The Hyundai Kona has proven a smash hit since arriving in Australia during October 2017, capitalising on the market’s ravenous appetite for small and funky-looking crossovers designed for city living.
At the time of writing, almost 23,000 have been sold locally. With the Accent on the way out, it will become Hyundai’s third most-popular model – behind the more sensible i30 and larger Tucson – in no time.
Over the course of its short life, it has also become the third most-popular crossover in its class, with 10.7 per cent market share this year. Only the bargain-priced Mitsubishi ASX and similarly stylish Mazda CX-3 edge it.
There are four Kona specification levels to choose from. We’re looking at the 2019 Hyundai Kona Elite, which sits one rung below the flagship Highlander and represents just 12 per cent of Kona sales this year. Above this fray there’s also the sci-fi Kona Electric, which emits no CO2 from the tailpipe.
It wears a price of $29,500 before on-road costs, lining it up neatly with a CX-3 sTouring. It is also $1710 more expensive than the larger Hyundai i30 Elite grade, which offers more cabin space but also a more prosaic design that will turn fewer heads.
The California-penned Kona offers a bolder take on the Hyundai grille flanked by slim and angry headlights. There are also lots of side-profile character lines, an aggressive stance, and heaps of faux-tough plastic add-ons. You have nine colour choices with names like Blue Lagoon, Tangerine Comet and Acid Yellow. Ours is Pulse Red.
We should mention how tiny the Kona actually is. Its 4165mm length is 175mm shorter than the i30, though its 1550mm height (including an extra 30mm of ground clearance) makes it 95mm taller overall. The Hyundai is one of the smallest SUVs on the market, though the new Accent-replacing ‘Venue’ crossover model will be even tinier still.
Reflecting the Elite’s positioning, it’s relatively well specified. On the outside you get 17-inch alloy wheels with a fetching multi-spoke design, LED daytime running lights, projector-beam headlights with dusk sensors, and various silver, carbon grey, and chrome garnishes.
The interior has features above the $4000-cheaper Kona Active, such as those larger alloys (Active has 16s), leather seat trim, rear privacy glass, single-zone digital climate control, a proximity-based key fob that unlocks the car as you approach it, heated and power-folding side mirrors, a starter button, and rain-sensing wipers.
More importantly, it also gets various driver-assistance features as standard fare, such as blind-spot warning, a driver-attention warning, autonomous emergency city braking, lane-keeping assist and a rear cross-traffic alert system. To get these functions in a Safety Pack on the Active costs $1500, so the Elite’s pricing inclusive seems fair enough.
Equipment common to both grades includes an 8.0-inch touchscreen display with satellite navigation, SUNA live traffic updates, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth, an eight-speaker sound system supplied by Krell, digital radio, a reversing camera, rear parking sensors, six airbags, and a tyre-pressure monitoring system.
The Kona Elite’s interior design is not as bold as the exterior is, though the hot-red seatbelts, seat piping, stitching and trim surrounds on the vents and gear shifters add a little something. It’s all pretty plasticky and monotone beyond that, though the build quality and fit-finish are sufficiently good.
The seating position is hardly lower than your average hatch, but suits the ‘sporty’ design, the steering wheel has plenty of reach and rake adjustment, there is a much-needed digital speedo between the instruments, and that centre touchscreen has a simple-to-navigate interface.
Storage areas include cupholders along the transmission tunnel, moderate door bins and centre console, and an overhead sunglasses holder, though if maximising practicality is your priority, the outlier Honda HR-V leaves this pokey little Hyundai behind.
It’s also not the most spacious second-row seat in the segment, with the swooping roof line hurting headroom a little. However, two adults of average height (180cm) will be fine. Again, it’s not a segment-leader in this area. You get a handy flip-down centre armrest and grab handles, though no rear vents or USB/12V input.
The Kona’s 361L boot may be 97L larger than the Mazda CX-3’s, but is also 34L smaller than the i30’s and further trails the HR-V (437L) or Nissan Qashqai (430L). Hyundai has aimed this car at urban empty-nesters, so while it can carry four adults and has a moderate boot, those wanting pram space et cetera would be better off buying a base Tucson for the same money.
Under the bonnet of our test car is a simple 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol running the economy-minded Atkinson cycle, and producing 110kW of power at 6200rpm and 180Nm of torque at 4500rpm. It runs 91RON petrol, and is mated to a six-speed automatic. It is also a front-wheel drive and can tow 1300kg braked.
Interestingly, the similarly weighted (around 1380kg) Hyundai i30’s 2.0-litre unit makes 120kW and 203Nm, so the Kona’s sporty looks are not reflected in its performance. In fairness, its competitors' outputs are no better: the Qashqai’s 2.0-litre makes 106kW/200Nm, the HR-V’s 105kW/172Nm, and the C-HR’s 1.2-litre turbo 85kW/185Nm.
For the average urban buyer it’s absolutely fine, with instant response from the torque-converter auto, insufficient torque to overcome the front wheels and make them spin, decent rolling response to poke into gaps, and generally okay refinement until you’re really mashing that accelerator pedal. Its 91RON fuel use is a reasonable 7.2L/100km.
The good news for those who crave more oomph is the fact you can option the Elite with a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine, which makes much more spirited outputs of 130kW/265Nm. It is mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and variable on-demand all-wheel drive with a locking centre differential.
Indeed, a de-specified Kona Active with this more engaging drivetrain costs $29,000, so you can choose between the equipment or the pace for the same outlay. Given the target buyer, it’s not surprising that the engine we’re testing is what the majority of buyers in Australia opt for, according to Hyundai’s own sales data.
The suspension is tuned to Australian conditions, and allows the Kona to sit comfortably on the highway while shrugging off the lumps and bumps of local roads without upsetting occupants too much. Steering is light and easy, making tight confines a breeze in conjunction with a 10.6m turning circle.
Road noise is a weaker point. It varies depending on the surface, but on longer trips tyre roar is a noticeable companion. On the upside, while lower-grade Konas use lower-grip Hankook Kinergy tyres, the Elite sports Continentals that make it a less understeer-y bet.
The suspension comprises a MacPherson strut up front and a humble torsion beam at the rear (the turbo adds independent rear suspension). The front brakes are 280x10mm ventilated discs, while at the rear are 262x10mm solid discs. The turbo models get larger rotors. The spare wheel under the floor is a space-saver.
From an ownership perspective, all Hyundais come with a five-year and unlimited-distance warranty, plus roadside support. Servicing intervals on the 2.0-litre are 12 months or 15,000km, with the first three visits capped (at current rates) at $264, $264 and $264. That’s quite cheap. The 1.6T has 10,000km intervals and costs $10 more per visit.
If a friend asked me to describe the Kona, I would caution that despite the SUV nomenclature, it’s actually less spacious and offers less performance than the equivalent i30. Of course, that’s wilfully disregarding the fact that cars like this often sell based on their design, rather than their practicality.
Hyundai has crafted a little crossover that falls short of some rivals when it comes to cabin space, but offers plenty of features, good running costs, lots of driver technology, and most importantly turns heads in ways a humdrum little hatchback never will. There’s also a sound argument to spend up to the Elite, given the extra features it offers.
Be aware of what small SUVs like this actually offer, but if you’ve fallen for the idea of a Kona, then there aren’t many red flags to dissuade you from making the leap. And while the turbo/AWD models offer more zip, for the average urbanite, the base engine will probably suffice 99 times out of 100.
However, we'd also urge you to wait a little bit to check out the new Kia Seltos, which you can read all about here.