SUVs

2018 Hyundai Kona first drive review: Weirdly wonderful and wieldy wheels

This affordable little SUV takes its design inspiration from tiny bulldogs, and is hoping to be every millennial's best friend.

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Even before reading the first word of this review, I'm betting you've already decided whether you'd ever seriously consider buying the 2018 Hyundai Kona seen here. Such is the power of decisive -- and divisive design.

Since you're still reading, I'll assume you're cool with -- or at least intrigued by -- this subcompact crossover SUV's distinctive appearance, including its funky split headlamps and willfully different cladded fenders. 

Hyundai is directly courting millenials with the Kona, and according to Chris Chapman, the big chief at Hyundai's design center in California, this model's appearance is inspired by "those smaller dogs that think that they're tough… they don't care how small they are, they can just stand up to anything." Like a bulldog, the Kona has a long front overhang with a big, expressive face paired to a relatively small body. It's not a look that's for everyone, and that's exactly the point -- if you want wallflower design, another dealer will happily sell you a Chevrolet Trax or Honda HR-V

Me? I like it.

Hyundai says its new Kona was inspired by spunky little dogs who don't know their own size.

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Available turbo attitude

That tiny-but-pugnacious spirit carries over to the Kona's engine offerings, too. Available in both front- and all-wheel drive, the powertrain range starts with a naturally aspirated, Atkinson-cycle Nu 2.0-liter four-cylinder bearing 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. However, in the spirit of being properly small and feisty, you'll likely want to step up to a Limited or Ultimate trim, both of which come with a diminutive 1.6-liter turbocharged engine outputting 175 horsepower and a meaty 195 pound-feet of torque. 

That's a pretty generous amount of power for this class, and it essentially comes without a fuel economy penalty. FWD 2.0-liter models are EPA rated at an unremarkable 27 miles per gallon city, 33 mpg highway and 30 combined. The 1.6-liter turbo gains 1 mpg in the city but trades away one in both highway and combined cycles, so in real-world driving, it'll likely be a wash. AWD models take a not-insignificant efficiency hit, dropping to 25/30/27 mpg (2.0L) and 26/29/27 (1.6T), respectively.

There are other reasons to splurge on the forced-induction engine -- not only does it come with a quicker-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (the 2.0 receives a conventional six-speed automatic), it's also paired to a multi-link rear suspension that's fully independent. Although I did not have the chance to test it at the Kona's media launch event, the base engine's torsion beam rear axle is markedly less sophisticated and undoubtedly affects its ride and handling acumen.

If you're not into filling up your car at the pump and would rather plug in at home, Hyundai is widely expected to offer an all-electric version of the Kona here in the US that will compete with models like the Chevrolet Bolt EV and base, smaller-capacity Tesla Model 3, a vehicle that still isn't on sale yet. (Hyundai has already shown the Kona's battery-electric version in other markets.)

Tech smarts

This being a youth-centric vehicle, you're likely expecting a generous amount of convenience and safety tech inside the Kona, and you won't be disappointed.

Hyundai has quietly offered one of the most intuitive infotainment packages in the business for many years now, a system that typically punches well above the price points where its vehicles live. That's largely true, here, too. A 7-inch touchscreen is standard, and an 8-inch unit with navigation is optional.

The cabin is nicely appointed, if a bit sober given the Kona's outlandish exterior.

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The latter features Blue Link LTE-powered telematics, bundling features like remote start and stolen vehicle recovery, as well as Amazon Alexa skills and Apple Watch/Android Wear functionality. If that's not enough, the up-level Infinity eight-speaker audio that comes with it makes the bigger system a worthy upgrade. Either way you go, though, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration come standard.

Regardless of model, the infotainment screen is mounted atop the center stack in a floating mount, and is smartly flanked by an array of buttons and knobs that make for easier use. However, the screen itself could be integrated more cleanly with a bezel-less design. As it is, the system doesn't look particularly slick or high-tech.

Heads up!

Other cabin tech niceties include an optional Qi wireless device charger, as well as an available head-up display. Like the Mazda CX-3 and Mini Countryman, the system doesn't project directly onto the windshield, it displays information on a transparent piece of plastic that motorizes into place and disappears when not in use.

The Kona's profile is its most ordinary view, but it's still very distinctive.

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This is a less-attractive, less-integrated solution than HUDs found on many luxury and sports cars, but it has a large 8-inch readout that's much brighter (10,000 nits) than competing systems, and it works well. It's also much less less expensive, lighter and more compact to package into the dashboard. Finally, since it's not part of the windshield, this type of HUD solution makes for far less-costly replacement in the event of a rock strike --  an important consideration at this price-sensitive end of the market.

Overall, the Kona's interior is a nice place to be -- there's a surprising amount of space for occupants and their stuff. Cargo-wise, there's 19.2 cubic feet of space available with the rear seats down, and 45.8 cubic feet with them stowed.

In the examples I drove, cabin fit and finish was strong. I do wish the overall aesthetic was as bold and funky as this cute ute's exterior. Unless you splurge for the high-line Limited model's leather seats with their lime accents, it's a pretty ordinary-looking environment, one that could be at home in an Elantra. A few more unique trim bits, light-hearted Easter Eggs or surprise-and-delight features could go a long way.

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The more powerful 1.6T is where it's at. 

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Oh, and one other minor quibble: I wish the door caps featured soft-touch plastic, which would be more comfortable for drivers like me who occasionally rest an elbow on the sill. The dashboard trim in front of the passenger is identically grained, yet has a nice amount of "give" -- it'd do nicely.

Road rules

Over two days and hundreds of miles of driving on the Big Island of Hawaii (where else?), I found the seats to be both comfortable and supportive whether casually taking in the countless scenic vistas or when hustling up or down the island's many twisting roads. Our drive route included a good amount of climbs and ascents, and there was always plenty of power underfoot with the 1.6T Gamma engine. 

I've driven this same basic powertrain previously in Hyundai's Tucson Eco, an application I disparaged for its poor overall refinement -- particularly at around-town speeds, where I found the transmission was prone to less-than-smooth gear changes. I'm happy to report that I experienced no such problems in the Kona. Even low-speed, partial throttle work, a common Achilles heel of dual-clutch transmissions -- was pleasant.

That slim upper LED is the daytime running lamp. The main headlamps nest in unusual bumper nacelles.

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Having said that, I do wish Hyundai had splurged for paddle shifters. They're not expensive, and especially with this type of gearbox, they're a great way to amp up driver involvement and control (particularly in hilly environments like Hawaii, where frequent engine braking is an asset).

I found the Kona's steering to be light, accurate and reasonably quick from lock-to-lock, a welcome mix of attributes for a vehicle of this type. High-speed runs aren't exactly Hawaii's metier, but I still found the Kona to be an entertaining drive partner, with ample traction from its 18-inch 235/45 Goodyear Eagle touring rubber.

Perhaps more importantly for a subcompact SUV, the Kona was surprisingly quiet inside, and despite its modest 164-inch overall length (over a foot shorter than Hyundai's next-largest Tucson), it enjoyed good ride compliance, especially considering I was on the Kona's largest available tires. There's not much body roll, and if anything, the suspension setup is slightly firm, but the chassis is up to the job.

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Not much for the rough stuff

Of course, before you entertain any visions of off-road glory, Hyundai says the Kona is "for urban adventurers," and it only has 6.7-inches of ground clearance, a figure it shares with the humble Toyota Corolla sedan. That means this crossover is better suited for traversing the pothole-strewn dirt lot in front of the taco stand blowing up your Yelp "Hot And New" feed than it is at attempting actual off-roading.

Despite its armored fenders and planted stance, this Hyundai is actually more of a hatchback with optional all-wheel drive traction than it is a bona-fide SUV. That onroad bias makes sense, though, because with the exception of Subaru's significantly larger Crosstrek and Jeep's cheeky little Renegade, none of the Kona's competition is exactly rough-and-tumble ready.

Safety first

In terms of active safety tech, this Hyundai covers the waterfront, at least on SEL-grade models and higher. The Kona features an available forward collision-avoidance with pedestrian detection; blind-spot, lane-keep and automatic high-beam assists; and even a (fairly rudimentary) driver attention warning system. A rear cross-traffic collision warning system augments the standard backup camera -- no 360-degree camera coverage is available, but parking-distance sensors come on top-trim Ultimate models.

Weirdly, despite having most of the necessary hardware, adaptive cruise control is not available at launch.

The Kona stands out not just because of its distinctive style, but also for its blend of virtues.

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$ensible 

Price-wise, the Kona is squarely in the hunt. MSRPs start at a reasonable $19,500 for the base FWD SE trim, and climb to $27,400 for an Ultimate with the aforementioned lime-accented leather and a brace of added features (both prices plus $950 freight). The electronically lockable all-wheel-drive system adds $1,300 to the bottom line of all trims, and the first models are trickling into dealers as you read this.

Overall, the 2018 Hyundai Kona has all the makings of a standout model in one of the auto industry's quickest-accelerating segments. Its refined power and handling combine with a strong complement of advanced safety and convenience tech to make it must-drive if you're shopping for a new small SUV -- provided, of course, that you like its bulldog looks.

Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.