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2020 Hyundai Kona Test Drive Review
The Hyundai Kona subcompact SUV is one of the smallest cars you can buy with all-wheel drive. It competes in a class of four-door hatchbacks with the lifted suspensions and higher driving positions that crossover buyers want—and with the same generous list of convenience and safety features that come on larger crossovers. We last tested the Kona when it came out for 2018, but a new trim level and more standard driver assists are the major changes for 2020. For what Hyundai charges, the Kona is cramped and the interior disappoints, yet exterior style and on-road performance are spectacular.
Look and Feel
The Ford EcoSport is the smallest new car available with all-wheel drive (AWD), and it looks dreadful. Larger in every dimension, the Hyundai Kona looks exciting. Those extra inches aren't the reason. It's how Hyundai exploited the Kona's tiny footprint to produce a sleek, sporty, and dramatic exterior—for a mass-market economy car priced just above $20,000. The Kona is several inches shorter than all of its other competitors (Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR, Mazda CX-30, Subaru Crosstrek, Nissan Kicks, Jeep Renegade, Buick Encore, Kia Seltos, and Kia Soul). Those cars are already petite. The challenge in making them attractive—to mask the inherent stubbiness of small, short-wheelbase vehicles with tall roofs—is a car designer's most difficult task. The Kona demonstrates the glaring difference between good and great car designs—and these days, it's a feat that doesn't require millions of extra dollars to get right.
Everything about the Kona's exterior is visually stimulating. The tiered lighting up front, stacked around a tall grille and chunky matte plastic trim cutting into the body, makes the Kona appear taller and wider than it is. Slim LED running lamps above, headlights at the center spaced to the car's edges, and two more optional fog lights positioned at the bumper's lowest edge create this effect. More details impress, like how the fender creases trace from the running lamps, fade at the front doors, and reemerge at the rear fenders to direct your eyes to the equally thin taillights. Black trim extends upward from the door sills, and darker black trim surrounds the upper rear hatch to help shrink the car's mass. Add two-tone wheels (up to 18 inches), a gently sloping roof, a ground-hugging stance that's still high enough to feel like a small SUV, and you have a car that gives off a premium vibe from every angle. Limited and Ultimate models come with the larger wheels and additional gray trim to offset the black sills and rear bumper. The second-from-the-bottom SEL has a unique black-painted roof and pillars. Regardless, all trim levels look great.
Unfortunately, just as we found in 2018, the interior can't match the exterior's emotion or quality. Hard, dull plastics and lackluster finishes pervade the plain cabin. Ordering the Kona Limited or Ultimate in Sunset Orange or Lime Twist will paint the trim surrounding the air vents, gear selector, and engine start button in those bright colors. Plus, it adds the same color for the steering wheel and seat stitching. The light gray seats, dash, and door colors are a no-cost, fancier option compared to my test car's all-black cabin, and the gray leather seats include black piping. The buttons and switchgear feel good, the screens are high-res, and the layout is acceptable. This is all good stuff. But when you compare the fit and finish of the CX-30, C-HR, or the HR-V, you'll recognize the Kona is many steps below in tactile quality and overall expression. Maybe that won't disappoint you. But if you liked the exterior as much as we did, it should.
Would you expect Hyundai to bring the segment's best powertrain and chassis? Most believe that job belongs to Mazda and Honda. The Kona's 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-four is a big little bright spot, with 175 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque—way more than anything in the segment except its corporate cousins, the Kia Seltos S Turbo and SX Turbo and the Kia Soul GT-Line Turbo, the latter of which hich belts out another 26 hp from the same engine. These are big numbers for small cars.
That torque, coupled through a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT), comes on early at 1,500 rpm and stays flat until 4,500. Remember, that's peak torque. Meaning that as soon as you step off idle, the Kona is already producing more of it than most of the competitors do with their engines racing at high revs. The result, in either normal or sport mode, is strong acceleration off the line, at mid-range, and when passing. It's so much better than any of the competitors and it instills complete confidence when merging onto highways. The DCT is fast to react and a great partner to an eager engine. Hearing the turbo whoosh in the lower gears accelerating up hills is satisfying, too. This engine doesn't quit, and it does all this on regular octane fuel.
However, only the Limited and Ultimate trims come with the turbo. The standard engine is on par with the slower, weaker competition: a naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter inline-four with 147 hp and 132 lb-ft. Still, where most other cars offer a continuously variable transmission (CVT), Hyundai equips the non-turbo Kona models with a traditional (and more responsive) 6-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive (FWD) is standard. Either engine on any trim pairs with optional AWD. The drivetrain includes torque vectoring as equipment, which can brake the inner wheels to improve turn-in around tight corners. Paddle shifters are the one missing element, though you can shift manually with the gear selector.
From a noise perspective, these engines sure buzz and vibrate more than they ought to, plus the cabin isn't as well insulated, so the driving experience is always loud when compared to more refined cars like the HR-V and CX-30. The ride is stiffer, too. But the Kona surprises again when the road twists. The steering is fast and direct. The suspension is tight, stable, and allows minimal roll. The wide 235-mm tires on our test car offered lots of steady grip. AWD models pair with an independent rear suspension, instead of the torsion beam setup on FWD models, which pays dividends when driving swiftly on narrow back roads. With this setup, Hyundai proves it can achieve a similar level of handling and road feel as you'd find in a Mercedes-Benz GLA or a BMW X2—no joke, we've driven them both. Even on the highway at speed, the Kona tracks straight and isn't perturbed by expansion joints or cracks in the pavement. Clearly, a lot of R&D dollars went to the chassis, and we're amazed and gratified Hyundai went to the trouble. It's delightful.
Fuel economy isn't great for such a small car, but then again, no car in this class is exceptional here. If you're going to add AWD and lift the body, you're adding weight and drag. There's no getting around that. Over 340 mostly highway miles, we averaged just under 29 mpg. The EPA estimates the Kona 1.6T AWD at 26 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, and 27 mpg combined. The 2.0 AWD returns 26/30/28. To save more money, order FWD with either engine for 30 mpg combined (and up to 33 mpg highway). The battery-powered Kona Electric is covered separately and we have yet to test it.
Form and Function
The Kona becomes a burden when it's time to move people and things other than yourself. Seating for four is fine. The rear has a scalloped roof for more headroom, and rear legroom is also about average for this class of car. That's to say that you can sit one adult behind another so long as neither is particularly tall. Where the Kona comes up short is in luggage space; it has one of the smallest cargo holds by significant margins. It offers 19 cubic feet of cargo space and 46 with the rear seats folded.
The Honda HR-V is just inches longer and swallows 56, plus it has flip-up rear seats to fit extra-tall objects like bikes or plants. On the Buick Encore GX, the 50-cubic-foot space can take advantage of a front passenger seat that folds flat for extra-long objects. The tinier EcoSport swallows 50 cubes, the Renegade can do 51, the Kicks has 53 (and 25 with the seats up). The Soul, 62. This is the difference between taking your parents to JFK airport or sending them off in a $200 Uber. The Kona can't hide how cramped it is inside. Hyundai's Elantra GT is a lowered hatch for the same price and has 55 cubic feet.
Despite how easy it is to work the Kona's controls, its simple and fast infotainment system, and the good sightlines from the driver's seat, the Kona is supposed to be a utility vehicle. By pure function, it fails. Other cars with exterior dimensions falling within inches of the Kona have considerably more room inside. It's closer to a really small hatchback—the car most Americans don't want anymore—than a true crossover. And if you'd like to stick some of your gear on the roof, the base SE doesn't come with side rails.
Every Kona but the SE has a good list of standard features. That base model does come with a 7-inch touchscreen that accepts Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but if you want proximity entry so you can leave the key fob in your pocket, auto/up down windows, or vanity mirrors, get the SEL. Heated front seats, heated mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, tinted rear windows, blind-spot monitoring, SiriusXM satellite radio and HD radio, and an engine anti-theft immobilizer also come standard. The former SEL Tech Package has become a new trim called SEL Plus. It brings an auto-dimming rear-view mirror with garage door openers, wireless charging, an eight-way power driver's seat with lumbar, eight-speaker Infinity stereo, and Blue Link connectivity. Blue Link is the Hyundai app that you can use to monitor the car's status, location, remote engine start from your phone, smartwatch, or Amazon Alexa device. The 3-year subscription is included with the car, after which you'll pay monthly for remote start or to keep emergency services like auto 911 dialing in the event of a crash.
The Limited, in addition to the turbo engine and DCT, has leather upholstery. The Kona Ultimate saves the best for itself: A sunroof, an 8-inch touchscreen with navigation, auto high beams, and adaptive cruise control. The latter is new for 2020. On my Ultimate test car, we were impressed with the car's lane-centering abilities on the highway despite Hyundai not calling it the Highway Driving Assistant as it does on more expensive models (because below 6 mph, the adaptive cruise shuts off instead of allowing the Kona to stop and go).
The 2020 Kona scored five out of five stars overall in crash tests approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with maximum ratings for driver and passenger in the frontal test and for driver and rear passenger in the side test. It scored four out of five stars in the rollover risk test. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rated the Kona a 2020 Top Safety Pick for scoring the top Good rating in six crash tests, the optional LED headlights, and the top Superior rating for forward emergency braking. That comes standard on every Kona, along with lane-keep assist and a driver attention monitor. Pedestrian detection is only for the Ultimate, and it earned a lower score from the IIHS in detecting a person than another vehicle. Unlike some competitors, the Kona does not come with any front knee airbags or rear side airbags.
The 2020 Kona has a starting MSRP of $20,300 for a base FWD SE. The midpack AWD SEL Plus is $25,350 and comes with the features most drivers will want. Loaded, our AWD Ultimate test car cost $30,380 with destination. That's a big ask for a small car with little space and a subpar interior. You'll spend most of your time inside the Kona using its space, so the shortcomings are too obvious to dismiss. Hyundai wins on styling and driving dynamics—they're superb—plus the 5-year/60,000-mile warranty, 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, and three oil changes. But, by now, we're expecting long warranties and good reliability. The Kona doesn't bring the usual Hyundai value. Other automakers bring more and better cars for the money, even when they're not quite as fun to drive.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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