A compact SUV or a sports SUV? It's hard to tell with the impressive Kona, but its finest features could also be the thorn in its side.
There’s no doubt that the small SUV segment in which the Hyundai Kona competes is fiercely competitive, but what the South Koreans are offering seems to be – on the surface at least – a step above the rest.
Here you have Hyundai going up against the Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR, Subaru XV and the insanely old yet still popular Mitsubishi ASX. You may think the established Japanese brands that have been in this segment for a much longer time would have the edge over the Koreans, but it seems like whatever made the folks at Hyundai take their time with the Kona has been worthwhile.
For our one-month-long review, we took on the top-spec Hyundai Kona Highlander in 1.6-litre turbocharged AWD guise matched to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which is also the most expensive in the Kona range at $36,000.
The range starts at $28,500 for the base Active, which is powered by the 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine that makes use of a six-speed conventional automatic. You can also have that in the Highlander guise for $3000 less than the turbo unit, but you do miss out on AWD. Full details on the specifications and pricing can be found here.
Our Acid Yellow Kona, which is really just, you know, green, certainly stood out on the road. And while we do actually love its exterior design and think it's perhaps the best-looking car Hyundai currently makes, it is the interior that really surprises, but perhaps not in the way you think.
In the modern world where pseudo-designers that wear nothing but black on black have infiltrated the premium brands – with this idea that the world might end if there is any form of colour or vibrancy inside a cabin – it’s refreshing to see the Koreans take a more fun and lively approach.
It would have been easy and expected for Hyundai’s team of designers to just go with the trend and create another dark cabin, but the interior of the Kona actually matches the exterior. It has the same colour-coded highlights, from the stitching to the seatbelts and the air-con surrounds. It looks great and it’s just that little bit more appealing than sitting inside yet another dark and Germanic cabin.
Unfortunately, while it looks great to the eye, if you start feeling your way around the cabin it starts to lose its appeal. The plastics where your right elbow would rest on the door handle are super hard and unreasonably uncomfortable. The moulding on the dash, the door surrounds, pretty much whatever you touch, feels cheap and unlike other Hyundai models we’ve come to love. Look, save costs on surfaces that no-one has any right to touch – that’s okay – but not a direct contact point for the driver.
On the plus side, despite the car looking pretty small (less boot space than an i30), there is plenty of room in the cabin for four. We had two adults in the front and our two large and bulky child seats in the rear and no-one ever really complained. I wouldn’t be putting big adults in the back for long trips, but it's very practical for its size and category.
The infotainment system also misses out on satellite navigation, but with Apple CarPlay, we didn't see that as much of a big deal.
It’s important to note that while the price may raise a few eyebrows, the Highlander comes packed with a ton of features. Everything from 18-inch alloys, head-up display, heated and cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, wireless phone charging and Apple CarPlay, plus a 4.2-inch digital instrument cluster in addition to the standard 7.0-inch touchscreen. If you don’t need any of those, you can save yourself about $4000 and go for the mid-spec Elite, which comes with all the useful stuff like keyless entry, leather seats, auto wipers and climate control.
That’s without mentioning the ton of active safety features, including the usual stuff like blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and AEB. But it really impressed us with its lane-assist system that kept the Kona dead-centre in the middle of the lane on the highway. Of course, you can have all of that even in the base-model car for an extra $1500 as part of the safety pack.
Press the start button and the four-cylinder turbo comes to life. With 130kW of power and 265Nm of torque (from 1500rpm), the little Kona is definitely not lacking oomph. Hyundai claims fuel consumption of 6.7L/100km and a 0–100km/h time of 7.9sec. We are here to tell you that is pretty much rubbish.
Firstly, our fuel usage was 8.4L/100km and it was driven very sedately most of the time with a ton of highway kilometres. Secondly, 7.9 seconds? Maybe if Harold Scruby is driving. Whoever at Hyundai timed this must’ve forgotten to have their morning coffee. It feels much, much quicker than that, and in our crude tests it was returning around 6.4 seconds. This is basically a sports SUV. It feels super fast for what it is, and in some ways we think Hyundai has missed the opportunity of marketing this car as an alternative for anyone looking at an i30 SR (same powertrain but with slightly reduced outputs) that wants some more practicality.
On the road, the benefits of the AWD are hard to quantify. However, if you do go for the turbo, you have no choice, and that also brings the benefits of a proper rear suspension set-up that helps with the car’s dynamics around the twisty stuff. Does it really matter? Depends on how hard you drive, but frankly, the answer is probably no. Nonetheless, you do get the benefit of a centre differential lock that may be useful on the ‘once in a lifetime’ chance you end up taking your Kona off-road or on the beach.
We did find that the ride was a tad unsettled on the 18-inch wheels in the AWD version – not necessarily firm or uncomfortable, just taking a little while longer than we expected for the SUV to get its act together after a pothole or speed hump. We didn’t experience the same thing with the standard 2.0-litre car that makes use of a torsion beam in the rear (AWDs use multi-link).
The other negative for us was the transmission. There is nothing unique about a dual-clutch transmission – they have been around for almost a decade since Volkswagen made them popular. However, much like the early versions of the German company’s DSG, the DCT in the Kona is not ideal for low speeds. It tends to jerk and struggle a bit when stuck in traffic, and can be a little nerve-wracking when going from drive to reverse (or vice versa) on a hill.
It’s only when you’re really on it and drive it like a sports car that it comes to life, so in the Kona – which is meant to be an everyday city SUV – it seems somewhat superfluous. It would’ve been nice to have this car on offer with just a standard and less challenging transmission.
On the plus side, we found the active safety systems in the Kona to be fairly competent, despite the glaring absence of the active cruise control available with its i30 sibling. The lane-assist system can all but steer the car on the highway, and combined with autonomous emergency braking – an application that proved vigilant without being annoying – the package adds some surety in the event of unintended distraction.
On the whole, we love the Hyundai Kona. We found it to be the perfect balance of stylish sophistication inside and out, with an amazing array of safety features. However, whereas it excels in the 1.6 turbo guise in terms of performance and dynamics, it also falls short of its intended purpose – that of being a daily SUV for urbanites.
For that reason, we would recommend going for the 2.0-litre naturally aspirated version instead. So much so, I convinced my parents-in-law to buy a 2.0-litre Highlander over the Japanese offerings a few weeks after returning this car. More on that ownership experience in the coming months.
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NOTE: This review originally referred, in error, to the presence of active cruise control. This has been revised.