There’s an aphorism among automotive journalists, “The more exotic the location for a press event, the worse the car.” So when Hyundai named their latest compact utility vehicle Kona and predictably held their first drives on the Big Island of Hawaii, there was a little question mark in my mind about the car. There needn’t have been. The reviews were universally positive and the Kona was named North American Utility Vehicle of the Year just a few months later.
I finally got my turn in the Hyundai Kona – I’m assuming my invitation to the presser was intercepted by the Russian internet agency – spending a week with the highly optioned Ultimate AWD model decked out in the anything but understated Lime Twist exterior. Coming in at the cost of a Big Mac more than $30,000 all in, this loaded Kona is an example of Hyundai at its best. It’s good looking, loaded with goodies, is fun to drive, and built to last at a price that while not ridiculously low, feels very much like a value.
Kona starts at $21,085 for an SE front-wheel drive model with a 147-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. That gets you a cloth interior, 16-inch alloy wheels, a 7-inch touchscreen, forward collision avoidance, lane keep assist, Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Move up to the SEL model for about two grand more and you get the same engine/transmission combo with larger wheels, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic alert, push button start, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, heated seats, HD and Sirius/XM satellite radio. Another $3,500 gets you to Limited Trim where technology, comfort, and power take a big leap – the 1.6-liter turbocharged four makes 175 horsepower and the seven-speed DCT puts it down effectively. 18-inch wheels, LED head and tail lights, power sunroof, power leather heated front seats, Infinity premium audio, auto climate control are some of the highlights. My Ultimate model added an 8-inch touch screen with navigation, wireless charging, and a head up display. All wheel drive is available in all trim levels for $1,400 and this includes swapping out the torsion beam rear suspension for an independent multi-link unit.
There are a few things that separate the Kona Ultimate AWD from competitors like the Honda HR-V, Subaru Crosstrek, and Toyota C-HR. The first is the seven-speed DCT. It’s unusual and refreshing to have a transmission that shifts so positively, quickly, and smoothly in an entry-level car. It’s paired well with the turbocharged engine and makes this the most fun car to drive in the category. The Subaru offers a manual which is nice, but not with an engine as willing at the Kona’s. Even with it’s extra power and more excitable personality, the Kona Ultimate AWD still delivers an EPA estimated 27 MPG combined, which isn’t at all bad.
Up front, the Kona is roomy and comfortable offering plenty of space for six footers and lots of storage for your stuff. The finish in this trim is well done. The leather seats offer plenty of adjustability and support. And, the green accents remind you that you’re not driving a basic econobox. Rear seat legroom is where the Kona’s short wheelbase (it’s 2.5 inches shorter than the Crosstrek) causes problems. If you’re over six feet, there’s no way to fit back there without the front seats pulled all the way forward. It’s really a space for small children and packages. On the plus side, storage space behind the rear seats is ample, and when you fold the seats flat, you can bring even more gear along no matter what your passions are.
Handling is light and predictable. Put the Kona into sport mode and things get even more fun with a change in throttle mapping and shift logic. No, this isn’t a Veloster N, but compared to everything else in the category including the decidedly sporty Mazda CX-3, the Kona Ultimate wins the fun-to-drive competition hands down.
There’s not much to dislike about the Kona Ultimate. Road noise is a little loud but not out of line with the category and the rear seat is tight as I’ve already mentioned. In my 2019 model there was also a noticeable lack of adaptive cruise control. Apparently that lack was so noticeable Hyundai is adding it to the package for 2020.
If you’re in the market for a compact utility vehicle and want one that hits the trifecta of fun to drive, economical, and incredibly well equipped, the Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD should be right at the top of your list. And you know that’s an unbiased opinion because it comes without having been given an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii.
2019 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD
Four-door, five-passenger compact utility vehicle
Base price: $28,900 excluding destination and delivery
Price as tested: $30,005
Options and deliver: Floor mats ($125), freight and handling ($960)
Engine: 1.6-liter, turbocharged, 4-cylinder with variable valve timing
Transmission: 7-speed DCT
Power: 175 HP @ 5,500 RPM
Torque: 195 lb.-ft. @ 1,500-4,500 RPM
Curb weight: 3,256 pounds
0-60 MPH: 6.6 seconds
EPA MPG: 26 city, 29 highway, 27 combined