Hyundai Kona review & buyer's guide
The styling might be a 'love/hate' proposition - but the 1.6 turbo petrol is a Mazda CX-3 (and every other competitor) killer. No other compact SUV goes as well as the force-fed Hyundai Kona
HYUNDAI KONA UPDATE: AUGUST 2018 MODEL RANGE RE-JIG
This is important. If you're in the market for a Kona you need to be aware the Kona range was re-jigged in August 2018.
The video above and the report below reflects the range and specifications available at the Kona's October 2017 Australian launch.
I've updated the report where possible, but the video remains relevant to Kona when it was launched.
What's new for August 2018+?
- A new entry-level model has been introduced: the Kona Go
- GPS sat-nav has been added to Kona Active, Elite and Highlander, using an 8-inch tablet-style centre dash display
- Krell premium audio system has been added to Active, Elite and Highlander
- "SmartSense" safety package ($1500) is available on Kona Go and Kona Active
What's in a name?
Kona is: A Kyocera flip-phone. (Remember those?) It's also a brand of bicycle, and a geographic location. (There are Konas in Kentucky, Hawaii, Burkina Faso, and of course the ancient city of Phyrygia.) KONA-FM 92.1 broadcasts in Hawaii, and Dilshad Nahar Kona is a renowned Bangladeshi singer. Kona is also an award-winning Kenyan TV series.
I can’t help you with any of that. But if you want to park your derriere in the new Hyundai Kona for the next three to five years … here’s everything you need to know.
Hyundai’s taken a bold step out of the conventional monochromatic automotive universe. They’ve presumptuously done a ‘Citroen’ and introduced actual vibrancy into the Kona range.
In total, there are a brain-bending 15 cumulative Kona colour combinations available.
There’s one called Tangerine Comet (above, centre) and another (above, right) called appropriately, Acid Yellow, which is actually the shade of green halfway between liver failure, and the Incredible Hulk. And - if you want - some of those distinctive colours can follow you inside.
But I’m not so sure I am passionately in love with the lime green seatbelts you'll see in the video. One step too far, perhaps, on the ‘vibrancy’ front (in the direction of Kermit). But, you know - eye of the beholder. Thankfully, though, it’s only the ‘LSD flashback to the Sixties’ coloured lime-green Kona that gets the matching 'LSD yellow' seatbelts. There are conservative options as well.
The exterior styling is bold, too - it could almost be French. (Just talking about the styling. We wouldn’t want to inflict legendary French engineering on a vehicle such as this. Nobody deserves that.)
On more objective grounds, there are four models - Go, Active, Elite and Highlander - each with a choice two engines - a 2.0-litre atmo four with front drive and a six-speed auto, and a 1.6 turbo four with seven-speed dual-clutch and all-wheel drive. And we’ve seen both these powertrains before (in i30 and Tucson).
That means, no diesel engine and no manual transmission in a package that is wedged, philosophically, in between the i30 and the Tucson. So I guess the big question here is: how big is Kona, in relation to both of those vehicles, and how would we find out? Wouldn’t it be absolutely awesome if we got the Kona together with the i30, and had a look?
Size matters: Kona versus i30
When i30 and Kona invade each other’s personal space, it becomes quickly apparent the i30 is actually longer - 175mm longer. The i30 wins on cargo capacity, too, with the rear seats upright and also folded down.
But the difference in rear space is not so clear cut. Being taller, Kona wins on rear legroom, but because it's longer, i30 wins on cargo bay versatility.
The extra height in Kona makes a real difference in the back - there’s 30mm more ground clearance plus 80mm more height in the cabin. So rear seat passengers sit up higher - there’s better forward vision for them, as well as more wriggle room for the toes under the front seats, despite Kona’s 50mm shorter wheelbase. Growing family owners, take note.
The ergonomics are great, and in particular the steering wheel on the base model is a real step up from the steering wheel on the base model Tucson, so that’s good.
Overall, in terms of comfort, clarity of the information displayed, all of those things … you fit into a Kona just fine and you intuitively know exactly what’s going on.
Control feedback is excellent - the steering feels natural whether you're driving sedately or pressing on, and it's hard to fault the vehicle in this area.
The 2.0-litre atmo engine is a decent performer - this seems to be the capacity du jour among Kona competitors too, and certainly this one is up there with its competitors.
But the 1.6 turbo is a real revelation among compact SUVs. 130 kilowatts is the peak, but the real story is its impressive mid-range power delivery, thanks to the combination of direct injection and turbocharging. Remember that 1.6 turbo petrol Hyundai SUVs are capped at 130 kilowatts, while 1.6 turbo petrol Hyundai cars (like the i30 SR) deliver 150 kilowatts. This is only a big deal if you rev the engine high.
All they’ve done - essentially - is cap the peak power rpm 500 revs lower in the 1.6 turbo SUVs. Everything else is the same. The 1.6 in this package is a particularly willing performer, it sounds the business, and the shift quality from the dual-clutch transmission is excellent. See also: What you need to know about towing with the dual-clutch transmission >>
Ride & handling
Suspension’s a surprise, too - at least it’s a surprise if you equate SUV’s with being ponderous and uninspiring. Driving a Kona - especially the 1.6 turbo - is sporty and car-like. Hyundai Oz has a small team of magicians who develop a bespoke suspension and steering tune for our uniquely crap Australian roads. They are proving very talented at this.
I always get questions about exactly what does that mean. You know: unique tune for Australian roads. Well, basically it boils down to two things: Australian buyers are uniquely demanding when it comes to dynamic performance. In some other markets, it’s all about the styling and the features, and if the car just gets you from A to B, that’s good enough. Not so, in Australia. And the other thing is, of course, that Australian roads are crap. We’ve got a comparatively small population, big geographic area, and that means (per capita) we don’t have very much to spend per kilometre of road, and that’s why our roads tend to be (let’s be kind) not as good as they are in the US or Europe.
The magicians get about like four weeks to turn our dynamics frowns upside-down, juggling a billion permutations of dampers, springs and bushes, and then inscrutably arm-wrestling the factory over what they want and what the factory says they can have.
So the final dynamics tune is firm and sporty - if you know what you’re doing, Kona does exactly what you tell it to. And if you don’t … well … let’s move on, shall we?
I’ll run you through a competitor analysis in just a sec - but because there’s no such thing as the perfect car or the perfect SUV - here’s a couple of things I really don’t like.
A space saver spare tyre is standard - and unfortunately, a full-sized spare doesn’t fit. I know they were working on a full-sized option, but that’s been given the official thumbs-down by the boys upstairs. You could probably dodgy one up - but the removable cargo floor would need to be raised to a non-factory degree.
There’s no manual transmission. Plus, you don’t get adaptive cruise control on Highlander (or any other model grade) - despite having the radar sensor for the forward collision warning and autonomous emergency brake system. Despite having adaptive cruise available on i30 SR Premium (and the diesel Premium). And you don’t get a diesel. But thankfully there's now (as of August 2018) a sunroof (on Highlander), as well as stand-alone GPS on Active, Elite and Highlander. (These two features were lacking on 2017-Aug 2018 Konas.)
What I said at the time: "I guess the GPS omission is mitigated by the fact that there’s standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto - and there’s a couple of things that you can do with the map-based systems on your phone that you absolutely cannot do with the in-car GPS in competitors. And one of those would be: You can pump in your destination as you are walking to your car or finishing your coffee, or whatever. And then when you start up your engine and the hi-tech voodoo does its thing and the phone connects to the car and you’re running CarPlay or something, then the map system and the address that you just pumped in, seamlessly integrates, and you’ll get those turn-by-turn instructions.
"So the lack of GPS really isn’t the disaster you might think, up front, unless of course you don’t own a smart-phone."
You can of course still use Google Maps if you prefer.
KONA VERSUS i30
So just to put this in perspective - if you buy an i30 SR premium you get adaptive cruise control, a panorama roof, and standard integrated GPS. And 20kW more power. And a bigger cargo bay. And you save $2 grand. But it’s not an SUV, there’s no all-wheel drive, and the rear seat’s not as good for the kids. And it’s not a vibrantly distinctive Kermit-coloured fashion accessory with acid flashback seatbelts.
The utterly perverse thing about this is, of course, presumably the same committee back in Seoul who thought it was a fantastic idea to include GPS and adaptive cruise control in the i30, also think it’s a fantastic idea not to include those functions in the Kona. And, to me, that is just a glaring anomaly when you look at those vehicles side by side on the showroom floor.
Burdened by choice?
Being swamped with choice is a common experience for contemporary car buyers.
My strong advice here, to clear this hurdle, is start in the objective domain - make a list of the features you need, and the ones you want, and figure out what vehicle best satisfies that. Then, and only then, engage your emotions.
Of course, for Hyundai, it’s not about Kona versus i30.
Hyundai’s big challenge here is not getting you into the showroom and buying a Kona instead of an i30 or a Tucson, obviously. Because introducing a new model and just cannibalising sales you would have already made into other products is, commercially, a bit of a fail. There are bigger fish for them to fry.
What they really need to do is take you - the potential buyer of a CX-3, ASX, XV or Qashqai behind the woodshed and convince you that a Kona is actually a better idea.
These are the main Kona competitors - but there are of course at least a dozen other vehicles on sale today that are either direct competitors ... or close enough that you might consider buying them alternatively. (And all the manufacturers can suggest notionally good reasons why you might do that.)
So, the key question for you is: Is Kona a more compelling package than its rivals in this segment? So let’s belt out those key competitor facts and figures, and also deconstruct the Kona model range, the better to decide which flavour of Kona might be the best new SUV for you.
Model range in detail
Active, Elite and Highlander in ascending order. 16, 17 and 18-inch alloys, respectively. Easiest trainspotter’s guide to the variants: Active’s don’t get the contrasting roof. Elite has 20-spoke wheels and Highlanders get five spokes. If you want to spot the variants 50 metres out, I don’t know, lasering the right one for an airstrike, that’s how you do it.
New addition - Hyundai Kona Go: Easiest way to trainspot this base model is by the 16-inch steel wheels, and if you're sitting inside, there's no sat-nav and a smaller infotainment display.
RECOMMENDED RETAIL PRICING (+ on-road costs)
These prices are BEFORE on-road costs (which vary by state and price but are in the $4000 ballpark). Here in ‘Straya it’s $23,500 for the base 2.0-litre Go, and $27,000 for the Go 1.6T - and that adds the grunty engine, the dual-clutch transmission, and the all-wheel drive.
There’s a comprehensive safety pack for the Active and Go. It’s worthwhile. You get blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic detection, lane-keep assist and forward collision warning. That’s going to cost you another $1500.
It’s a $2000 step up to Active, and another $4000 more for Elite, and a whopping $6000 more for the Highlander. The range tops out at $39,000 for the Highlander 1.6 turbo. Premium paint is about $600 and the two-tone roof is available on Highlander as a no-cost option if the thought of the big sunroof is unappealing.
Servicing is dirt cheap - $259 a throw. Once every 12 months or 15,000km for the 2.0 atmo Kona, or 12 months or 10,000km for the 1.6T - remember, that’s time or distance, whichever occurs first.
(This is a decent improvement for the turbo engined Konas - Hyundai used to require a minor service for turbo petrol cars every six months or 7500km - whichever came first.)
There’s also roadside assist for 10 years, plus a solid five-year warranty with unlimited kilometres.
Kona Go kicks off the range with standard LED daytime running lights, reversing camera, dusk-sensing auto headlamps, tyre pressure monitoring system, centre console USB power, 16-inch steel wheels, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the Hyundai Auto Link app, Bluetooth, power windows and roof rails (it's basically stripped out down to the lowest price possible).
Kona Active gets 16-inch alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, the 8-inch tablet-style centre dash infotainment system with standard GPS sat-nav, DAB+ radio, Krell 8-speaker audio, leather trim for the steering wheel and shifter knob, plus a fold-down armrest for the second seating row. (Price premium over Go: $2000 well spent in my view.)
Kona Elite (+$4000) gets you 17-inch alloy wheels, leather trim on the seats, proximity key and pushbutton start/stop, climate control air conditioning with auto de-fog, rain sensing wipers, front fog lights, solar glass, power folding exterior wing mirrors, one-touch up/down on the driver window, seat back pockets on the front seats, splash of garnish on the exterior and a luggage net inside. (Frankly hard to see a lot of value there for the extra $4000 - but you have to bear in mind that all the safety pack inclusions are also standard on Elite, and when you factor that in, it's pretty good value.)
Kona Highlander (+$6000) adds 18-inch alloy wheels, LED lights front and rear, high beam assist, front parking sensors, a head-up display, heated and ventilated front seats, a better instrument cluster, power adjustment for the front seats, a wireless phone charging pad, a heated steering wheel, sunroof (or two-tone roof - no-cost option) and an auto-dimming central rear vision mirror.
Mazda CX-3 has a 1.5-diesel as well as a 2.0-petrol, and there’s no adaptive cruise there either. Nor is there Apple or Android phone integration. Mazda is still in love with its third-rate MZD Connect system - and swimming against the tide of customer preference there, I’m sure.
CX-3 is an excellent SUV that I recommend routinely. It's quite polished, and the same size as Kona, and the 2.0-litre engines from both manufacturers are similar (I'd give the slight edge to Mazda there). However, the 1.6 turbo Kona blows the CX-3 out of the water on performance criteria.
Mazda recently updated its CX-3 range, too, including adaptive cruise and a 360-degree surround-view monitor at the top of the range and a reversing camera now standard across the range. Full details in my Mazda CX-3 review >>
Subaru XV offers the works burger - including adaptive cruise control, which remains uncommon in this segment overall. Plus it has GPS, a very squared-away EyeSight safety system, and awesome Symmetrical AWD (competitors offer on-demand AWD) plus Apple and Android. But the 2.0-litre engine/CVT transmission combination performance does not match the 1.6 turbo Kona. My Subaru XV review >>
Mitsubishi ASX has the best diesel in this segment - a strong 2.2-litre version with all-wheel drive (and a mediocre 2.0-litre petrol). There’s a five-year warranty, too, but unlike Hyundai’s and Mazda's (new 5yr warranty) it’s capped at 100,000km. And you do get Apple and Android for your phone with ASX.
Nissan Qashqai is what you get when you almost try hard enough to do an adequate job. No all-wheel drive option. No Apple or Android phone integration. It does offer a diesel as well as an average 2.0-litre petrol. Six out of 10 there … and that's being entirely generous.
I guess there’s also the Peugeot 3008 GT-Line, it’s got adaptive cruise, and a diesel, but it’s a $48,000 drive-away proposition that demands premium unleaded petrol for its 1.6 turbo petrol engine (121kW @ 6000rpm and 240Nm @ 1400rpm on 95-octane fuel), and still makes less power than Hyundai’s 1.6 (130kW @ 6000rpm and 265Nm from 1500-4500rpm on 91-octane fuel), and the Peugeot isn’t available in AWD.
And it’s from a brand essentially going nowhere in Australia, renowned for poor reliability and worse customer support. So there's that.
After driving the three Kona variants extensively in the lead-up to the 2017 launch I think I’d probably drive away in the Elite. Although some of the Highlander’s features were kinda nice, I could probably put to better alternative use the $6000 extra it would cost me for the Highlander.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the head-up display in Highlander - it’s probably not the best example of a head-up display I’ve ever seen, although it is quite adjustable. And across the range of Elite and Highlander, and Active with the safety pack, I hated the lane-keeping assist function.
It pulls the steering autonomously (not hard, but disconcertingly) when it thinks you’re wandering in your lane. Unfortunately, like a toxic relationship, it and I kept having differences of opinion about where we wanted the car positioned laterally in a lane - especially in a corner. I won, because I turned it off. Thankfully you can do that.
I’m also kinda torn between the Kona Highlander and the i30 SR Premium. There simply isn’t an objective winner between the two, and the price is very similar. I think the right choice there is exclusively down to you, and the vagaries of your needs and wants.
There’s no question Kona is a high quality compact SUV - and it’s a clear winner in this segment if you want performance. The 1.6 turbo sets itself apart nicely right there. Hyundai provides excellent customer support, too - which is very reassuring because cars aren’t toasters. You just don’t whip down and replace one trivially, if there’s a problem
If you’re uncertain about Kona, drive a Subaru XV and a Mazda CX-3 at the same price-point for comparison. Hit me up on the website if you’re in the market. We can get you a solid discount on anything - but in Australia only, tragically enough - for now. I hope this review helps you decide what to buy.
Hyundai Kona Q&A
Here are 13 of the most common Hyundai Kona questions posed by you
"A heated steering wheel? Because 120 degrees Fahrenheit isn’t hot enough when you first get into the car?" - Lowell Dever
Answer: I guess this depends upon where you live. If you find yourself domiciled above about 27 degrees south latitude, a heated steering wheel is probably not that useful. But, mid-winter in Canberra, Launceston, Cooma, Thredbo - I could see it being an asset. Not if you’re a real man, obviously. But if you’re the kind of man who’s just had his vagina waxed … sure.
"Why didn't you mention Toyota C-HR?" - Amr Diab
Answer: I got a few questions about that, including this related and oft-asked question:
"Hi John, I noticed you didn’t mention Honda HR-V. Do you not see it as a competitor in this segment?" - Ian Pollard
Answer: Certainly they are both competitors. I used the CX-3, ASX and Qashqai for competitor analysis in my Kona review because they’re the top three sellers in this segment so far this year - in ‘Straya. I stuck XV in there as well because it’s new, impressively equipped and reasonably popular.
Official car industry figures list a total of 28 Kona competitors currently in the market - and that’s only the direct ‘small SUV’ segment.
Toyota’s C-HR is - in my view, a joke. Apart from looking ridiculous, like a bad prop for Star Trek (admittedly a subjective determination) it’s substantially gutless, too expensive, and demands premium petrol to deliver that gutlessness to you when the lights go green.
And HR-V is a typical example of Honda not trying hard enough everywhere because recovering from its GFC-induced profoundly traumatic brain damage is taking substantially longer than anticipated. HR-V: Gutless, expensive, and uses old engine technology under the rubric of 1990s Honda marketing rhetoric. (That was 20 years ago - the last time Honda did any really impressive work).
"OMG John! No adaptive cruise control? No panoramic sunroof? No standard integrated GPS? Noooooo!!!!!!! Say it isn't so! Seriously though, how spoilt have we become to complain about such "1st World" problems? Here's a novel idea for many...try paying attention to the road instead of relying on tech to remind you what a shit driver you really are!" - Ken England
Answer: In part, Ken, I agree with you. The average Australian driver is abjectly, embarrassingly shit. A unique blend of incompetence and aggression. We should all certainly aspire to being less shit behind the wheel. But - counterpoint time - ‘shit’ and ‘tech’ are not mutually exclusive propositions.
You can have adaptive cruise control and GPS, and be a categorically un-shit driver. It’s a competitive marketplace, mate. Surely competitors packing all the fruit are to be marked somewhat higher than those without?
"Hi John, what is the track you use for the intro?" - Dan McDonald
It’s a track called ‘Ashes’ from Epidemic Sound. And the very fine shots that go with those uplifting beats are from a cinematographer mate of mine named Rod Turnbull - Rod does excellent work, and cars are his thing. TonicFilms.tv if you want to know more about Rod.
"Does Blair (Moog) from Mighty Car Mods compose your music?" - Oyster Apple
Answer: No - Oyster-fruit dude. He does not. But it is a big Moog-ish on the music front. I’ll admit that. Shout out to Marty and Moog from MightyCarMods. Aussie YouTube car-modding legends. Awesome channel.
Anyway - MightCarMods - I love your very fine, funny, passionate work, dudes. You should check them out.
"Why would they cap peak power in the SUV??" - Jack Cutler
Answer: And also on this note (below)...
"So 500rpm lower redline means 20Kw lower power delivery? And why do you need in-built GPS. Always out-of-date, lack live-updates and traffic info. Android Auto/Apple Carplay wins every time!" - Duane Dempster
Answer: OK - so the facts are that SUVs (Kona and Tucson) with the 1.6 turbo engine max out at 130 kilowatts at 5500 rpm. Cars with the 1.6T - like the i30 SR - max out at 150 kilowatts 500 rpm higher.
So - in an effort to fake real journalism, I asked Hyundai’s product planners about that. They say there’s no powertrain limitation - it’s unrelated to the AWD system in the SUVs, either.
They tell me it’s a choice taken purely to deliver SUV-style performance in the SUVs and sporty car-style performance in the cars.
What we do know is that the power delivery from 1500 revs to 4500 revs is identical - because both engines produce the same torque between those revs.
Physics in the beer garden: Power equals torque times revs, if you get the units right. Therefore kilowatts equals Newton-metres times rpm divided by 9549. The 9549 is a bunch of physical constants that convert rpm to radians per second and there’s a factor of 1000 in there, too, to convert watts to kilowatts. Trust me.
So the only difference in performance between the two engines is above 4500 revs, where the power curve climbs more steeply at wide-open throttle in the cars, compared with the SUVs.
And you have to ask yourself, if you’re an average driver of a Kona or a Tucson, how often are you going to be revving its tits off? Most people don’t operate their SUVs over 4500rpm very often. Except if you buy a Honda HRV, which has an absurdly high-revving engine for an SUV.
And on the GPS - I agree. The car industry has bent integrated GPS owners over and violated them repeatedly over upgrades for something like 15 years now. Apple and Google maps mean salvation from yet another entrenched car industry rip-off.
"Does the 1.6T dct have paddle shifters? From the video they don't seem to have them..." Vapoury Abyss
Answer: No - no paddle shifters on the Kona. There are paddles on the i30 SR. I guess you have to ask yourself how often the average SUV owner wants to be squirming under brakes into a tight right hander and manually downshifting into second from fourth, or something. (And you can manually shift with the selector in tiptronic mode.)
"Does this model have active start stop?" - Andrew Paige
Answer: No, it does not. Thank the imaginary fake Christian sociopathic friend in the sky. (Or the Muslim one. Or Thor. They’re all the same, inasmuch as they are all nonexistent.) Anyway - no useless auto engine on/off refinement destruction system on Kona. Unlike CX-3 or XV.
"wait! AutoExpertTv you don't what that word means in Portuguese?!?!" - Daniel Martins
Answer: Yes I do, Daniel. But this is a classy show. And also in Norwegian - different but related, I think. But I am certainly no cunning linguist. Brings a whole new meaning to ‘driving the Kona home’, probably.
Kona will almost certainly wear a different badge in those markets - but (perhaps) even this is a niche marketing opportunity. (A Portugese-Norwegian militant feminist lesbian one.) Still better than ‘Pajero’, I’d suggest.
"So just jack up the i30 then?" - jwm
Answer: I think that’s unkind - if you want to see an SUV that really is a jacked-up clone of the car it would otherwise have been, check out the Subaru XV and the Impreza hatch side-by side. I’m not saying that’s cynical - just that the body shell and major panels are identical. Those two are clones.
It’s certainly an efficient way to spin off an SUV - and Kona is obviously a lot more bespoke than that, vis-a-vis i30.
And finally, lucky question 13 rounding out our baker’s dozen:
"Why didn’t they just call it the Hi30?" - Simon T
Answer: I love this question. It’s my favourite. Just once I would love to meet a car company - any car company - with a marketing department sufficiently not up itself to engage in some light-hearted self deprecation. Hell will freeze over first.
To you automotive marketing geniuses out there - and you know who you are, such as, for example, in every carmaker on Earth - to you luminaries who take the brand and the product so stupefyingly seriously, you might be shocked at how effectively you could cut through to real people by daring not to take yourselves so mind-numbingly seriously.
That suggestion catalysed by Simon T - who obviously missed his calling. I doff my bald head protecting cap to you, sir. Very clever. You will never be an automotive marketing manager, because you do not have what it takes. That’s a sincere compliment.