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2018 Hyundai Kona Test Drive Review
Hyundai's new Kona is a subcompact crossover sized and priced below the Tucson and two Santa Fe models. It’s a cute, funky runabout that offers a lot of conveniences at a reasonable price. Style and technology are high points, while practicality and overall quality could be better. But for Hyundai’s first effort in this hot-selling segment, the Kona deserves your attention.
Look and Feel
When Jeep introduced the 2014 Cherokee, car reviewers and many would-be buyers either adored or were appalled by its front end. That squinty, three-tiered lighting design was polarizing at first, yet after a couple years, we all got used to it. Hyundai designers must have, too, since the Kona copies the Cherokee template like a stencil. Thin strips of LED running lights, mid-mounted headlights, and low-mounted fog lights melt into some kind of polygonal time warp. Yet all these conflicting elements manage to blend well together and look attractive. The gray fenders extend into the headlight and rear turn-signal housings. Surface detailing is sometimes fussy, like the fake air vent placed over the functional grille, but the Kona has a sporty stance unlike many short-wheelbase vehicles of this variety. All trim levels look the part, with standard alloy wheels and super-bright Crayola paint like our car’s Surf Blue. Only the base SE loses the roof rails and fog lights, but thankfully, the Kona’s aggressive detailing remains intact across the lineup.
Inside, the Kona can be dressed up with neon green accents surrounding the air vents and shifter and stitched into the seats. But only certain exterior colors offer that choice, and otherwise, the interior is economy-grade boring. Dull, gray plastics—especially on the dash and doors—come off as hard and cheap. Other Hyundai models like the Elantra GT dress up their interiors considerably at a similar price. Competitors like the Honda HR-V offer superior fit and finish. Compact cars priced below $30,000 have to meet higher standards than they did a couple of years ago, as every automaker ups its game. But the Kona’s interior is disappointing since it doesn’t match the exterior’s refinement and excitement—not even a little. That's why the Kona scores much lower in this category than it should.
Four powertrain combinations are available. The base SE and SEL trims have a 2.0-liter inline four with 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque, paired with a 6-speed automatic. The Limited and Ultimate trims use a turbocharged 1.6-liter inline four with 175 horsepower, 195 pound-feet of torque, and a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic. Front-wheel drive (FWD) is standard, while all-wheel drive (AWD) is optional for all trims. A battery-electric version with a claimed 250-mile range will be available later in 2018. We tested only the turbo engine in our Ultimate AWD test car.
Acceleration is brisk, and gear shifts are snappy, though from a stop, the transmission feels like it’s slipping the clutch a little too long. That results in some hesitation, although engaging Sport mode keeps the Kona on the boil. Without paddle shifters, however, it’s tougher to keep the Kona is the right gear when driving aggressively. It’s a torque-rich engine, especially in midrange acceleration around town, and its sounds are relatively benign (and nearly silent and vibration-free at idle). Handling is engaging. Standard torque vectoring brakes the inside wheels around turns (or a single wheel on FWD models), which lets the Kona corner at higher speeds. This makes entering a tight highway on-ramp a real pleasure. Body roll is minimal, although the steering feel is somewhat muted and the suspension a bit stiff.
The Kona is EPA-rated at 25 to 28 mpg city and 29 to 33 highway, depending on the powertrain. I averaged 25 mpg in mixed city and highway driving.
Form and Function
The Kona's gauges, switchgear, and instrumentation are among the best in the segment because they’re so legible and logical. Our car’s central color screen in between the analog tachometer and speedometer shows navigation, audio, phone, and other settings, but all other trims get a dated, monochrome display with only the most basic info. The main touchscreen (7 inches wide in all trims except the Ultimate, which is 8) is clear, clutter-free, and able to accept swiping and pinching gestures. Hard buttons and knobs flank the screen so it’s simple to switch functions. The seats are very supportive, though lumbar support is optional.
Thick D-pillars compromise rear visibility, but otherwise the Kona is a cinch to park and maneuver. Rear leg- and headroom are at a premium. The Kona’s low, sleek roofline hurts cargo space. It has only 45.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded, while total passenger volume is 8 cubes less than the Elantra GT hatchback offers. In this segment, these are small numbers—and you’ll dislike them when more than two adults come for the ride. Compared to competitors, the Kona feels more cramped and less practical.
Most Kona trims offer only basic technology. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and a single USB port are standard. The SEL offers push-button start with a proximity key, a one-touch auto up/down driver’s window, and HD and SiriusXM radio. A sunroof, 8-way power driver’s seat with lumbar, foglights, and additional safety equipment are a $1,500 option on the SEL, most of which are standard on the Limited. The Ultimate saves the best technology for itself, which is why we’ve lowered the Kona’s rating in this category.
It’s a shame, because all Kona owners would benefit from ordering navigation and Hyundai’s BlueLink connected services as an option. Using Hyundai’s smartphone app, you can send directions to the Kona, which then loads them immediately upon pressing the Map button inside the car. You can start, unlock, and perform other remote features from a smartwatch paired to your phone. The Apple Watch app we tested was cluttered and slower to execute than the phone app, but it’s a neat feature. For giggles, you can do all this with an Amazon Alexa device in your home. Press a button on the rear-view mirror, and you can dictate a Google search for any POI without pulling over to manually type it or relying on the navigation’s built-in directory. Stolen vehicle tracking and other concierge features are also included for three years, but only on the Ultimate trim. Our car’s 8-speaker Infinity stereo was impressive, as were the crisp LED headlights. The head-up display isn’t worth the effort, however, as it projects images onto a flip-up cover mounted low on the dash instead of at eye height on the windshield.
The Kona is brand new and has not yet been rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). We predict top ratings all around. Blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert is standard on SEL and above trims. The SEL’s $1,500 Tech package brings a driver-attention monitor, forward-collision alert, auto-braking with pedestrian detection, and lane-keep assist. Strangely, these safety features aren’t available on the more expensive Limited, but they’re standard on the Ultimate.
The 2018 Kona starts at $19,500 for the SE, followed by the SEL ($21,150), Limited ($24,700), and Ultimate ($27,400). AWD adds $1,300 to each trim. Our fully loaded Ultimate AWD stickered for $29,680 with destination. Hyundai’s 5-year/60,000-mile warranty is unmatched, as is its 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. While the cabin needs improvement and its high-tech features come at the highest price, the Kona is very competitive against the Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR, Ford EcoSport, Chevrolet Trax, and many other small crossovers. Its exterior style, performance, available technology, and warranty are class-leading. But other Hyundai models, like the FWD-only Elantra GT, offer more power, space, and quality at a similar price. The competition is fierce, so before you choose a Kona, make sure to cross-shop it thoroughly.
Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own. Raised in Volvos, he has grown to love fast, irresponsible vehicles of all kinds. He is the East Coast Bureau reporter for Car and Driver and writes for various publications.
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Hyundai Kona Questions
Locking The Doors Of The Hyundai Kona
How do I lock the doors of the car? Even though I press "lock" all I have to do is press the button on the handle and it opens. If that's the case then anyone would be able to just press the button?...
Spontaneous Driver Door Locking
I bought a new 2018 Kona. A wonderful car, but from the day I drove it home the drivers door spontaneously locks. It doesn't matter if the key is 30 metres away from the car, or in my pocket. Period...
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