By on March 26, 2018

2018 Hyundai Kona

It’s probably a little too on the nose for any automaker to launch a car in the city, state, or region it’s named after, but that didn’t stop Hyundai from bringing media to Hawaii to drive the newest entry into the subcompact crossover class.

Hyundai did so not just because of the “synergy” (ugh) between place and name, but because the company wanted to show us scribes how sporty and fun and well-suited to outdoorsy folk the Kona is. Never mind that most compact SUV buyers aren’t hauling long boards – they’re hauling little humans.

Every automaker does this — projecting their crossovers as the key to adventure. And I have no doubt that equipped with the correct accessories, the Kona can haul your bikes to the trailhead just fine. But most of these are going to be found in traffic on city streets, just like most of the crossovers buyers will cross-shop against the Kona.

The bigger question, then, is where does the Kona fit in a segment Hyundai calls the “Wild West?”

Full disclosure: Hyundai flew me out to Kona, on the big island of Hawaii, put me up in a nice hotel with waterfront views that offered activities such as snorkeling (I did that for 10 minutes before departing), fed me several excellent meals (including one that took place as part of a luau), gave me a pair of sandals, and pre-paid for a pass to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

A few years ago, the subcompact crossover hardly existed. Now the class is populated by the likes of the Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR, Jeep Renegade, the new Nissan Kicks, and the Subaru Crosstrek wagon.

Hyundai used the term “Wild West” to imply there’s more variation between models in this segment than usual, and that’s accurate, in my view. You have the boxy Renegade, the tall-wagon Crosstrek, the oddly styled Toyota C-HR, and the Mazda CX-3, which is essentially a lifted Mazda 2 (a model Mazda doesn’t sell here, except in Toyota form). Only the Chevy Trax, Honda HR-V, Ford EcoSport, and upcoming Kicks look, at first glance, to have “traditional” crossover shaping.

Enter the Kona. Although it has some interesting design quirks – the squinty headlights and the open slat above the grill being the most obvious – it doesn’t have the chopped roof of the C-HR or the “box it came in” shape of the Renegade. It’s proportioned the way one expects a subcompact crossover to be.

2018 Hyundai Kona

I roll my eyes at words like “stance” in most cases, but Hyundai’s use of it in the press materials makes sense here – the Kona looks sporty, or at least as sporty as any small ‘ute can look. It’s an eye-catching design, putting it alongside the Renegade and Kicks for top billing in the obviously subjective “best looking” category for crossovers of this size.

The interior is a bit of a letdown, however. Hyundai opted for simple over sexy, and while that’s appreciated on some level – I have an affinity for plain and functional yet handsome design – it also feels like the company is playing it safe. Hyundai has picked up on the ugly trend of high-mounted center-stack screens, although this one appears better integrated than most. Perhaps the chintziest thing is the climate display – it looks like an afterthought.

At least the buttons are easy to read and reach, and Hyundai offers features such as a head-up display and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. Materials feel class appropriate, with some feeling a bit upscale for the price point. There were more soft-touch surfaces than I expected.

Hawaii’s roads aren’t a driver’s dream – although there are some twisty bits, most of the big island’s highways are clogged with semis, rental cars, and Toyota Tacomas lifted to the hilt (my drive partner and I proposed a drinking game based on Tacomas spotted, before realizing that would result in grim death). The pavement is also surprisingly cracked in places and some small hills led to a series of whoop-de-doos. Oh, and wildlife has a habit of wandering out in front of you.

2018 Hyundai Kona

The Kona travels these roads with a stiffly sprung suspension. It rides as if someone at R&D thought “sporty” just simply means “stiff.” There’s two drive modes – normal and sport – and though pushing the sport button firms up the steering, even in normal mode the Kona doesn’t feel fully relaxed. It’s relatively high-strung, with the aforementioned cracked pavement not going unnoticed. The suspension also seemed to unload on the whoop-de-doos, giving way to a floating sensation. It should be noted that while front-drive and all-wheel-drive models both have a MacPherson strut front suspension, the AWD models swap a torsion beam rear setup for a multi-link layout.

We were only given one model and trim to sample – the all-wheel drive, top-trim Ultimate. There are two engines on offer. The base mill is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder (147 horsepower, 132 lb-ft of torque) that mates to a six-speed automatic trans, while the top engine is a 1.6-liter turbocharged four (175 horsepower, 195 lb-ft of torque) that pairs with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. The base engine is available on SE and SEL models, while the turbo comes with Limited and Ultimate trims.

The 1.6 feels like just about every other small turbo four in the industry – there’s a slight wait for the power to come on, then you get just enough for passing but not so much that you’ll be wowed. I had to plan my passes a bit, but they weren’t too dramatic, either. The brakes felt a tad grabby.

It’s a sporty experience that sacrifices some ride comfort – I’d be curious how the Kona feels on a long freeway stint. The good news is that it’s engaging. Some of the vehicles in this segment have a drive experience that makes you yearn for self-driving cars – but I suspect the stiffness will turn some buyers off. I’m surprised there’s no comfort mode available on the drive-mode selector.

2018 Hyundai Kona

By coincidence, I’d driven the C-HR just prior to the Kona, and, while I found Toyota’s little oddball ‘ute to be a bit more fun than expected, I’d probably lean towards the Kona over the C-HR just for the overall package.

That package includes a fair amount of features, both standard and available. As mentioned, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard. So is a rear-view monitor, LED daytime running lights, automatic headlights, Bluetooth, cruise control, tire-pressure monitoring, and 60/40 fold-flat rear seats.

Key available features include navigation, Hyundai’s BlueLink connected-car system, 18-inch wheels, power driver’s seat, leather seats, LED headlights and taillights, automatic climate control, proximity key with push-button start, contrasting roof colors, rain-sensing wipers, sunroof, head-up display, wireless cell-phone charging, fog lights, uplevel audio, lane-keeping assist, forward-collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, heated front seats, roof rails, blind-spot collision warning, and driver-attention warning.

As noted, Hyundai tossed me the keys to a Kona in Unlimited trim with AWD, so not only can I not tell you how the base engine and six-speed work together, or how the vehicle behaves with FWD (with either engine), but I can’t get a hands-on sense of what the value proposition of the lower trims might be. I can only look at the press materials and take an educated guess.

2018 Hyundai Kona

Certainly, a Limited basing at $24,700 seems tempting, even if it means sacrificing nav, the larger 8-inch infotainment LCD touchscreen that comes with nav, wireless charging, the head-up display, forward-collision warning, lane-keep assist, rain-sensing wipers, high-beam assist, Blue Link, and the premium Infinity audio system.

Shorter in length than all expect the EcoSport, the Kona has mid-pack interior dimensions. I had no complaints concerning front headroom and legroom, but rear-seat space was tight, especially with the front seats positioned all the way back. Cargo-wise, the Kona is fourth in class with 19.2 cubic feet of cargo volume with the rear seats up.

Hyundai claims a price (and feature) advantage across the board compared to the Trax, HR-V, C-HR, Renegade, and Crosstrek for the SE over similarly equipped versions of those cars, and it does the same, with exceptions, for the SEL and Limited. But the company’s media materials didn’t do the comparison for the Limited – which bases at $27,400, with my test vehicle chiming it at $29,775 (the test unit based at $28,700 and added $125 for carpeted floor mats and $950 in destination – the $1,300 difference in base price appears to be for AWD).

Firing up the old browser and weighing it down with tabs from each OEM’s consumer site, some pointing and clicking shows the loaded Kona checks in cheaper than similarly equipped versions of the Crosstrek and Renegade (I didn’t compare the Trailhawk or Deserthawk because of their off-road mission) but more expensive than the EcoSport, Trax, HR-V, or C-HR – and it’s worth noting that the Kona may line up better against the top trims of these vehicles in Limited guise (it’s also worth noting a loaded Toyota RAV4 is only slightly more).

Even in this age of rising prices, it’s still hard to wrap my head around a $30k subcompact crossover or wagon, yet that’s where the industry stands. A near-$30k Kona seems ludicrous, but it’s still slightly cheaper than the Renegade and Crosstrek when equipped similarly, and it’s much better than both the Trax and the C-HR, so it’s worth the premium over those.

2018 Hyundai Kona

The HR-V, which I liked the last time I drove one, is just a few hundred bucks cheaper than the Kona Limited in EX-L with Navi/AWD trim, but that undercuts the Kona Ultimate by a few thousand. However, the Kona has a few things you can’t get on the HR-V, such as smartphone integration.

Perhaps the Ultimate is overkill – a $26,650 or so price for a Limited does seem more reasonable, even with the content cut – but the Kona does offer a lot of available features. It just doesn’t do so at a value price, necessarily.

Hyundai’s built a small crossover that’s well done overall, and I found myself liking it more than not over two days of driving. I still dig the Renegade and the HR-V, but the Kona is right in the mix. If I were shopping in this class, those three would pretty much be the list (I haven’t driven the Kicks or EcoSport yet, and the Crosstrek is nice but I put it in a different category, since it’s a wagon).

The biggest drawbacks here are an unimaginative interior, a ride that errs on the stiff side, and the cash outlay for a loaded Ultimate with AWD (a FWD Limited seems much more reasonable). If you can live with those first two downsides, the Kona is one of the stronger options in this class.

[Images: 2018 © Tim Healey/TTAC]

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71 Comments on “2018 Hyundai Kona First Drive – Content Comes at a Price...”


  • avatar
    ajla

    The SEL AWD trim actually seems like the best choice.

  • avatar
    TheEndlessEnigma

    Hyundai is trying much to hard to look like Jeep products. Styling on this thing is a disaster.

    • 0 avatar

      Right? I first saw a Kona in the flesh a few days ago in front of a local dealer. My first thought was that they ripped off the Cherokee front end that was so controversial and was just replaced. Of course, they sold a boatload of those Cherokees, so who knows.

      It’s sort of like how the Sonata always seems to alternate between resembling the previous-generation Accord and the previous-generation Camry.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      No kidding; this thing is incredibly busy. I’m guessing the turn signals are above, and the pods below contain the headlights? And, moving the rear turn signals down, away from the taillights? Weird. They kinda mirror the styling at the front, which I guess was what they were aiming for.

      As for the name, wasn’t “Kona” the name of a high-grade marijuana from Hawaii, many years ago?

      • 0 avatar
        Middle-Aged Miata Man

        Kia did the “let’s put the turn signals in the bumper!” thing with the Sportage a few years back. It looked dumb there, too.

        • 0 avatar

          There are really only a couple of cars which can pull of turn signal in bumper.

          An old G-Wagon, and an old Land Rover Discovery.

          There needs to be a lot of vertical real estate at the back if you’re going to try this route. And it doesn’t work here at all with this Kona egg.

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            There are those who will disagree with you, Corey. The more the turn signals are separated from the brake lights, especially if they’re amber, the more visible they will be.

          • 0 avatar

            But I’m not talking about safety, I’m talking about aesthetics.

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            The aesthetics are good, too. It balances the lighting on the nose very nicely. Very distinctive and original… for now.

    • 0 avatar
      bd2

      Except Jeep was hardly the first to do it (um, Citroen) and Hyundai had done something similar years before on a concept.

      Plus, Jeep’s attempt on the Cherokee was especially derpy-looking.

      The LED DRL treatment on the Kona looks a good bit better than what was on the Cherokee as it looks more like slim headlights, but not as good as what is on the new Santa Fe.

      Aesthetic-wise, the worst thing is the busy-looking plastic cladding; the Kona EV doesn’t have as much cladding and looks a good bit better.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    I have just one question: How did the steering feel? I drove a Hyundai rental not all that long ago where the steering was drive-by-wire and there was a noticeable lag in wheel ‘feel’ when I steered for moderate turns such as you would make at a freeway exit. Oh, the car itself responded well enough but it was as though the car didn’t want me to turn the wheel and kicked back ever so slightly. This was happening not when I was on the freeway but rather making relatively broad curves in a parking garage. Not enough to affect the maneuver but just enough to be unsettling when you’re not expecting it. I’ve driven other steer-by-wire cars that didn’t have this kickback.

    • 0 avatar
      EX35

      It seems all Hyundais suffer from this and other steering issues (i.e. difficulty tracking straight on the highway).

    • 0 avatar
      Middle-Aged Miata Man

      Minor quibble: electric-assist power steering is NOT steer-by-wire, which to my knowledge remains exclusive in the U.S. market to the Infiniti Q50.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      Felt surprisingly firm. Hyundai has gone from having numb steering a few years ago to getting the feel much better.

    • 0 avatar
      tanooki2003

      I drive a 2007 Tiburon that has the old school hydraulic rack and pinion steering and even to this day I don’t have any steering issues. In fact, I still enjoy the type of feedback my steering provides me and it’s a piece of cake for me to service if it ever gets out of whack, which thankfully it never has. I also like how my car’s alignment does not get out of whack when driving a good sized pot hole at a fast speed, unlike other brands I had in the past. I have blown a tire but never messing up my ball joints or any other critical suspension piece that keeps the car driving straight. Most newer electronic steering based cars are just to light for me.

      On a different note I can’t help but to think if you squeezed the hood down a little on the Kona, looking from only the top of the hood on down would almost look like a more modern Tiburon.

  • avatar
    kvetcha

    For my money, the Renegade and the CX-3 are the sharpest-looking vehicles in the class. The Kona lacks flow.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      I own a Renegade and I admit I like the fact that it kept a more traditional Jeep-like nose compared to the rest of their crossovers (including Cherokee and Grand Cherokee.) To me, the Kona is quite distinctive and unique, especially compared to the CX-3 which is so boring by comparison.

      • 0 avatar
        bd2

        Problem with the CX-3 is the shape of its greenhouse and the wavy lines going down its side.

        The Kona in EV form (with less cladding) actually looks pretty good.

  • avatar
    dwford

    It’s amazing that these subcompact crossovers sticker for prices that the compact crossovers did just a few years ago.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    On to the review itself, I have to admit I actually like the looks of the front end; I personally think FCA made a mistake by dropping the eyebrow running lamps with lower mounted headlamps to go to a more conventional look. Those “squinty-eyed headlamps” on the Kia are NOT headlamps but rather the running lamps/turn signals. The real headlamps are out on the corners, managing to demonstrate just how curved and swoopy the nose is and probably giving it a remarkable CoD (Coefficient of Drag) if it weren’t for the slot at the front of the hood. I’d expect the economy of this thing to be in the 30s on the highway, better than most of the competition.

    The interior is simple and in its simplicity, quite elegant. The shapes appear such that most of the controls are easy to reach and use while the raised display at the top of the stack actually looks designed to let you hook your fingers over the top to hit the touch screen with a more stable thumb even on an uneven road surface. This looks more like good design for ergonomics rather than “unimaginitive.”

    Ride? Considering the size and the intent, perhaps not as smooth as it could be but then again, not necessarily as rough or ‘floaty’ as it could be. I’ve driven ‘floaty’ cars and I have to admit I couldn’t believe people enjoyed driving them (though admittedly as a back-seat passenger it becomes more like a living-room feel than a car.) Floaty, however, also means a greater chance of motion sickness by the passengers on certain roads. I wouldn’t be a fan of a car that rode too ‘soft’.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    I would gladly give up those stupid screens and get a Garmin (or similar) since I very seldom need the nav and if I did I could take the Garmin in the hotel room and pre-program it while watching The Grand Tour or something.

    The stupid plumbing the sound of the engine into the cabin is a deal breaker as well.

    • 0 avatar
      Wheatridger

      For me, the only essential feature of a dash-mounted touchscreen is a Display Off button. If it doesn’t have that, to kill this visual distraction, I’m not interested.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    I’d comment on how silly it is to overspend on one of these tiny CUVs, but what’s the point? The market has spoken.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      lol $30K for the loaded version? I could dicker down a loaded midsize sedan to cheaper than that.

      But we the enthusiasts are not the market. My college parking lot was filled with sedans, coupes, and the occasional pickup or (true) SUV. I’m sure the modern dorm parking lot would depress me to no end.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Interesting story: my girlfriend, who has zero interest in cars, wants something like a Kona. We went to the car show last year, and I showed her a Golf wagon, which would cost less, has more room, and no doubt drives vastly better, all for thousands less, and she had zero interest. Why? “No style.”

        She felt the same way about the Elantra GT hatchback.

        Tells you a lot about the target market here – these aren’t cars, they’re fashion statements.

        • 0 avatar
          ajla

          I don’t have any problem with someone wanting to buy a “fashion statement” vehicle, I’m just very surprised anyone considers these egg-shaped imps to actually be fashionable in the first place.

        • 0 avatar
          krhodes1

          So sad, but so true. And women completely drive this market, no pun intended.

          Personally, there is no universe I would choose something like this over a Golf.

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            As I’ve already stated, most of these so-called ‘crossovers’ are extremely boring in their similarities. It’s time to give them some real originality back.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            And in that respect, the Kona’s a step forward. It looks good, and more importantly, it looks fairly unique.

            But I just don’t see the sense in spending this much on a vehicle with the same basic interior dimensions you’d get in a subcompact.

    • 0 avatar
      bd2

      Well, sales of subcompact CUVs lag considerably behind that of compact CUVs and resale value on them has not held up nearly as well as for larger CUVs.

      Guess the market has spoken.

      Having said that, subcompact CUVs are faring better than subcompact sedans/hatches.

  • avatar
    Middcore

    God, it’s got those same squinty thin headlights Toyota (wrongly) thinks will make a Prius look cool. Unnecessary “angry face” styling is bad enough but anybody who owns one of these will have to put up with the car looking like it’s sneering at them in contempt for being dumb enough to buy it every day.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    I lost interest in SUVs when you no longer had to lock the hubs.

  • avatar
    TMA1

    I’m more interested in hearing about the free Hawaii trip. A pretty thorough review, but I had to concentrate pretty hard to keep my eyes from glazing over. Not the writer’s fault, it just happens when I read about $30K compact CUVs covered in plastic cladding.

  • avatar
    JMII

    Plastic wheel arches have gotten to the point where are now integrating LIGHTS into them? Its like a mini Avalanche (FYI – not good). This thing does have some odd lines on it, especially that final pillar that is tied to the rear hatch with a random strip of plastic. Interior is basic and bit drab, but my experience renting other Hyundai / Kia products is they are user friendly, simple and to the point.

  • avatar
    CaptainObvious

    When will calling an engine a “mill” stop?
    It’s ok to say engine twice – really – it is.

  • avatar
    gottacook

    “A few years ago, the subcompact crossover hardly existed.” What was the 1997-2008 Subaru Forester, then? And you could get it with a stick, too. (When Foresters got big & tall starting with the 2009 model, you could still buy an Impreza Outback Sport, the forerunner of the present Crosstrek.)

    A 2018 Crosstrek and a 2007 Forester are less than 1 inch different in length and only a few cubic feet different in total EPA interior volume, so if the Crosstrek qualifies as a “subcompact,” then the old Forester should as well (despite differences in wheelbase, etc.).

  • avatar
    baggins

    I think it looks pretty sharp, and will sell well.

    Fight me.

  • avatar
    mmreeses

    Does the Kona’s C-pillar style have a name?

    A Nissan-meister kink?

  • avatar

    I’ve just realized what the smushed rear light clusters with their separate segments remind me of: Tide Pods!

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    The Kona is all very Hawaiian but I can’t picture McGarrett or Magnum tooling around in one.

  • avatar
    Groovypippin

    A) Why does this site and so many other car sites harp on the price of vehicles based on their size. People buy what they like and may still want it very well equipped even if its small. Stop comparing vehicles to something a size class larger and asking “Why don’t they buy this?”

    B) The target audience for sub-compact SUVs is empty nest women 45+ whose husbands already drive the bigger “family” or “travel” vehicle. They are in the market for a runabout. They are not on a tight budget and want something stylish, well equipped, with good visibility, that sits higher than a car, but isn’t “big”. They DON’T WANT the next size up. It DOESN’T MATTER if there is price overlap with compact SUVs. If these buyers wanted a bigger SUV they would BUY a bigger SUV.

    This is what you learn and hear over and over again when you stand on a showroom floor and talk to actual buyers.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      Item B) is not necessarily true, groovy. I own a sub-compact SUV because I like the sub-compact SUV. My other vehicle is, by modern standards, a sub-compact pickup truck, of which I would dearly love to replace it with a modern sub-compact pickup truck.

      • 0 avatar
        Groovypippin

        Of course. Nothing is universal and I sell our subcompact SUV to all types – young and old – but on some vehicles a “primary buyer” type becomes evident over time and what I described was the the primary buyer of sub-compact SUVs, which as I said becomes patently obvious after a few hundred conversations with interested buyers.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Too many people buy cars by the pound. “More for your money”. I have near zero use* for anything bigger than a Golf or a 3-series in my stable. And I won’t drive a hairshirt, life is too short.

      *The exception being I need something that can tow a 6500lb boat in the summer. But I am not going to commute in that, or spend more than a pittance on it. So a 23yo Land Rover does the trick nicely.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      I harp on the price overlap because there are some people who would want to go the next size up (and sometimes the next size up offers better features) if the pricing is close. Not saying you’re wrong, but even if most people don’t want to go up a size, some do.

      Also, I’ve spoken informally to PR types about this. Some automakers put a high price tag on their smaller vehicles to try to convince the buyer to go a step up and spend a little more money. I do not know if Hyundai does this, and we can debate all day long if that’s an effective strategy (to me it feels deeply cynical and a little on the shady side, but I also get how capitalism works), but I feel it’s worth mentioning, one way or another, even if my references are oblique sometimes.

  • avatar
    syncro87

    I’ll overlook weird styling if the rest of the vehicle is good enough…evidenced by the fact that I own a Civic Hatchback. This is a fairly odd looking vehicle, but living in a vehicular glass house myself in this regard, ok, Hyundai, you get credit for taking a risk.

    Two big disappointments with the Kona as I see it. First, if you’re going to get funky with the exterior, it is a big let down to have such a boring interior. Zero fun at all inside, outside has it in spades, so an odd disconnect for me. Second, sounds like the ride is flinty, and the wheelbase is relatively short. Not at all a good combo in my area, where spring brings potholes and frost heaves in road surfaces. The target demographic of the Kona would far prefer a little ride comfort over sporty firmness, I think. A sizeable contingent of TTAC readers might live with ride quality tending toward the too stiff side, but we aren’t who will be signing the dotted line on this vehicle for the most part.

    I’m glad to hear that Hyundai has apparently finally addressed their horrendous steering. We had a great little 2009 Elantra at one point that, despite being a great car in many ways, had the most awful steering on the highway of any car I can recall owning. I thought I’d acclimate to it, but eventually it drove me insane and I sold the thing. It was incredibly annoying on the highway. Good on H if they fixed that.

  • avatar
    Acd

    I saw one of these at the auto show the other day and really liked it at first.

    Of course that was because I had walked up from behind it and hadn’t seen the front end yet. As I was praising it my son walked around the front and said I’d probably want to reconsider my opinion.

    Yikes! This makes the front of a Nissan Juke look cohesive. This thing looks like the grill designer never talked the headlight designer and neither of them looked at the rest of the vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      I, for one, like it. Especially because it carries forward a far more functional lighting pattern than we see on most cars, SUVs and trucks today. I’m willing to bet the Kona gets a ‘Plus’ rating for its headlamp functionality.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    Common Hyundai seriously. You have a better more powerful DI 2.0 in your arsenal yet you put this weak sauce 147 HP port injected version. And did they really have to copy others with the cheap tacked on iPad look for the touchscreen? I also don’t care if others are pricing these tiny cute utes up to 30K. It’s still too much and I would never in a million years pay that for one of these things.


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