You don’t call your new automobile the Kona if your intention is to build a serious, stately, and expensive grand touring model to rub shoulders with the finest European imports. You dust off such a Polynesian presentation because you want to attract the young, the carefree, and (therefore) the broke.
Kona (or Kailua-Kona, technically) is the tourism capital of the Big Island of Hawaii. It’s all about sunshine and seashells, shave ice and snorkeling. The place offers a playful escape from the rigors of serious everyday realities, and Hyundai looks to do the same with this brand-new compact crossover.
The Korean automaker is so committed to the island vibe that it introduced the Kona in that titular town, spoiling automotive writers with long Hawaiian drives full of sea views and volcanic overlooks. Looking to remain a little more objective, we managed to get our hands on a pair of Konas (one each of two different trim levels) without leaving town.
Available now and making its debut with this 2018 model, the Kona continues a trend—not just for Hyundai but for the entire automotive industry. The crossover segment remains the fastest growing and hottest selling sales segment in the American automotive industry. Crossovers are so dominant that many automakers name a crossover as their top seller—and everyone is hustling new vehicles like the Kona to market.
The crossover seems to have already replaced the station wagon entirely in the US market. Now, it threatens to wipe the sedan from American showrooms—with Ford recently deciding to kill off its sedan production and sales in North America in favor of hatchbacks, SUVs, trucks, and (of course) crossovers. This dominant breed of compact SUVs is the urban choice for a ride with more space than a sedan but less bulk than a truck or full-size SUV.
However, a lot of this “crossover” talk is nomenclature hustle. That term sells, so automakers like Hyundai are always squeezing vehicles into the class regardless of size. Some bigger crossovers might as well be massive SUVs—and many smaller ones are essentially sporty hatchbacks.
We’re looking at you, Kona. You’re not fooling anyone. You’re a crossover in name only. In fact, you’re a big hatchback. There’s nothing SUV-ish about you. And, that’s OK. You’re going to sell just fine.
At first glance, the Kona’s styling is sporty and nimble. There’s more than a hint of sedan in its extended nose and a flair of Veloster in its haunches. There’s a dash of Subaru Crosstrek in its wheels and fenders and Mazda CX-5‘ish grace to its line from nose to tail. The overall effect is a good-looking vehicle ready to turn a head or two while it goes about its urban or suburban duties.
There are four limbs on the Macadamia trim tree for the Kona—from the basic SE to the SEL, Limited, and top-of-the-line Ultimate. Option choices such as front-wheel or all-wheel-drive and different safety and infotainment packages increase as the buyer climbs the vine. However, the size and interior layout of the vehicle remain constant.
The engine choices are adequate, even if you’re not going to get much Hawaiian punch out of the choice between a 2.0L naturally aspirated inline four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine (SE and SEL trims) or a turbocharged 1.6L inline four (Limited and Unlimited trims). The turbo version is putting out 175hp (130kW) and 195ft-lbs (264Nm) over the larger capacity engine’s 147hp (110kW) and 132ft-lbs (179Nm). A seven-speed EcoShift dual clutch transmission comes standard in the Limited and Ultimate packages, with their SE and SEL settling for a six-speed Shifttronic automatic. Fuel economy is as follows (city/highway/combined mpg): FWD 2.0L: 27/33/30; AWD 2.0L: 25/30/27; FWD 1.6L: 28/32/30; AWD 1.6L: 26/29/27.
If you opt for the FWD 2.0L, the Kona manages a curb weight of just 2,890lbs (1,310kg). The heaviest AWD Ultimate Konas are still a relatively lithe 3,344lbs (1,516kg). Cargo space with the rear seats in use is 19.2 cubic feet (544L), expanding to 45.8 cubic feet (1297L) with the seats folded flat.
The Ultimate has the toys
In terms of safety and infotainment features, the Ultimate trim we got ahold of packs the lot. If Hyundai offers a perk, it’s included, from “advanced” dual front airbags to an anti-theft system. However, the lower trims aren’t left to fend for themselves. Hyundai packs an impressive kit into the SE and SEL with only bells and whistles like Lane Keeping Assist and Driver Attention Warning refusing to come along for the bargain ride.
All four versions offer power windows and mirrors. The higher trims put a charge in their leather seats. A complete suite of steering wheel-based controls studs every Kona’s helm.
The Ultimate’s cockpit comes with an eight-inch color touchscreen to control everything from in-car entertainment to climate to navigation. Buyers of the other tree trims will just have to scuttle along with a one-inch smaller screen. All four types include Android Auto and Apple CarPlay Bluetooth interfaces. An Infinity Premium Audio with Clari-Fi Music Restoration Technology is available only in the Ultimate.
After testing the various Kona incarnations, the driving experience is consistently effective, if not thrilling. Handling in urban conditions seems identically competent in both the front-wheel and all-wheel drive versions, although the AWD models feature different rear suspension (independent, dual-arm multi-link versus a rigid torsion beam). The turbochargers in the slightly more muscled machines offer slightly more oomph at launch, but the extra horses are unrecognizable once in motion.
The build quality is strong, keeping up Hyundai’s brand-wide momentum in building reliable vehicles. However, despite the trim level you might choose, there are no off-road ambitions in this particular “crossover.” This is a pleasant, attractive creation for civilized streets. There’s no word if Hyundai plans future variations that might toughen it up a bit more for dirtier duty. However, there is an all-electric version on the way.
Above all else, the smiling Kona’s most attractive feature is its price tag. Maxed out in its bling Ultimate incarnation, the big hatchback sells well short of $30K ($27,400). The Limited demands an MSRP of $24,700, while the SEL goes for $21,150. That means the Kona’s introductory version is available for mere coconuts. At $19,500, the SE is a considerable package of features and style hiding under the 20-large line.
Christened with just the right manageable moniker, this Kona will surf the cruel seas of the compact SUV wars like Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku. Look him up.