Hawai’i is both the name of America’s 50th state and of what is otherwise referred to as the Big Island. The name is appropriate, as the Big Island is substantially larger than all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined. And thanks to Kilauea, the island’s active volcano, it grows larger every day.
Hawai’i is also the second most populous of the islands, its residents living primarily in wet Hilo, upcountry Waimea, and sunny Kailua-Kona. Tourists are most often drawn to Kailua-Kona for its dry weather, west-facing beaches and resorts, and relatively easy access to everything the Big Island has to offer.
Hyundai is hoping that by naming its latest vehicle after this appealing region, consumers will be equally drawn to the new Kona subcompact crossover SUV. Having spent a couple of days with the 2018 Hyundai Kona, driving it in the region for which it was named, I can attest that it is an impressive effort in a growing segment, one of the few vehicles of its kind that you ought to seriously consider.
Prices for the 2018 Hyundai Kona start at $20,450 (including $950 destination charge) for the base SE with front-wheel drive, and rise to as much as $28,350 for a Kona Ultimate. In between you can choose the SEL ($22,100) and the Limited ($25,650). All-wheel drive runs an extra $1,300 for any trim, and a Tech Package is optional for the Kona SEL ($1,500). The only other upgrades amount to a handful of dealer-installed accessories.
For this report, I drove a Kona Ultimate AWD in Pulse Red paint. With floor mats and destination, the price tag was $29,775. That’s high for an entry-level SUV, but with this trim level’s full load of equipment, impressive warranty and connected services package, and level of quality, it makes sense.
Designed by Chris Chapman, formerly with BMW and the man behind that company’s “flame surfacing” styling language, the Kona is different, almost controversial. If nothing else, you’re not going to mistake it for any other compact crossover on the road.
Personally, I like Hyundai’s approach. Up front, LED running lights sit high, fog lights are tucked into the lower portion of the bumper, and behind protective covers on either side of the grille are the Kona’s headlights. Sound familiar? Jeep just abandoned this approach for its Cherokee, which is restyled in a more conventional way for 2019.
Terrific 18-inch aluminum wheels are bolted to Limited and Ultimate trims, and Hyundai generously applies gray body cladding for an appropriately rugged SUV appearance. It borders on gaudy, but decisively distances the Kona from its competition, making it identifiable with no more than a glance.
Inside, the Kona is more conventional. You can choose between Black and a high-contrast Gray and Black interior color, and Lime green accents are available with a handful of colors (hint: avoid them if you want to easily sell your Kona years from now).
There is just enough flair in the cabin’s surfacing to soften the relentless symmetry, and both the look and feel of the interior’s materials exude unexpected quality for the price point. Controls are laid out in logical fashion, making them easy to find and use.
Every Kona has a touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. Upgrade to Ultimate trim and you’ll get a larger 8-inch touchscreen, along with navigation, an 8-speaker Infinity sound system, and Blue Link services with three free years of service.
Using the voice recognition technology to find an address on Mamalahoa Highway in Hakalau, the system actually interpreted what must have been a mangled pronunciation, successfully delivering us to our destination.
Comfort is commendable. All Konas supply a driver’s seat height adjuster, and both Limited and Ultimate trims provide an 8-way power adjustable seat wrapped in leather. This, in combination with a steering wheel that is comfortable to grip and soft places to rest your elbows, makes for a happy driver.
The front passenger is not quite as lucky. The seat itself is fine, but because it lacks height adjustment, the person sitting in it is too low in relationship to the upper door panel sills. This is easy to solve with a manual, pump-style lever. It just takes a decision-maker at Hyundai to approve it.
I took the opportunity to ride in the back seat, and for about an hour. Extensive seat-track travel meant I could not fit with the front passenger’s seat moved all the way back, but as long as it was moved a bit forward, my legs (33-inch inseam) fit just fine. The rear seat cushion provides good support, too, which goes a long way toward making it comfortable. Hard plastic front seat back panels, however, could be unkind to knees and shins.
Cargo space is adequate. Behind the 60/40-split folding rear seat, the Kona provides 19.2 cu.-ft. of luggage volume. You’ll need to remove the cargo cover and the cargo floor in order to leverage all of it, and perhaps pack in soft luggage of variable sizes, but it’s there. Apparently. Fold the rear seats down to create 45.8 cu.-ft. of cargo space.
Choose the SE or the SEL trim, and you’ll make do with a standard 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine generating 147 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 132 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,500 rpm. A 6-speed automatic powers the front wheels, and all-wheel drive is an option.
My strong recommendation is to upgrade to the Limited or Ultimate trim level for a turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine. The 175 horsepower at 5,500 rpm, and especially the 195 lb.-ft. of torque spread across the rev range between 1,500 rpm and 4,500 rpm like so much creamy Nutella on a macadamia nut pancake, makes driving the Kona delightful.
True, you’ll need to accept the 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission (DCT) that comes with it, but the quirkiness associated with such gearboxes is worth it. All-wheel drive is optional with this drivetrain, too, making a turbocharged Kona perfect for higher elevation regions like Denver.
You might want the AWD system, and for more than just extra traction. It swaps the standard torsion-beam rear axle suspension out for a more sophisticated independent multi-link design, and that typically improves both the ride and handling. No doubt, the 18-inch wheels and 235/45 tires that come with Limited and Ultimate trim help in the handling department.
Driving the turbocharged Kona is fun. Zippy acceleration and plenty of passing power make it more appealing than most of its competition, especially when switched into its Sport driving mode. The DCT behaves like one, so if you like that, then you’ll like this.
Steering is excellent. Electrically assisted at the column rather than the rack, it did not exhibit on-center disconnectedness, a traditional Hyundai trait. Weighting was a bit on the heavy side, but thanks to its smooth response and accuracy, this didn’t bother me.
Taut and stiff over small, sharp bumps in the road, the Kona’s ride can get busy depending on the road surface. Otherwise, I have no complaints. Handling genuinely impresses, and Hyundai includes torque vectoring at every wheel when the Kona is equipped with AWD, making another case for this optional upgrade.
Venture a little bit off the beaten path, but not too far given the modest 6.7 inches of ground clearance, and you can lock the AWD system into a 50:50 front-to-rear split for maximum traction, or engage a handy hill descent control feature to manage speed on tricky downhill paths.
At no time did the 4-wheel-disc brakes generate cause for pause, and while running fast on a roller coaster of a road, the pedal offered enough precision that it was easy to bleed pressure on and off to account for the unknown road’s whoops and dips.
Because of its polarizing styling and its entry-level market position, I wasn’t expecting to like the Hyundai Kona. Color me pleasantly surprised.
In person, and with acclimation, the styling works quite well. The interior absolutely exudes quality at this price point, from the way the door releases operate, to how the vents feel when adjusted, to how the shifter feels when choosing a gear, to how the doors thunk when closed, to the low-gloss sheen on the hard plastic surfaces. And comfort levels are unexpectedly high.
Add the energetic turbocharged engine, the impressive AWD system, the scrappy driving dynamics, the undeniable utility, and the impressive infotainment package, and you’ve got a recipe for a terrific little vehicle. And let’s not forget that Hyundai still provides one of the best warranties in the business, and makes it easier to buy one of its vehicles thanks to its Shopper Assurance program.
Simply put, there isn’t much wrong here, and plenty that’s right. If the new 2018 Kona is a sign of what Hyundai has in store for the rest of its SUV lineup in the years ahead, the competition had better sit up and pay attention.
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