Kona, Hawaii — When the product specialists for the 2018 Hyundai Kona asked me what I thought of their newest entry into the compact utility market, I answered honestly with: I’m kind of surprised.
Not that I expected the Kona to be a bad vehicle. But after having come off a week in the new Ford Ecosport, I just didn’t expect it to be as good as it is.
I mean, this is an entry-level vehicle, with entry-level materials, power and handling.
And yet it doesn’t feel like it.
Granted, we were driving the top-tier Ultimate trim that had every extra feature available including the up-level engine and all-wheel drive.
But the ride and handling isn’t something you can build into the top trim only.
We managed to hit a wide range of roads and road surfaces, and there were a fair bit of curves involved. Kona handled them all quite well.
While there was a certain amount of road noise that crept into the cabin on rough surfaces, overall Kona proved to be very quiet.
For 2018, Kona has two available engines. The base engine is a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder that delivers 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. This engine is available in the SE and SEL trims. The up-level engine, available in the Limited and Ultimate trims, is the 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder. It delivers 174 horsepower and 195 pound feet of torque.
Since we were in the Ultimate trim, we were testing the up-level engine. I thought the passing power at 45 and 55 was quite good, but I did notice a wee bit of turbo lag when I tried a hard acceleration from a complete stop. It wasn’t horrible but noticeable if you’re trying to hit a gap in fast-moving traffic.
One of the interesting things Hyundai did with this new Kona is simplify the trim structure. There is only one package option available – and that’s on the SEL trim. Otherwise, you can opt for front- or all-wheel drive ($1,300) at any trim, and more content becomes available as you level up.
The trims are as follows:
SE ($19,5500): This comes with the base 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine and includes features such as a 7-inch touchscreen display, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay integration, automatic headlights, Bluetooth connectivity and cruise control.
SEL ($21,150): This trim adds blind-spot monitoring, heated front seats and 17-inch alloy wheels. The optional Tech Package ($1,500) adds a power sunroof, forward collision avoidance, lane keep assist and a driver attention warning.
Limited ($24,700): This trim adds the up-level 1.6-liter turbocharged engine as standard and includes features such as 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and taillights, leather eats, a power driver’s seat, automatic temperature control and fog lights.
Ultimate ($27,4000): This top-tier trim adds an 8-inch display screen, navigation, Qi wireless charging, a head-up display, forward collision avoidance, lane keep assist, rain-sensing wipers, high-beam assist, Infinity premium audio and BlueLink connected car services.
Though crash tests haven’t been conducted on the Kona, Hyundai is targeting an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick + award, which requires both forward collision avoidance and highly rated headlights. Thus, the only two trims that could carry the TSP+ delineation are the SEL and Ultimate.
Kona enters a relatively new “Small CUV” segment, which slots under the Subcompact and Compact SUV segments and includes vehicles such as the Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V, Subaru Crosstrek, Toyota C-HR and Ford Ecosport.
Interestingly, if you look at the SEL trim, which Hyundai thinks will be the volume seller, the Kona offers a lot of content at an attractive price. Similarly equipped vehicles in this segment have less standard equipment and yet cost anywhere from $1,395 to $2,470 more.
Another thing that sets Kona apart is its design. From the outset, it was meant to be instilled with a sense of adventure and attitude. It has strong horizontal lines that swirl and flow from the rear to the front.
It also sports flashy and fun colors with names to match such as Pulse Red, Surf Blue and Lime Twist.
I like the swoopy lines and squinty headlights – which are an interesting styling choice since the Jeep Compass was just refreshed without a similar feature. And I’m actually OK with the gray plastic cladding surrounding the wheels, fog lights and rear bumper. But I say that with a caveat: This could look a bit dated within a couple years.
The interior is clean and uncluttered, plus all the dials and controls are within easy reach. I especially appreciate the fact you don’t have to page through the display screen to find things like HVAC or heated seats.
The up-level trims have leather seats, and if you opt for the Lime Twist or Thunder Gray exterior paint, the interior trim and piping is lime.
I liked the way it looked, but my drive partner commented that he might get sick of it after a couple years of living with it day in and day out.
One point of contention from my perspective: Kona only has one USB port, which is the only way to charge your phone unless you’re in the Ultimate trim, which also has wireless charging.
As a petite driver, I thought the Kona fit me incredibly well. The seats were comfortable, and I was able to get an excellent driving position.
In fact, I almost felt as though the Kona was made specifically for someone my size. So, I did a bit of a survey among the other drivers present, picking a couple people who were both taller and heavier than I am.
I noticed that they had to duck a bit to get into the driver’s seat, but once there, they both commented that the driving position suited them very well – and one of those drivers was 6-foot 6-inches tall.
Kona is now on sale and fits into the Hyundai lineup under the Tucson and Santa Fe SUVs.
The Bottom Line
The 2018 Hyundai Kona is in the emerging Small CUV segment, which is expected to grow 16 percent between 2016 and 2024, so you better believe the competition is going to be fierce.
Kona is a nice value proposition – and as Hyundai pointed out during the press briefing, this is one of the primary reasons someone will buy a vehicle in this segment.
I love the keep-it-simple-silly philosophy of trims, making it easy for you to create the vehicle you want – and then be able to get it.
And I really liked the ride and handling, as well as the power delivered by the up-level engine.
With flashy color choices and nice interior amenities that are available for less than $30K, I think the Kona has a very good chance to be a front runner in this new utility segment.
Editor’s Note: Driving impressions in this “First Look” review are from an invitation-only automaker launch event that allowed special access to the vehicle and executives. Hyundai covered our accommodations, meals and transportation costs.