Hyundai has taken its sweet time returning to the small SUV segment it once dominated with the ix35, a car replaced in mid-2015 by the bigger Tucson.
But better late than never, as the saying goes. The crossover before you is called the Hyundai Kona, a name shared with a famous southwesterly wind in Hawaii. 'K then.
Such is the bottom-line the market allows for a city-focused crossover, with a youthful bent, pitched at those who find regular hatchbacks just a little passe.
Much like the coupe-like C-HR, bubble-wrapped Citroen C4 Cactus, and frog-like Nissan Juke – progenitor to all and sundry – the Kona's looks polarise. Many risk-averse car makers let their designers go a little wild on small SUVs.
The California-penned Kona offers a new take on the familiar Hyundai grille, flanked by slim and angry little headlights. There are also lots of side-profile character lines, an aggressive stance, and heaps of garish faux tough plastic add-ons.
There are also nine exterior colour choices – Phantom Black, Chalk White, Lake Silver, Dark Knight, Pulse Red, Tangerine Comet, Acid Yellow (which is green, damn it), Blue Lagoon and Ceramic Blue – and an optional $295 two-tone roof choice.
Suffice to say it’ll leave few of you on the fence, which of course is the point. We’d add that it’s good to see HMC taking some risks, in marked contrast to the austere i30 that donates its platform here.
As you can read in our detailed pricing and spec article, the Kona comes in three specification levels called Active, Elite and Highlander, with a roughly even sales split expected between the three, erring towards the lower grades as time rolls on.
All three are available with two drivetrain choices: a non-turbo petrol four with a six-speed auto and front-wheel drive (FWD), or a pricier turbocharged petrol with a dual-clutch auto and all-wheel drive (AWD). Hybrid or diesel? Not yet, for Australia…
Expanding on what we flagged earlier, the starting price is $24,500 before on-road costs – $2500 cheaper than the base Toyota C-HR and on par with a Mazda CX-3 Maxx. It’s also $1250 more expensive than a smaller i30 hatch fitted with an auto.
This climbs to $28,500 for the Kona Elite and $33,000 for the Highlander, both as 2WD models. If you want a racier turbo engine/DCT/AWD setup with independent rear suspension (not a torsion beam) it’ll cost you an extra $3000-$3500.
The Kona’s $36k range-topper therefore, sits between the equivalent Toyota C-HR Koba (yes) and Mazda CX-3 Akari. There are a lot of good cars out there for $36k guys, just remember that...
That same edges that makes the Kona’s exterior so engaging are less evident inside the cabin, which has a floating 7.0 inch tablet with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but which isn’t available with proper satellite navigation – quite unlike the i30.
Anyone herded into using Apple Maps through CarPlay knows how terrible it is…
The layout is typically simple and clean, and the quality excellent. The Active’s tough cloth seats and basic AC controls certainly feel specific to a price point, though by the time you get to the Highlander you get leather, bright coloured inserts and seat belts, and a brand-first head-up display (which is a little low-res, but still handy).
Unlike the i30, even the base Kona has a nice leather-wrapped steering wheel instead of a cheapo urethane number. We’re always baffled that manufacturers cheapen the car’s single biggest touch point…
We won’t rehash the full specs, because you can read them in detail here. But highlights on the Active include dusk-sensing headlights, 16-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, rear-view camera, cruise control and the Hyundai Auto Link app.
The Active can also be had with an optional $1500 Safety Pack that adds blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) – all standard on the Elite/Highlander. Surely, AEB should be standard on the base car?
Meanwhile the Elite ($2500 more than the Active with Safety Pack) adds 17-inch wheels, leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, proximity key and push-button start, and climate control.
The sexy ($4500 pricier again) Highlander adds 18-inch alloys, the head-up display, heated/ventilated front seats, a Qi wireless phone charging pad and a wholly unneccesary heated steering wheel.
The back seats are okay for the class, meaning two 180cm people will find it tolerable. Most small crossovers are made for empty nesters or those with small kids – there are obviously child seat attachments and full side curtain airbags for both rows.
Surprisingly, the Kona is smaller than almost every rival, at just 4165mm long and 1800mm wide, on a 2600mm wheelbase. The boot is a respectable 360 litres, expanding to 1143L with the back seats folded.
As flagged earlier there are two drivetrain combinations available: a 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated MPi petrol engine with six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive (FWD), or a 1.6-litre turbo-petrol matched to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive (AWD).
Both versions get a Drive Mode Select system with Comfort, Eco and Sport modes that change the throttle mapping, gearbox shift points and level of motor-driven steering resistance.
The base unit oddly runs a hybrid-style Atkinson Cycle, makes 110kW of power and 180Nm of torque (at 4500rpm), and uses a claimed 7.2L/100km of fuel. It’s fine for the class, given the C-HR’s 1.2 turbo makes 85kW/185Nm, albeit lacking low down torque. The six-speed auto is way more engaging than a dreaded CVT, too.
The range-topping turbo 1.6 GDi unit familiar from the Tucson makes a healthy 130kW and 265Nm (from 1500rpm), uses 6.7L/100km, and thanks to its on-demand AWD traction and DCT gearbox does the 0-100km/h sprint in a sprightly 7.9sec.
Only 25 per cent of buyers are expected to shell out the extra $3000 for the superior drivetrain, and if you’re only pottering around town, then don’t bother.
Yet there’s no doubt the AWD system and double clutch ’box – the same hugely improved, smooth unit from the i30 that feels slicker and less inconsistent than the Tucson’s – adds to the experience in a major way.
In terms of suspension, FWD versions get a MacPherson strut setup at the front and a simple torsion beam at the rear, while the AWD models have a more advanced and expensive multi-link setup – a la the i30 SR hatch.
Like other Hyundais, the Kona also has a suspension setup tuned in Australia by the company’s Sydney engineering team, who submit desired specs (spring rates, damper setups, stabiliser bar sizes et cetera) to Korea, which incorporates them.
“We tuned the chassis to make it more compliant and controlled for Australian country roads but also make it really responsive and great fun through the corners,” HMCA ‘s engineers said. They succeeded.
Even on 18s, the Kona rounds off sharp hits while keeping road-roar dulled, while the suspension keeps the body flat through corners and helps it recover after undulations in a way that feels both long-legged and responsive.
The electric-driven steering has pep and sharpness from centre as well, which is a visceral identifier.
We’d take the keys to a Kona over any rival bar perhaps the Toyota C-HR if we had to do a long drive in the country. Good thing we have a twin test between this pair soon, then…
Like all Hyundais the Kona gets a lifetime service plan, great five-year unlimited distance warranty, and complimentary roadside assist for 12 months. When servicing with Hyundai, customers will also receive roadside support for up to 10 years.
Both engines get 12-month service intervals, though the more complicated turbo must go back every 10,000km compared to every 15,000km for the 2.0 MPi. Five years of visits will cost a minimum total of $1395 for the 2.0 and $1405 for the 1.6.
So that’s a quick look at the Hyundai Kona. So here's the thing: as we’d take a Mazda 3 over a CX-3, or a Civic over a HR-V, the i30 hatch makes more sense than its Kona crossover spin-off.
But if car buying were truly logical, we’d all be in Camrys.
We’d like sat-nav on the Highlander, the choice of a manual ’box for those precious few enthusiasts left, standard AEB on the Active and potentially sharper pricing at the top of the range, though the Kona is hardly an outlier in a segment full of overpriced offerings.
Furthermore, if you want maximum space, the HR-V, ASX or Qashqai do it better, and if you want rugged basic toughness maybe a Suzuki Vitara or Subie XV hold appeal.
But given the Hyundai offers great after-sales care, lots of design choices, an outstanding drivetrain option, upper-percentile ride and handling, decent cabin space and storage, and some cool tech higher up the variant ‘walk’, it’s an easy car to recommend to prospective buyers.
If you have your heart set on a small crossover, we’re not going to be so presumptuous as to tell you how to suck eggs. Go kick the tyres and you’ll find the Hyundai better than most offerings in class, in most of the ways that count.