The Kona’s front end is busier than downtown Seoul at rush hour.
Like pineapple as a pizza topping, you’ll either love the Hyundai Kona’s looks or not, and you can decide for yourself if it’s something you want to make monthly payments on. If, however, you’re firmly in the naysayer camp because of the design, that’s a shame because there is so much to like here.
LikeStrong real-world fuel economyFriendly and useful techNicely designed interiorSpunky performance
Don’t LikeLow-speed transmission juddersEngine sounds like deathBackseat is a little tight
I get it. This crossover’s styling is not for everyone. The Kona is a small vehicle with a lot of grille. That slitlike applique above the main opening looks like a complete afterthought. Those superangular lamp assemblies that house the daytime running lights are positively alien. And then there’s the dark-gray body cladding, which is always of questionable tastefulness. Personally, I don’t mind the Kona’s design and appreciate that Hyundai was willing to take a gamble here because some of this crossover’s rivals are pretty boring, like, waiting on hold with your internet service provider boring. Seriously, have you seen a Ford EcoSport?
To appeal to a broad range of drivers, the Hyundai Kona is offered in five trim levels, from entry-level SE to highfalutin’ Ultimate. My top-shelf all-wheel-drive tester rolls on stylish 18-inch alloy wheels, is fitted with standard LED headlights and features plenty of driver-assistance tech.
The Kona competes with other subcompact crossovers like the Honda HR-V and Nissan Kicks, though buyers are likely to also cross-shop Hyundai’s sister company’s Kia Soul, which has an identical wheelbase of 102.4 inches. All these vehicles, and several others including the Toyota C-HR and Chevy Trax, are a similar size, though this Hyundai is the shortest of that group at just 164 inches from hood to hatch.
Curiously, the C-HR’s extra length doesn’t translate into additional interior space. At 19.2 cubic feet, the Kona has 0.1 cubic foot more cargo capacity than the Toyota. Drop its backrest and that advantage grows significantly, with capacity topping out at 45.8 cubes compared with the C-HR’s 37 cubic feet. The HR-V, Kicks and Trax all offer more cargo space than the Kona, though Kia’s Soul is the hauling champion here, with 62.1 cubic feet of maximum space.
This vehicle’s backseat is comfortable, but a little more legroom would be appreciated.
The Kona’s backseat is also on the tighter side, with a claimed 34.6 inches of legroom. That is enough space, though I do wish my knees had just a touch more breathing room. Noggin space, on the other hand, is excellent for my 6-foot frame.
Numbers aside, the remainder of this Hyundai’s cabin is beautifully crafted. The dashboard’s design is straightforward, plus there are plenty of nice materials. Rigid polymers are attractively grained and there’s a nice swath of soft plastic running across the dashboard. A similar material on the door uppers would be nice and much more elbow-friendly, but this is a budget-price vehicle, so you can’t expect it all. Interior storage space is decent for a smaller crossover. There’s a cubby ahead of the shifter that easily accommodates a phone, wallet and other small items. The bin underneath the center armrest is decently sized, though a few more nooks and crannies for storing junk might be nice.
My Kona Ultimate tester’s standard leather seating surfaces look great but feel more like vinyl than anything that was shucked off a living, breathing creature. Brightening up an otherwise inky-black interior are vibrant-green accents around the air vents, starter button, shifter base and even on the seats in the form of both piping and contrast stitching. These flourishes echo the exterior paint color my Kona is dressed in, a luminous hue called lime twist. This cornea-accosting paint is certainly not for everyone, but I think it really makes the Kona pop and is totally in keeping with its youthful demeanor. If you can’t handle green like this, a palette of other colors is offered, which includes the requisite black, white, silver and gray, but a searing orange and a denimlike blue are also on the menu.
This is a well-designed and nicely built interior.
Ultimate models have an 8-inch tablet-style touchscreen that’s mounted high on the dashboard where it’s easy to reach. This display is home to a mostly likable infotainment system, one that’s relatively easy to use and quite responsive. It’s certainly one of the better offerings on the market today, especially since it has embedded navigation and includes an eight-speaker Infinity audio system. Higher-end versions of the Kona also feature a 4.2-inch reconfigurable screen in the meter cluster, which is where you can keep track of fuel economy and stay abreast of the lane-keeping system, among other things.
No matter the model, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard. The same is true of lane-keeping assist, forward collision warning and a driver attention monitor. That lane-centering system is particularly excellent, almost as good as what Honda or Nissan offer. (Among mass-market manufacturers, their adaptive cruise-control and lane-centering systems are some of the best.) Stepping up the ladder, rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring are included on all but the most basic Kona model. Finally, the Ultimate trim level is the only one that comes with automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control and a handy head-up display, which projects useful information like vehicle speed onto a separate combiner panel that pops up from the dashboard. If you don’t care to use this feature, that part folds out of the way at the push of a button.
Two powertrains are offered in the Kona. Lower-end models come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that’s good for 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque, figures that compare very favorably with what’s offered in rival models. It’s paired with a conventional six-speed automatic transmission. Limited and Ultimate variants, however, feature a 1.6-liter turbo-four that’s appreciably more potent, churning out 175 hp and 195 lb-ft of twist. Front- or all-wheel drive is offered with either powertrain, a nice option to have. Rivals including the Kicks, C-HR and Soul do not offer this traction-enhancing feature.
Potent and efficient, the Kona’s drivetrain could be smoother.
Those engine output figures may not look all that impressive, but the Kona’s force-fed four-cylinder delivers plenty of torque throughout its operating range, which helps this crossover accelerate with unexpected ease, though there is a trade-off: This is not the most pleasant powerplant ever built. It sounds sickly when pushed hard, like a connecting rod might liberate itself at any moment by punching a window in the cylinder block. This engine is also a bit on the buzzy side, at times impersonating a random-orbital sander by sending little tingles through the Kona’s structure.
The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is generally quick to change gears and it’s mostly smooth while going about its business. Overall, it’s a good unit, if not quite a great one. Multigear downshifts can take a second or so to manifest when you floor the accelerator, but thanks to that meaty torque band this is rarely necessary. The larger problem with this transmission is that it judders ever so slightly when taking off from a standstill. No, it doesn’t shake the vehicle, but you can feel the drivetrain quivering. Dual-clutch gearboxes have their benefits, but they almost never feel as smooth or responsive at low speeds as transmissions fitted with traditional torque converters.
Underway, the Kona is impressively refined. This crossover’s interior is well-defended against wind and road noise, the ride is well-isolated and its brake pedal is firm and easy to modulate. As for steering, it’s entirely pleasant, with a quick ratio that makes the vehicle feel light and maneuverable. The Kona is probably more enjoyable to drive than any of its major rivals, perhaps with the exception of Mazda’s CX-3. It should be far quicker than an HR-V or Trax, and its steering is orders of magnitude better than the Nissan’s, which is more standoffish than a moody teenager.
With turbocharged power under its hood and an all-wheel-drive system spinning each tire, my top-shelf Kona Ultimate is rated at 26 miles per gallon city and 29 mpg on the highway. Combined, it should return 27 mpg, a figure that’s woefully inaccurate. In real-world use I obliterated that figure, averaging a whisker less than 35 mpg in mixed driving, which is absolutely stellar.
The Kona is an excellent small crossover.
How much does this South Korean excellence cost? Eschew all options and you should be able to drive home in an entry-level Kona SE for around $21,440, a price that includes $1,140 in freight charges. This figure is very comparable to the base prices of many major rivals, though curiously, the most-basic Soul undercuts it by nearly three grand.
The Kona I’m evaluating here checks out for around $31,000 including destination fees. All-wheel drive adds $1,400 to the base price, that fancy green paint costs an additional $300 and carpeted floor mats further inflate the sticker by $155.
With turbocharged torque, an upscale interior and excellent driver-assistance tech, the 2020 Hyundai Kona is one of the best small crossovers you can buy today. Sure, it may be a little tighter inside than some of its rivals and the transmission could be better dialed in, but the rest of this vehicle is so compelling it’s easy to dismiss these minor faults. If you can’t live with the Kona’s styling, well, I guess that’s your loss.