With crisp designs, generous standard feature lists, solid drive trains, world-class engineering, competitive pricing and the best warranties in the business, Hyundai has been on a roll the past few years.
The Korean automaker keeps the rally rolling with the Kona, a compact SUV that rolled into showrooms in the first quarter of 2018. Competing with stalwarts such as the Mazda CX-3, Buick Encore, Nissan Rogue and Honda HR-V, the little Hyundai earns high marks for its daring-but-charming styling, comfortable cabin, up-to-date technology and safety features, and because it's a hoot to drive.
Less expensive than top competitors, the Kona starts at $19,500 and tops out at $28,700. We think the Limited, at $24,700, is the sweet spot of the model lineup.
Two engines are available, a DOHC 2.0-L inline 4 that turns out 147 horses and 132 lb. Ft of torque. On paper, that would seem more than ample for a vehicle with curb weight that hovers around 3,000 lbs., but critics seems unanimous in a verdict of "OK, but underwhelming."
Our tester came with a direct-injected, turbocharged 1.6-L 4 that put out 175 horses and 195 ft.lb of torque. The first time we punched it to exit our subdivision and blend into morning traffic, we chirped the tires and shot off like a hungry cheetah with an impala in its sights.
Gotta love a car with personality.
We generally shy away from discussions of style because the topic is so subjective; thus "polarizing" is the most frequent adjective used to describe bold forays into exterior design.
Kona's "urban smart armor" look is not polarizing. Aggressively sculpted styling, paired with a low and wide stance is downright exciting. Bold lines are created and are able run through the length of the car thanks to an extensive series of body stamping one would expect only on cars costing three or four times as much. In this sense, the Kona is also a victory of manufacturing.
In front, Hyundai's new family identity, a cascading mesh grille, is flanked by flared, wing-like fenders that dominate the front visage. It's further enhanced by a separated-headlight design, with headlights on high daytime running lights low..
The bold lines flow through to the rear, where slim brake lights on high are separated from turn indicators and reverse lamps.
Fun to Drive
The Kona was designed from the ground up to appeal to people who love to drive, and to be nimble in urban environments.
Hyundai is the only car manufacturer to produce its own steel. The Kona's lightweight unibody structure was developed with 52 percent advanced high strength steel. That translates into a lighter but safer car.
The platform features multi-load path structure, which disperse crash energy across multiple paths to protect passengers in an accident. This helped give Kona a NHTSA 5-star safety rating in the Euro NCAP crash test.
Steering feels especially responsive and centered, thanks to the Kona's drive-by-wire, motor-driven power steering. It is quieter than traditional hydraulic systems and reduces parasitic losses from belts and their drag on the powertrain.
The steering system was tuned specifically to deliver precise and rapid adjustments in steering feel with changing driving conditions. A tilt and telescoping steering wheel is standard.
The Kona's 102.4-inch wheelbase is slightly longer than top competitors, meaning the car rides more smoothly, thanks to a greater interval between bumps on uneven surfaces. From a driver's standpoint, a longer wheelbase has a larger footprint, which results in a more stable, less "darty" car.
Torque vectoring, which allows a differential to vary power to individual wheels for better launch and control at speed, is standard.
The Kona comes in four trim lines, SE, SEL, Limited and Ultimate. The first two get the normally aspirated 2-liter; the top two get the turbocharged 1.6-liter. All-wheel drive, a $1,300 option, is available on all Konas.
The 2-liter engine is mated to a 6-speed automatic, the turbo gets a 7-speed, dual clutch automatic. Folks who have driven both say the 6-speed is smoother; we only tested the 7-speed and found it crisp and adaptable to changing conditions under speed.
We found it far more rewarding to drive than the continuously-variable transmissions used by many competitors.
Both engines are EPA-rated at 30 mpg with front-wheel drive, and 27 mpg with AWD.
A longer wheelbase means more cabin space, and Hyundai gave most of that to the front-seat passengers, who get the amount of headroom one usually associates with a luxury car.
The interior design is clean and simple, soft-touch materials abound, and fit and finish are—to our old eyes—flawless. Seats are comfortable enough to accommodate a multi-state road trip.
The Kona is slightly more cramped in the rear than its closest competitors, but there is still ample room for a pair of six-footers. Total interior volume of 94.1 cubic feet is above average for the segment.
Technology is cleverly deployed. A seven-inch touchscreen manages infotainment and vehicle data. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard.
Although the base SE includes a lot of nice goodies—like remote entry, Bluetooth phone system, backup camera, downhill brake assist and hill-start control, power windows and doors—modern safety technologies are not standard.
On base models, a $1,500 tech package gets you most of these life-saving features, such as lane-keep assist, which prevents the cause of many rollovers, and a forward collision-avoidance system, which keeps you from slamming into the back of an 18-wheeler out on the interstate.
Move up to the Limited, and you get those features, plus LED headlights and taillights, 18-inch wheels, leather seating, a power driver's seat, automatic temperature control and auto-dimming rearview mirror, as well as the stronger engine,
The Ultimate tosses in rain-sensing wipers, a premium 8-speaker sound system, a wireless device charger and an 8-inch LCD touchscreen.
Bottom line: Dollar-for-dollar, this is the safest and best compact SUV on the market.