Last summer, we traveled to South Korea to witness the unveiling of the 2018 Hyundai Kona, the latest entrant into the popular subcompact crossover SUV class. A brief drive of a preproduction version left us with a lukewarm impression. Fortunately, auto manufacturers can make significant improvements in a short time, which is evident by our most recent experience with the Kona.
On sale now, the 2018 Hyundai Kona is available in four trim levels that range from $20,000 to $28,000. The SE and SEL sit on the lower end of that spectrum, but they still come with features such as a rearview camera and support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Stepping up to the Limited or the range-topping Ultimate outfits the Kona with everything from automatic climate control to a head-up display and a wireless charging pad.
Unlike many subcompact crossovers, the Kona offers two engine choices. The SE and SEL each receive motivation from a 147-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder that's paired to a six-speed automatic, while a 175-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter engine and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic are standard on the Limited and Ultimate. All-wheel drive costs $1,300 regardless of trim level, and Konas so equipped benefit from a more compliant and capable multilink rear suspension. The standard front-wheel-drive models suffer from an outdated torsion beam that adversely affects ride quality and handling.
From the Driver's Seat
Most shoppers won't spring for a fully loaded Kona, but our experience with the turbo 1.6-liter engine shows it's worth opting for the Limited. This drivetrain is a standout among those of its rivals, which feel weak by comparison. Speed builds steadily when you hit the gas, and merging onto highways doesn't require pinning the pedal to the floor. There's a bit of road noise once you're up to speed, but you can mask it by turning up the stereo a bit.
The Kona is surprisingly agile on mountain roads. Steering is precise and body roll is well-managed through turns. We wouldn't call it sporty, but it is similarly enjoyable to drive as the Mazda CX-3, which is the class leader in handling. This athleticism translates into a confidence-inspiring and comfortable ride even over rough roads. The taller ride height is subject to some jostling, but imperfections in the road are pleasantly abated. Selecting the Sport drive mode sharpens the responsiveness of the gas pedal and lets the engine rev higher before shifting, but it also increases steering effort to needlessly high levels.
The Kona is also capable when the pavement ends. While, like its contemporaries, the Kona comes with limited clearances, its all-wheel-drive system has a lockable differential that means it can tackle more than dirt roads. It won't challenge a Jeep Renegade Trailhawk, but it's more capable than most.
Where subcompact crossovers tend to embellish their cabins with unusual shapes, the Kona takes an understated route with a dull gray and black color palette. That's not a bad thing since the Kona doesn't suffer from usability and visibility issues. All controls are clearly labeled and placed where you want them, and the typical touch points are well-cushioned. The quality of the materials is on par with the class, with hard plastics that are textured to look more appealing. If you really want to add some spice, lime green accents are optional.
The front seats provide good lateral support without feeling constricting, but the seat cushions could be a bit longer or have extendable thigh support. Playing with the power-adjustable driver's seat helps, but taller drivers might want more support. The perforated leather seats breathe reasonably well, and that's good because ventilated seats are not available. The rear seats have enough knee-, leg- and headroom for average-size adults, and good outward visibility helps to keep it from feeling closed in. The seat cushions are also as short in length as the front ones, but we give the Kona points for not mounting them too low to the floor.
Behind the rear seats is an above-average 19.2 cubic feet of cargo space, and folding the seats flat expands the capacity to 45.8 cubic feet. Under the cargo floor is a shallow sectioned bin that can be removed, which lowers the cargo floor by 3 inches. Interior storage falls on the tight side, limited to some small door pockets, medium-size cupholders, and a tight bin under the armrest. A small tray for cellphones comes with the available wireless charging pad.
Trying Not to Judge This Book by Its Cover
There's a lot to like about the 2018 Hyundai Kona, but we're still undecided about how it looks. Many design elements don't blend into a harmonious package, and some of them seem inspired by other vehicles. A nonfunctioning slit above the grille seems out of place, and the LED running lights flanking it remind us of last year's Jeep Cherokee. The actual headlights sit below, enclosed in a dark gray plastic shroud that continues around the front wheels. These unpainted plastic bits have echoes of the Honda Element, and you can't option them to match the color of the paint. At the back, the rear roof pillar seems lifted from current Land Rover design.
As derivative as parts of the design may seem, there's a funky French flair that we're sure will be appealing to shoppers who are looking for something different. They'll also appreciate the available gray or black roof as a styling flourish.
How It Stacks Up
The Kona's main competitors are the Honda HR-V, the Mazda CX-5 and the Toyota C-HR. It drives and performs as well as the Mazda, and it's as spacious as the Honda. The Kona enjoys a price advantage over most rivals as well, which is even more impressive when you consider it delivers more features than many. Add in the industry's most generous warranty coverage and the 2018 Hyundai Kona earns an enviable position at the top of the subcompact crossover class.