It's a weird feeling when you finally get to drive a vehicle that you went to the international reveal of. It's kind of like watching your child grow up.
When I went to Seoul for the reveal of the new Hyundai Kona, not only was it one of my first international trips as an automotive journalist, it was also the first time I attended an international reveal of a production vehicle.
During my (short) time in Korea, I drove a pre-production Kona for around seven minutes – you can read my first drive review here – so it's safe to say I didn't spend enough time with the little crossover to form a proper opinion of it.
Fast forward to now, and I finally got to spend some quality time with the latest addition to the small SUV segment, and one that has been long overdue for the Hyundai brand.
On test we have the entry-level front-wheel-driven 2018 Hyundai Kona Active, which kicks off at $24,500 plus on-road costs, though our tester is optioned with the Safety Pack ($1500) and Blue Lagoon metallic paint ($595) bringing the as-seen-here price to $26,595 before ORCs.
What do you get for the spend? Standard kit includes LED daytime-running lights, automatic halogen projector headlights, 16-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, a rear-view camera, leather steering wheel, and a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The optional Safety Pack – which is included as standard on higher grades – adds blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, autonomous emergency braking (AEB) with forward collision warning, lane-keep assist, driver attention monitor, and power-folding side mirrors.
It's not bad for a base car, though you can't get in-built satellite navigation on any Kona variant – which is odd considering it's standard on the related i30 hatchback, and offered on overseas versions. There's no sign of adaptive cruise control unlike its i30 stablemate either, and you can't get it on any Kona anywhere.
When compared to rivals like the Mazda CX-3 and Toyota C-HR, the Kona's specification stacks up nicely. Sure, it lacks the standard factory navigation and adaptive cruise of the C-HR, but the Toyota is also nearly $3000 dearer in base trim with an auto, while also doing without smartphone mirroring.
The equivalent Mazda CX-3 Maxx auto ($24,390) also does without adaptive cruise and smartphone mirroring, though it has factory navigation as standard and doesn't require ticking an option box to get blind-spot monitoring and AEB.
What the Kona has over all its competitors, however, is visual presence. Some may call it ugly, others might think it looks cool, but there's no denying that the Kona stands out from the crowd, especially in our tester's Blue Lagoon metallic exterior finish.
Despite being around the same size as the CX-3 dimensionally (4165mm x 1800mm x 1550mm), the Kona's chunky bumpers and flared arches give it a more muscular stance, even with this model's little 16-inch rims, giving the impression that it's a larger car than it actually is.
The contrasting black plastic used on the wheel arches, headlight surround and bumpers gives the Kona a purposeful look. A fun fact is that the trim surrounding the headlights and rear indicator cluster was inspired by the protective gear worn by skateboarders.
Many still find the two-tier headlight set-up a little polarising, but it certainly looks more aggressive than some of the more cutesy vehicles in the segment like the Honda HR-V.
Hyundai's signature cascading grille also features, keeping it in line with the company's new design language. Train-spotters will notice that the Safety Pack adds a radar in the lower front intake and silver trim surrounds compared to the base car.
The back has a little less going on, but the massively pumped rear guards and bumpers give the Kona a muscular stance at the rear, though it could use some exposed tailpipes like the CX-3.
Inside is a little less flashy.
Hyundai has given the Kona a very grey-on-grey-on-grey cabin, at least in this base Active spec. There are brightly coloured highlights available on the Elite and Highlander grades, though the entire range gets the same patterned plastic trim on the dash and doors, along with the same overall cockpit design.
Unfortunately, we have to keep drawing comparisons to the related i30 range, as the Kona shares much of its underpinnings and interior look with the similarly priced small car.
Whereas the i30 has a decent amount of soft-touch plastics used throughout the cabin, the Kona gets none. Active models don't even get a soft elbow rest in the doors, which makes some aspects of the interior feel a little low-rent.
Overall, the dashboard design is quite modern and simplistic when it comes to the amount of buttons, but it lacks the feeling of quality you get in the C-HR.
The 7.0-inch media system sits nice and high within the driver's eyeline, and the inclusion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is great considering there's no factory navigation. We really wish the Kona came with the same 8.0-inch system as the i30, though.
Space in the front is good, however, with plenty of head- and legroom for the driver and front passenger, giving a spacious and airy feel up front. The front pews are quite comfy too.
Hoppinginto the back, it's not quite as roomy. There's still enough head- and legroom for the average adult, but taller passengers might feel a little squished behind a driver of above-average height. Four people should fit comfortably, but there are no rear air vents. Second-row occupants do get a fold-down centre armrest with cupholders though.
Another annoyance is the fact there's only a one-touch function for the driver's window, which is also limited to when pushing the window down.
Behind the rear seats is a 361-litre boot, which is about average for the class. With the second row folded, the luggage area expands to a more accommodating 1143L.
When compared to rivals, the Kona is well matched with the physically larger Mitsubishi ASX (393L/1143L) and Toyota C-HR (377L), though can't match the Honda HR-V (437L/1462L) or Nissan Qashqai (430L/1598L). It does smash the CX-3 with the seats up (264L), but the Mazda counters with a larger area when the second row is folded (1174L).
Under the boot floor is a temporary space-saver spare wheel – and this is echoed across the range.
But what's it like to drive?
We have the front-wheel-drive model, which means there's a 2.0-litre 'MPi' naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine under the bonnet, mated as standard to a six-speed automatic transmission. Unlike Hyundai's other 'MPi' engines, however, the Kona's motor is an Atkinson-cycle engine, which is normally used in hybrid applications for more efficiency.
Outputs are rated at 110kW of power (6200rpm) and 180Nm of torque (4500rpm), which aren't groundbreaking, but about on par with the class. For those who want extra grunt, you can get the 130kW/265Nm 1.6-litre T-GDi turbo four with all-wheel drive – which also adds independent rear suspension for a more dynamic drive.
Around town, though, the 2.0-litre MPi does the job just fine. Working with the six-speed auto, there's good punch off the line in tandem with smooth shifts and linear progress. Even getting up to freeway speeds is dealt with little fuss, though you will start to find the engine's limits if you try to get to triple figures quickly.
It's odd as to why Hyundai didn't put the 2.0-litre 'GDi' engine from the i30, which has a more substantial 120kW and 203Nm, but the MPi Atkinson unit of the same capacity should suit most people just fine, especially considering the Kona is designed for urban dwellers.
Meanwhile, the Kona's ride and handling are up there with the segment leaders, even with the less-sophisticated torsion beam rear suspension set-up of our front-wheel driver.
The steering is well weighted and nicely direct, while body control is also good considering the raised ride height and taller crossover body. It's genuinely car-like to drive, though it's not like it's raised 200mm off the ground and 1800mm tall, either – in fact, ground clearance is rated at 170mm.
We'd recommend the turbo engine with all-wheel drive if you want more driver involvement, but you'd be kidding yourself if you chose the Kona over an i30 SR.
Hyundai's local suspension tuning program also means the Kona is generally well sorted over most roads, despite being tuned a little on the firmer side. We did notice, however, that larger imperfections can upset the little crossover at times, while also sending a loud thump into the cabin.
Another thing that isn't so great is noise suppression – namely tyre roar. The Kona exhibits little wind noise off the windscreen and side mirrors, nor does the engine make a lot of noise when you're getting up to speed.
However, it was quite noticeable over rougher sections of road that tyre noise could be suppressed a little better, especially because the Active rides on smaller 16-inch alloy wheels with chubby 205/60 rubber.
While it can compete with the segment's best dynamically, the Kona falls short of rivals like the Toyota C-HR in terms of overall refinement.
Fuel efficiency wasn't all that flash either. We managed 9.3L/100km over mixed driving, though favouring urban conditions, which is quite a bit higher than Hyundai's 7.2L/100km claim.
In terms of ownership, the Kona is backed by Hyundai's five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with lifetime capped-price servicing. Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km. Over the first five visits, the Kona will set you back $259, $259, $259, $359 and $259 respectively – coming to a total of $1395.
It's not bad at all when you consider that some rivals cost the same to maintain over shorter periods. For example, the Subaru XV's capped-price servicing program will set you back nearly $1300 for the first three years of ownership.
To conclude, if you're in the market for a small SUV, the Hyundai Kona is definitely worth a look.
For not a huge spend, you get plenty of kit and the option of turbocharged performance – something that's sorely lacking in this end of the market – along with a design that says 'look at me', if that's what you're after.
It also drives pretty well, won't cost a bomb to maintain, and when optioned with the Safety Pack it offers just about all the latest driver-assistance systems you'll ever need.
However, if you turn your head slightly in the Hyundai showroom and look in the direction of the i30 hatchback, you'll get equivalent practicality, even more standard features, the option of a more powerful petrol engine and a diesel option, plus a design that's arguably more mainstream for those who prefer to blend in.
The i30 drives better too, and for the same price as this Active with Safety Pack, you can get an i30 SR with its excellent 150kW turbo petrol engine and equipment-packed cabin – which includes a superior 8.0-inch media system with in-built navigation as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
You also get adaptive cruise control on the DCT-equipped i30 SR ($28,950), something you can't even option on the Kona, and despite its 18-inch alloys it's just as compliant – perhaps more – around town and on the freeway.
Food for thought...