pair given the Toyota demands more throttle than the effortless Hyundai, even for timid around town driving.

Despite its 18-inch wheels, the C-HR’s deft damping smooths out speed humps and pothole with aplomb and also filters out those high-frequency vibrations across lumpy, rocky broken surfaces. Traction on dirt and gravel from the AWD, too, is unflustered and satisfyingly transparent.

The Kona’s suspension tune is a little more balanced and even, more mature and measured. But the bump control (on 18s) is so disciplined, and the cornering attitude so flat and grippy, that its ride and handling balance really sits at a high plateau.

Outright, it’s a little firmer than the C-HR, if only to a degree that injects an extra sense of precision to the chassis without robbing from its resolve, adding to the on-road character rather than detracting from it. Add clear steering with excellent feedback and it’s a car fully capable of engaging twisty roads for sheer thrills.

Both also offer excellent long-haul comfort – for those in the first row at least – thanks to low road noise and impressive isolation from the outside environment. Each, too, has impressive solidity. Of the pair, the Kona’s more SUV-like form provides better rear and side vision.

Not quite as polished are both car’s safety system smarts. The warning systems are hyperactive and conservatively calibrated, and the Kona’s active lane-keeping system is inconsistent enough at ‘reading’ the environment that it’s better left off than on. And while the Hyundai’s head-up display might be handy for keeping tabs on speed, in close-proximity traffic it constantly flickers distracting blind-spot and lane-keeping warnings.


Ownership

Fitted with the high-spec 1.6L engine, the Kona demands service intervals of 12 months and 10,000kms (its 15,000km intervals with the lower-spec N/A 2.0-litre). Five years of servicing will set you back a total outlay of $1405 for 60 months/50,000kms.

The C-HR is more affordable to service, its capped-price plan totalling $975 for 60 months across 75,000kms, given each 12-month interval extends useable servicing range to 15,000km a pop.

Advantage C-HR. However, Toyota’s standard new car warranty is three years and 100,000kms, whichever comes first, looks rudimentary in the company of Hyundai’s superior five-year/unlimited-kilometre surety.


VERDICT

Let’s make one thing clear: sheer funkiness for the money plays no part in deciding a winner here. Not merely because it’s such a subjective measure, it’s that either Kona or C-HR stylistic effect can be had in much more affordable variants.

No, this competition hinges on equipment and the driving experience.

When the C-HR Koba front-driver dispatched rivals in the aforementioned four-way test, we noted its holistic goodness secured victory despite irritating blind spots, an adequate-at-best engine and a dated infotainment system. Criticisms that gather more weight the higher and pricier you climb in the Toyota’s range, and areas, it could be fairly argued, that the newcomer Kona in Highlander spec offers in measurably superior forms.

But what really underlines the Hyundai’s victory here is that it can deliver the sporty, youthful crossover indulgence you’d rightly expect from a flagship asking serious coin while still offering decent amounts of SUV sensibility. It leaves the C-HR feel more one-dimensional by comparison, if not favourably so.

While the Kona is no benchmark for spaciousness within the small crossover set, it does strike an exceptionally keen balance of style, performance, fun and practicality against a rival that peddles the style and fun pitches hard, but lacks in contest for go-hard and practical measures. The CH-R’s merely adequate and patently dated elements, this time around, has been its undoing.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.

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