PowerSteering:2018 Hyundai Kona Review
Christian Wardlaw | May 29, 2018
Replacing cars as the vehicle of choice for many consumers, crossover SUVs are getting smaller and more affordable. The Small SUV segment has grown significantly in recent years, spurred in part by the unexpected success of models such as the Buick Encore and Subaru Crosstrek.
Though Hyundai already sells the Tucson (which J.D. Power classifies as a Small SUV), it is rolling out an even more diminutive crossover called the Kona. Named after the Hawaiian resort area of the Big Island, the 2018 Hyundai Kona is available in a variety of trim levels, paint colors, and with a choice between different powertrains.
Kona SE and SEL have a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine and a 6-speed automatic transmission, while Kona Limited and Ultimate come with a turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder matched with a 7-speed dual clutch transmission. All four trims are offered with front-wheel or all-wheel drive. With AWD, the torsion beam rear axle is swapped out for an independent rear suspension.
For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a Hyundai Kona Ultimate equipped with all-wheel drive and a set of floor mats. The price came to $29,805, including the $980 destination charge.
What Owners Says
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Hyundai Kona, it is helpful to understand who buys the typical Small SUV, and what they like most and least about them.
Small SUV owners are primarily female (55%), are 54 years old (median), and earn $80,425 of annual household income (median). Most of them identify as either a Practical Buyer (28%) or a Price Buyer (29%).
Just over half agree that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (52%). They strongly agree that they avoid vehicles that they think have high maintenance costs (65%) and that their first consideration in choosing a vehicle is reliability (60%).
Of secondary importance, Small SUV owners also agree mostly or somewhat that quality of workmanship, fuel economy, safety, and environmental friendliness are important, and in that order.
Responsive handling and powerful acceleration is important to 86% of Small SUV owners, yet most are disappointed with the engine/transmission in their chosen vehicle.
Owners report that their favorite things about Small SUVs are (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving dynamics, interior design, visibility and safety, and seats. Owners indicate that their least favorite things Small SUVs are (in descending order) the climate system, storage and space, infotainment system, engine/transmission, and fuel economy.
What Our Expert Says
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the Hyundai Kona measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2017 APEAL Study.
ExteriorHyundai gives your eyes plenty to feast upon when viewing the distinctive new Kona. Visually, it’s got a lot going on, yet what might at first appear to be a discordant design works well for this sunny and cheerful vehicle.
Asymmetry is the rule, giving the Kona an unmistakable look. You can tell the Kona isn’t a traditional 5-door hatchback by the gray cladding, ribbed rocker panel trim, and silver lower door and rear fascia detailing. And just as Jeep is abandoning a triple-light arrangement for its Cherokee, the controversial approach is employed to appealing effect on the Kona.
Collectively, the Kona’s various design details come together to give this new small SUV a big personality. A handful of vibrant paint color choices help, too.
InteriorThough the Kona serves as an entry-level vehicle, interior design and quality levels lend it what is sometimes called a “class-above” look and feel.
Color choices include black or a 2-tone gray-over-black scheme, with a choice between cloth and leather upholstery. The test car had Lime Green interior accents and stitching to match its Lime Green exterior paint.
Controls are laid out in a logical and thoughtful manner, and thanks to soft-touch materials, sophisticated surface texturing, and low-gloss plastic surfaces, the cabin takes on an unexpected level of refinement.
Unfortunately, hard plastic is used for the Kona’s upper front door panels, but given the SUV’s pricing and positioning, this is to be expected.
SeatsThanks to a height-adjustable driver’s seat, the 2018 Hyundai Kona is comfortable. Hyundai does not, however, provide height adjustment for the front passenger’s seat. This vehicle could use one.
All versions except for the base SE include heated front seats, and 8-way power adjustment is optional for the SEL and standard for the Limited and Ultimate trims. Cloth upholstery is included with SE and SEL trim, while Limited and Ultimate are equipped with leather.
Rear seat comfort is acceptable for adults. Hyundai uses hard plastic front seat back panels, so lankier passengers may find them unkind to their knees. The seat cushion sits high enough to provide decent leg support, and there is plenty of space under the front seats for feet.
Climate Control SystemA single-zone automatic climate control is standard with Limited and Ultimate trim. It includes a Clean Air filtration system, and thanks to its collection of temperature and fan speed knobs underlined with a row of piano-key buttons for defrosters, airflow mode, and recirculation, the system is easy to use.
During testing in Southern California, temperate weather presented no challenges to the Kona’s climate system.
Infotainment SystemEmploying a tablet-style design, the Kona’s touchscreen infotainment system display sits high on the crossover SUV’s dashboard. Menu shortcut buttons flank the screen, while knobs for volume and tuning anchor each lower corner of the system. There’s even a “favorite” button that you can program to quickly bring up a specific display.
Ultimate trim installs the ultimate version of the Kona’s infotainment technology. Screen size jumps from 7 inches to 8 inches, and it is paired with an Infinity premium sound system with Clari-Fi digital music restoration. A navigation system is included with Ultimate trim, as is wireless device charging and a free 3-year subscription to all of Hyundai’s Blue Link service packages.
Because it sits so high on the dashboard, the infotainment system is easy to reference. I had no problems operating its various functions, pairing an iPhone to the Bluetooth connection, or using the navigation system to find points of interest or specific addresses. The real-time traffic data also came in handy. Sound quality impresses, too.
Storage and SpaceHyundai carves a decent amount of storage space from the Kona’s cabin. The glove box is large, the front door panel bins are a good size, and Hyundai equips the Kona with numerous trays, bins, and holders. The center console storage are is on the small side, but perfectly held a Nikon 7200 DSLR.
Cargo volume measures 19.2 cu.-ft. behind the rear seats. To use all of it, you’ll need to remove the cargo cover and drop the adjustable cargo floor. Keep those items in place, and the Kona’s trunk is comparable in size to a small car.
Fold the rear seats down, and space expands to a maximum of 45.8 cu.-ft. Some competitors offer more than that amount.
Visibility and SafetyThanks to a standard reversing camera and blind-spot driver’s side mirror, it’s easy to see out of the Hyundai Kona.
Upgrading to SEL, Limited, or Ultimate trim adds a standard blind-spot monitoring system with lane-change assist and rear cross-traffic alert. Ultimate trim also includes a head-up display. A plastic panel rises from the top of the dashboard to depict a variety of data, helping to reduce driver distraction.
As an option for SEL trim and as standard equipment for Ultimate trim, Hyundai provides a forward collision warning system with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, a driver attention monitor, and a lane departure warning and lane keeping assist system. Automatic high-beam headlights are exclusive to the Ultimate trim.
Blue Link subscription services are free for the first three years when you buy the Kona Ultimate. Safety-related highlights include automatic collision notification, SOS emergency assistance, panic notification to friends and family, and programmable speed, curfew, and geo-fenced boundary alerts. All of these functions should be of interest to parents of kids who might drive the Kona.
Neither the NHTSA nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has performed crash tests on the new Kona. However, this vehicle is built on a new platform that uses a significant amount of high-strength steel in its construction, with the intention of delivering impressive occupant protection in the event of a collision.
Engine/TransmissionChoose the Kona SE or SEL for a 147-horsepower, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine powering the front or all four wheels through a 6-speed automatic transmission.
For more fun (at greater cost of fuel), try the Kona Limited or Ultimate for a turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine generating 175 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 195 lb.-ft. of torque between 1,500 and 4,500 rpm. A 7-speed dual clutch transmission (DCT) is paired with this engine, and all-wheel drive is an option.
My test vehicle had the turbo, and it is a gem. Because peak torque kicks in at just 1,500 rpm, a turbocharged Kona feels strong and responsive when accelerating, when passing slower traffic, and when climbing mountain grades. Plus, if you live in a region like Denver, where thinner atmosphere at elevation tends to make regular engines feel weak and slow, you’ll love the Kona’s turbocharged engine.
There is a cost to this performance.
Hyundai uses a 7-speed DCT with this more powerful motor, which is an automated manual gearbox. Because it is automated, the driver doesn’t need to manually shift gears or press a clutch pedal. From that perspective, it works just like a traditional automatic. However, it can behave more like a manual transmission from time to time, manifested in a slight delay when accelerating from a stop, or in extra vehicle roll after parking the Kona.
Personally, I prefer a good DCT to a traditional automatic transmission with a torque converter. Some people, however, may find a DCT’s quirks displeasing.
Fuel EconomyThe other cost to the turbocharged engine’s performance benefit comes in the form of gas mileage. According to the EPA, the 2018 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD is rated to get 27 mpg in combined driving. On the testing loop, the Kona returned 25 mpg.
There are two silver linings here. The turbocharged engine runs on regular unleaded rather than requiring premium fuel. And a Kona turbo can easily accelerate out of its own way, which cannot be said for many vehicles in the small SUV segment.
Driving DynamicsWith its turbocharged engine, Sport transmission calibration, brake torque-vectoring, 18-inch wheels wrapped in 235/45 tires, and the multi-link independent rear suspension that is bolted in with the optional AWD system, the Kona Ultimate is terrific fun to drive. All it’s missing is paddle shifters. You would be inspired to use them.
Acceleration is effortless, allowing the Kona to slice and dice through traffic with grace and ease. The ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes provide quick and faithful response even after repeated hard use, and the pedal is easy to modulate in heavy traffic.
Thanks to its taut, athletic suspension tuning, you’ll enjoy zipping around corners and curves in a Kona. The electric steering is perfectly calibrated, too, a significant milestone for Hyundai, which historically had trouble in this regard.
During a brief off-road excursion, the AWD system’s “Lock” function (it locks power delivery in a 50:50 front and rear split) helped the Kona to scramble up a steep, off-camber trail, while the hill descent control function maintained a safe speed coming back down. The only concern here is the Kona’s 6.7 inches of ground clearance, which is a full two inches short of the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk and Subaru Crosstrek.
On multiple occasions during my week with the Kona Ultimate, whether driving on L.A. freeways, around local suburbs, or on twisty roads near Malibu, this thought popped into my head: “A turbocharged Kona AWD is like the Volkswagen GTI of small crossover SUVs.”
This thing was so much fun to drive, I even got up early one morning in order to leave enough time to tackle the torturous Latigo Canyon Road on my way to the airport.
Packed with personality and practicality, equipped with generous warranty and subscription service packages, and tremendously entertaining to drive in turbocharged AWD format, the Hyundai Kona is like a puppy. It’s fun. It’s frisky. You can’t help but smile when you’re in its presence.
Sure, the Kona could use some extra cargo space, a little more ground clearance, a front passenger’s seat height adjuster, and a set of paddle shifters. But given just how good the rest of this package is, these flaws amount to minor quibbles that ought not dissuade you from considering adding a Kona to your own clan.
Hyundai Motor America supplied the vehicle used for this 2018 Hyundai Kona review.
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