The latest addition to Hyundai’s lineup in the United States, the Kona is not only the automaker’s first foray into the popular subcompact-crossover segment but also its first crossover in recent history to be named after a locale that’s not in the American Southwest. While the larger Tucson and even larger Santa Fe models evoke visions of dry desert scenes, the Kona trades on the tropical, breezy imagery of the Big Island of Hawaii located some 3000 miles to the west. More than just a catchy name, the Kona sports body lines said to be inspired by the flow of molten lava, which also stands as a visual metaphor for the active lifestyle of its target demographic.
Riding on an all-new platform and assembled in Korea, the Kona is offered in four trim levels with two powertrains: The SE and SEL get a naturally aspirated, 147-hp 2.0-liter inline-four paired with a six-speed automatic, while the Limited and Ultimate use Hyundai’s 175-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter four with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. (A manual transmission is not on the menu.) Front-wheel drive is standard across the lineup; all-wheel drive is a $1300 option. Hyundai had only top-trim Ultimate versions on hand for our drive in the car’s namesake Kona district on the Big Island.
The 164.0-inch-long Kona is a foot shorter than the next-in-line Tucson, yet its 102.4-inch wheelbase gives up only 2.7 inches to the next-size-larger Hyundai, resulting in a much shorter rear overhang. The chunky look is amplified by bulky fender cladding that extends to the headlamps in the front—those thin, upper strip lamps are LED running lights—and to the turn-signal and reverse lamps in the back. Hyundai says the front styling was inspired by an ancient helmet used by Spartan warriors and, in concert with the rest of the exterior features, embodies a Smart Armor design theme. Um, okay. Our Ultimate-trim example was fitted with 18-inch aluminum wheels wearing Goodyear Eagle Touring all-season tires; the base SE gets 16-inch alloys, while the SEL and Limited ride on 17-inchers.
Although the Kona is shorter than competitors—the 166.6-inch-long Jeep Renegade comes close while the Subaru Crosstrek dwarfs it at 175.5 inches—Hyundai put great effort into the interior packaging. The front seats have more than enough elbow and shoulder room for anyone this side of a sumo wrestler, and the center console is svelte enough to encourage manspreading of salacious proportions. Officially, the Kona offers 39.6 inches of headroom (38.0 inches with the optional sunroof) and 55.5 inches of shoulder room in the front, but it somehow manages to feel significantly more accommodating than the Honda HR-V with its 39.5- and 56.8-inch measurements.
Rear-seat space is a bit compromised, however. Although there’s plenty of head and shoulder room for six-footers, they’ll need to remove their legs at the knees before entering the rear doors. Materials quality varies from “say, these cloth-and-leather front seats are comfortable and supportive” to “some of the plastics are making me kind of sad.” While none of the cars in this segment offer awe-inspiring polymers, the cheap bits stand out in the Kona because the remainder of the interior is finished to a reasonably high standard. Shoppers drawn to the Kona’s Lime Twist exterior color can specify a leather interior with bright-lime accents on Limited and Ultimate trims for no additional charge. A contrasting roof in black or gray can be added to the SEL for $150.
Playing to Hyundai’s value image, standard equipment includes a 7.0-inch infotainment display (8.0 inches in the Ultimate) with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Bluetooth, individual tire-pressure monitoring, a tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel, power mirrors, automatic full-LED headlamps, and cruise control. Ultimate specific items include navigation, a head-up display, a premium audio system, wireless device charging, rain-sensing wipers, forward-collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, driver-attention warning, automatic high-beams, and Hyundai’s Blue Link connected-car system that is compatible with Android and Apple watch apps, Google Home, and Amazon Alexa. (In other words, if you’ve ever wanted to start your car and turn on its heater and lights by using your watch, this is your big chance.)
Like the Mazda CX-3, the Kona uses a small transparent panel for its head-up display rather than projecting the information onto the windshield. While it’s easy to dismiss this as a contrived attempt to inject some pizazz, it’s actually a cost-cutting measure. Most head-up-ready windshields require a costly film coating or optics-enhancing plastic to avoid distortion and prevent secondary reflections from obscuring the image. Using a panel—which deploys vertically rather than flipping up as in the CX-3—is less expensive. Hyundai also claims that the price of replacing an HUD-compatible windshield is more than double that of a standard one. Speaking of special coatings, though, there’s one applied to the lens of the backup camera to prevent the accumulation of moisture and dirt; it remained crystal clear through all the mini monsoons we encountered on the island. Curiously, adaptive cruise control is not available on any Kona.
It’s Still a Car
With all 195 lb-ft of torque fully onboard the turbo 1.6 at a low 1500 rpm, the Kona had no problem negotiating the slow, steep inclines we encountered winding up and around Mauna Kea and into the clouds. The pairing with the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is a successful one, the two performing as a well-calibrated team and exhibiting none of the herky-jerky low-speed indecision that plagues some dual-clutch setups. Impressive, given that the same powertrain felt somewhat less refined in the last Hyundai Tucson we tested.
We stopped well short of the volcano’s summit at nearly 14,000 feet, but the trip down revealed fade-free braking. The feedback, however, is as vague and inconsistent as your local independent pool-maintenance guy. The Kona has two driving modes, Normal and Sport; selecting the latter alters shift mapping, throttle response, and steering effort—but not ratio—for a more engaging experience. The throttle becomes a tad livelier, and the DCT downshifts readily under braking—although not quite as intuitively as the automatic in the CX-3. Steering inputs are met with linear response and eager directional changes but offer little in terms of contact-patch gossip. Standard brake-based torque vectoring adds a palpable sense of agility, with the system applying mild braking to the inside front and rear wheels to help with rotation. (The torque-vectoring system works only on the front wheels on front-wheel-drive models.)
Hyundai made rigidity a priority in this clean-sheet design, including more than 375 linear feet of structural adhesives, the same type of stuff used in aircraft construction. We did notice some intrusive road noise at times, but we’ll need to drive the Kona in more familiar environs before making any final judgements.