2018 Hyundai Kona

KONA, Hawaii — Rolling into dealer showrooms across the U.S. now, the Hyundai Kona, a little late to the small crossover-utility market, is going up against some of the most solid and serious performers in its class: Subaru Crosstrek, Mazda CX-3, Jeep Renegade and others. Still, we think it’s one of the best.

Kona is the Korean brand’s third utility vehicle, joining the compact Tucson and midsize Santa Fe. It’s the smallest of the trio, but doesn’t feel small thanks to a 102.4-inch wheelbase. That’s a mere 2.7-inches shorter than the Tucson, and results in an interior that feels surprisingly roomy. Its overall length is a full foot shorter than the Tucson, and it’s one of the smallest vehicles in its class in terms of length.

Visually, the Kona is one of the best-looking models in its segment with an exterior design said to be inspired by the flowing molten lava of the world’s most active volcano, Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii. That’s where I had the opportunity to drive the vehicle in its namesake Kona district.

As a rule, I’m not a fan of what we call “cladding.” But here, the charcoal colored Pro-Tec-T (Hyundai’s name for cladding) over the wheel openings and lower body looks attractive and gives the Kona a more rugged and capable look, embodying the “Smart Armor” design theme. Hyundai says the look is intended to create a car for urban adventurers and the lifestyle they lead.

Kona is offered in four different trim levels with a choice of either standard front-wheel drive or optional ($1,300) all-wheel-drive, both featuring torque vectoring, a system that allows the vehicle to control how individual wheels get power, nearly instantly for improved traction.

While most competitors in this class only offer a single choice of engines, Kona gives buyers two engine choices: the standard 2.0-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder that delivers 147 horsepower and is connected to a six-speed automatic transmission, and the sportier 1.6-liter 175-horsepower turbo four-cylinder. Both powertrains are rated at 30 miles per gallon combined city/highway fuel economy when equipped with front-wheel drive.

At 6-foot-6, I was amazed at the amount of up-front room I had both behind the wheel and in the passenger seat. Even when equipped with a sunroof, there was plenty of headroom and ample leg, hip and shoulder room. While the driver’s electrically adjustable seat allows most drivers to find a comfortable position, we wished the front passenger seat could be adjusted up and down as shorter occupants sit too low for comfort. Still, the seats are nicely contoured and deliver fatigue-free driving. Leather seats are standard on the top two trims, cloth on the bottom two.

The rear-seat space is small and larger adults will find it less easy for ingress and egress; legroom is one of the smallest in the class.

We liked the clean, simple design. The interior exudes style and quality even though there was a lot of hard plastic. There’s a standard seven-inch touch screen that sits high on the dash. It increases to an eight-inch screen when trim levels include navigation. All controls are nicely placed, with an intuitive infotainment menu and other operational controls.

Rare-for-the-segment, up-market features available on the Kona include a head-up display, and standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility. Ditto for Bluetooth, individual tire-pressure monitoring, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, power mirrors, automatic full-LED headlamps and cruise control.

Only the top-of-the-line Ultimate trim models were available for our testing and we spent the bulk of our time driving a Kona with the Lime Twist exterior color, which included bright-lime French stitching on the leather seats and steering wheel and trim accents on the air vents, push-button start and around the console-mounted automatic shift lever. It’s only available with the Lime Twist and without an additional charge.

Additional items included on the Ultimate trim are navigation, a premium Infiniti harman-kardon audio system, wireless device charging, rain-sensing wipers, and Hyundai’s Blue Link connected-car system that is compatible with Android and Apple watch apps, Google Home, and Amazon Alexa.

Hyundai SmartSense is available, with advanced safety feature like forward-collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, driver-attention warning, automatic high beams, blind-spot collision warning with lane changing assist, and rear-cross traffic collision warning. SmartSense is available on all models except the base SE, but we feel it should be standard on all trim levels.

Our time behind the wheel included twisty smooth roads, rough roads with uneven pavement, and steep mountain roads that climbed to 7,000 feet. Power from our 1.6-liter turbo engine was more than adequate, coming on at very low revs. Kona easily handled the steep mountain roads, cresting the scenic roads of the Big Island with zippy acceleration and plenty of passing power. 

The suspension handled the twists and turns with confidence and ease, thanks in part to its torque vectoring. Kona has two selectable driving modes — Normal and Sport — with the latter delivering a more engaging drive experience with minimum body roll and superb ride quality. Simply put, Kona’s handling and overall driving experience is more than impressive.

When it comes to overall value, the new Kona is nearly impossible to beat. The base SE has a MSRP of $19,500 plus an additional $950 for shipping and handling. For price sensitive shoppers, we strongly suggest moving up to the SEL trim level for an additional $1,650. It adds additional important safety features, a power driver’s seat with power lumbar support and a few other features. All-in, our all-wheel drive Ultimate topped out at $29,775 including optional floor mats. And add to that one of the best new car warranties in the business.

Bottom line, the new Hyundai Kona is a terrific new small crossover with little to fault and just about everything to like. While Hyundai was late to the small crossover utility vehicle market, we clearly believe it arrived with style, class and, in our opinion, the best dressed.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $19,500 - $28,700
Price as Tested: $29,775
Powertrain: 1.6-Liter 175 hp Turbo 4-cylinder with 7-speed EcoShift DCT automatic transmission
Fuel Economy: 26-MPG City – 29-MPG Highway
Seating: 5

Crash Test Results: The Kona has not been crash tested for results by either the NHTSA or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Competes With:
Buick Encore
Chevy Trax
Honda HR-V
Jeep Renegade
Mazda CX-3
Subaru Crosstrek
Toyota C-HR

Fab Features
Terrific upscale exterior and interior styling done to perfection
Excellent combination of athletic performance and driving comfort
Superb materials and build quality

— Jim Prueter