With a sprinkling of added freshness injected into ranges in the latter half of 2018, it’s high time we matched up two perennial favourites of the trendy small-crossover set: the Honda HR-V and Hyundai Kona.
Be it the prolific wider choice on offer in segment or the variety offered within each marque’s particular range, the two variants we’ve lined up here haven’t had much of shake through the CarAdvice garages either. A fine time, then, for both individual appraisal and comparative assessment against one another.
Our Honda HR-V VTi-LX is the Japanese small SUV-cum-city runabout at its highest specified tier, lobbing at $34,590 list in lieu of an update to the full range back in July. It’s the heap-topper of five grades, all fitted with the same 1.8-litre four-cylinder, front-driven, CVT-equipped powertrain. Simple.
The Hyundai Kona Highlander 2WD on the page before you certainly looks like the same electric green versions we’ve tested in the past, but it’s not. See, the Kona range, itself treated to an August refresh, is double the size of HR-V’s and the lion’s share of ink dedicated to the top-tier Highlander have been the 1.6 turbo, dual-clutch, all-wheel drive version that nudges $40k.
This example before you, however, is a naturally aspirated, six-speed-automatic front-driver that both much closer in matching our HR-V on powertrain format. And, at $35,500 list, there's less than a grand's difference in pricing between the two rivals.
Both fit in the small-crossover universe in a space that that’s heavy on bells and whistles and somewhat more lightweight for motivational prowess, with a not unexpected medium-weight mid-$30k pricepoint. For buyers primarily willing to splurge a bit on extra niceties in an urban runabout and without necessarily busting the bank account, then.
Both competitors get fulsome standard suites befitting of flagship version four rungs up the ladder. This include full LED exterior lighting front and rear, high-beam assist, cruise control, a reversing camera with front and rear parking sensors, (front) electric-adjust leather-appointed seating, climate control, keyless entry, auto wipers, electric folding wing mirrors, an auto dimming rear-view mirror and a panoramic glass roof (which can be substituted for a two-tone colour scheme with the Kona).
Kona ups the ante in areas such as offering 18-inch wheels (HR-V gets 17s), front seat ventilation, steering wheel heating, wireless phone charging and a head-up display, while the HR-V exclusively fits interior LED lighting, steering wheel paddle shifters and speed-adaptive power steering assistance.
While the Hyundai’s rear camera gets adaptive guidelines, the Honda’s design offers various changeable views plus the Japanese company’s clever, proprietary LaneWatch kerb-side camera system.
Both crossovers get their respective maker’s high-spec safety packages, each offering forward collision warning plus AEB – the Honda’s ‘city’ speed-limited functioning up to 30km/h - as well as lane departure warning, though the Kona further bolsters its credentials with active lane keeping, blind spot monitoring and rear-cross traffic alert.
Kona’s recent update introduced an enlarged 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment that includes proprietary sat nav, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto integration, DAB+ plus, in this Highlander spec, Auto Link Premium service allowing, via smartphone apps, some remote control car functionality.
This is, on paper, a vastly more powerful system than Honda’s 7.0-inch system that has sat-nav, lacks smartphone mirroring and digital radio, and offers six-speaker audio against the Hyundai’s eight-speaker set.
Both cars come with front, side and curtain airbags and maximum five-star crash score from safety tester ANCAP.
Their a pair stacked with features, but the Hyundai’s more brimming array in areas many buyers want and need, for its slightly sharper pricing, gives the Korean the gong here.
Design and packaging
Let’s be frank: these and their segment dwellers are called ‘crossovers’ because there realistically family functional SUVs in the way the term is accepted today.
Partly because of this, the urban-focused quasi-hatchback/SUV format favours funkiness as a selling point, whether or not buyers find styling any sort of priority whatsoever.
The boxy first-gen HR-V originator was a crossover mould-maker and the current version was certainly trendy and stylised outside and in when it launched around four years ago.
Thing is, funky left-field design creating that initial ‘fresh look’ will, logically, date more quickly than safer classicisms. Today’s HR-V still looks great four years on, though its age is beginning to wear, moreso inside than outside.
The Kona, which lobbed entirely new in October 2017, is arguably bolder in exterior design than the Honda, including the cool and unorthodox ‘flipped lights’ – DRLs up top, headlights below - front fascia.
It does look fresher outside than the Honda, if in part because it’s merely a less familiar facade, though it does spruik a more conventional cabin design than that of the angular HR-V.
Of course, buyers will favour one style approach over the other depending on subjective tastes…
The HR-V’s ‘blackout’ cabin is very appealing in many areas. Up front, you’re sat in shapely and deeply bolstered front seats, low slung and comfy enough for long hauling with a sound driving position and solid ergonomics while also providing surprisingly clear outward visibility.
In this top VTi-LX spec, the cabin is awash with soft touch surfaces, the cabin anchored by a heavily stylised centre console and stack that, at once, offers generous stowage, huge drink holders and large, clear HVAC controls but, on the downside, is drowned in glossy piano black that reflects sun glare terribly.
The driver’s instrumentation and infotainment are a bit hit and miss.
With the former, you get a neat 3D-effect with large central analogue gauge circling the speedo, but there’s no digital speed readout and its framed by silly ringed eco-light that glows green when the car is happy that you’re not applying excessive throttle.
And while the multi-angle rear-view camera and LaneWatch provide elaborate viewing of your blind spots when need be, the entertainment side of the system is lacking in functionality (AM/FM only) and in high-definition quality (audio sound, sat-nav software).
The Kona’s cabin is surprisingly plasticky for a highest-spec variant, though it counters this with more interesting textures and more flamboyance beyond merely adding Toxic Green highlights.
The front seats are a more upmarket look than the Honda’s, though aren’t actually more comfy or supportive, and driving experience centres around a really nice multifunction steering wheel and excellent, simpler and clearer instrumentation complete with a neater and more contemporary aesthetic.
The recently upgraded infotainment, as outlined in the spec above, isn’t merely the more fulsome for features, it’s simply all-round better and finer in every department than the Honda’s.
The Kona is also a little smarter with its oddment storage solutions and locates the USB/12V/aux array for more convenient accessibility. In short, there’s a little more conspicuous ‘love’ around the Korean cabin, from the head-up display to the (green) accented seat piping and seatbelts.
Moving into the row two, the Hyundai offers noticeably less room where it counts for adults – knees, shoulders – though it’s slightly airier in headroom. That said, the contouring of both cars’ rear seats make the central position nigh on useless for anyone other than small children.
Of the pair, the Honda has a higher window line that smaller kids will find annoying – ditto the high pillar-mounted door handles outside that will be beyond some shorter kids’ reach. The lack of rear console ventilation in either vehicle is a real oversight, too.
The HR-V has long been the class-smasher for smart packaging extending through to cargo space, and so it remains.
Its large 437L bootspace transforms into a humongous 1462L thanks to its signature so-called ‘magic seat’ design, that shifts the rear seat base forward to allow a very flat load space floor.
The Kona, with its 361L to 1143L conversion, is markedly tighter though, to be fair, its stats are about par for the small-SUV course.
As for details, the Honda exclusively fits a 12V outlet in the boot and a clever flexible parcel shelf that’s easily stowed, while the Hyundai includes neat tiedown points and an elasticised net to secure payload like groceries in place.
The Kona on smarts, the Honda on roomy practicality: it looks like a tie between the two for interior goodness.
Engines and performance
There are no surprises from the sole 1.8L/CVT/front-drive powertrain combination motivating every HR-V we’ve tested in the past four years. Its natural aspiration produces a modest 105kW and 172Nm, the latter way up at 4300rpm, and it’s a smooth if noisy and hardworking performer if you doing anything other than leisurely driving or you’re loaded up with passengers and luggage.
We’ve reported in past review and I’ll reiterate again: the HR-V’s pulling power is ‘fine’ and ‘serviceable’ but somewhat short of ‘great’ or ‘special’. And the same can certainly be said for the Kona Highlander tested here.
While slightly up on numbers against the Honda, the Hyundai’s 110kW and 180Nm does feel merely adequate for a car that looks and, as it would transpire, drives as sharp as the Kona. It’s a sizeable drop in energy from the (130kW/265Nm) 1.6-turbo Highlander that, yes, commands a $3500 premium for various added goodness, but this Atkinson 2.0L as tested feels fitted for the $12k more affordable Kona Go, where it is indeed fitted. Further, this $35k Kona is outpunched by the (120kW/203Nm) i30 Go that’s sub-$20k.
Sure, many buyers care little for fitter outputs and surlier performance. In Honda, you have no choice. In Hyundai, the lustier 1.6L AWD Elite, at a thriftier $33k list, might make a more seductive alternative. So for our 2.0L Highlander, at least there are a lot of bells and whistles to enjoy while cruising in the slow lane. Yes, there are selectable drive modes (Comfort, Eco, Sport) but with so little torque on tap the racier calibration really just makes the Kona feel more stressed delivering more or less the same maximum propulsion.
Economy wise, there was surprising difference between the pair depending on driving style. The Honda more or less fluctuated between the seven- to nine-litre mark per hundred between the open road and city driving. The Hyundai swung wilder, proving slightly thriftier on the highway at light throttle, yet dipping into the tens for lengthy urban stints. Acceptable returns for their segment, then.
On the road
We’ve spend much more assessment time in the past in the AWD Konas, with their multilink rear suspension, than in the front drivers as tested here with their relatively less sophisticated torsion beam rear designs. And so far Hyundai’s breed has consistently proven impressive, balancing ride suppleness with chassis engagement to nicely resolved effect.
The ‘technically lesser’ torsion beam set-up shone more brightly than we’d expected, suggesting that deft localised tuning is much more critical in achieving fine ride/handling balance than necessarily the engineering format it’s applied to.
On those low-profile 18s it can be touch firm, but the damping does round off thumping road imperfections well, it settles quickly over speed humps and the package tune rewards handsomely in driver co-operation and engagement. Despite over under-assisted heft in Sport mode, the steering is also pleasantly direct.
The Honda adopts a similar suspension design if with a softer tune. Sat on 17s, it trades a slightly smoother initial ride for less crisp dynamic character, more aloof around town yet ironing out the ripples a little better, though it does have a tendency to thump more over road rash and road noise is more prevalent than the Kona.
In the give and take of melding ride with handling, it’s not quite as impressive as its Korean counterpart.
Again, it’s not uncommon to bang on that a great many buyers in this segment care as little about dynamic adeptness as they do about more-than-adequate powertrain output. But quality in both does provide enhanced control to the driver – in keeping the vehicle on the road, in energy to avoid sticky situations and harms way when merging or overtaking – so, logically, merely make-do isn’t a laudable outcome.
Thankfully, it’s only really a firmer kick up the backside where both of these circa-$35k prospects perhaps deserve a larger serve.
Both small crossovers are covered by five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranties though, at the time of writing, Honda is offering extended seven-year surety plus seven years of roadside assist for the HR-V range.
Hyundai offers conditional ‘lifetime’ (up to ten-year) roadside assist extended on a per-year basis if serviced through its proprietary centres.
Hyundai offers more favourable 12-month/15,000km intervals to Honda’s 12-month/10,000km schedule and has a more affordable capped-priced base plan: $264 per year for the first three years for the Kona; $284 (first service) and $298 (services two and three) for the HR-V, not including periodic incidental items.
Of the two, the Kona Highlander packs in more bells and whistles, a more comprehensive suite of active safety features, is a little more engaging to drive and offers fitter ownership credentials. Game over, right? Well, yes, if your primary want is a trendy urban runabout and proper small-SUV spaciousness and practicality, the HR-V’s main fortes, are buried down deep in your list of priorities. For many buyers, the Honda's big-kid/adult-friendly second row and big-boot flexibility will be a dealmaker.
The HR-V VTi-LX does come highly recommended on it own merit because, unlike lesser HR-V variants, there are no glaring holes in the broader features picture, particularly the lack elsewhere of the Advanced Driver Assist System goodies. For its breed, this top-spec version is as good as HR-V gets.
That said, the Honda just isn't quite as good in a great many areas as the Kona Highlander which, itself, isn’t necessarily the sweetest spot of its own Korean breed.
In reviewing the ‘ultimate’ $40k 1.6L AWD DCT Highlander in the past, we’ve suggested that the 2.0L 2WD Auto version tested here is, at a $4500 saving, the shrewder choice in range. And in test here it's certainly proven its credentials in impressive effect against a rival from another maker.
But we certainly wouldn’t suggest parting good cash for this twin test winner without at least a cursory glance across the Hyundai showroom at the 1.6L AWD DCT Elite that, at $33k neat, looks to be the more enticing balance of feel-good features and driving satisfaction on road.