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First drive: 2018 Hyundai Kona [Review]

by Byron Hurd

Hyundai\'s new crossover offensive starts small.

Premium manufacturers have taken a raft of grief over the past few years for creating (and subsequently destroying, some may argue) entire new segments of automobiles--configurations which many enthusiasts believe simply have no reason to exist. The reality is, of course, that they're not alone in stimulating growth in niches of the marketplace which only a few years ago didn't exist at all.

The growth in the space beneath the compact SUV/crossover class has been borderline explosive. Hyundai sees this as the wild west of automotive segments. In a way, that's accurate. For starters, nobody seems to agree on just how many distinct segments exist in this area. To make matters worse, the competitors are so diverse in both dimensions and personality that it's hard to get a feel for how various entrants compare.

Sizing it upHyundai, despite playing catch-up in the crossover game, has a lineup that promotes its share of head-scratching. Starting from the top, there's Santa Fe, then Santa Fe Sport, Tucson and, now, Kona. Hyundai labels these as midsize, compact, subcompact and small, respectively. Yes, the Kona is just "small," apparently, because at some point you have to just stop being technical about these things and go with what's left.

While this hierarchy makes sense in a vacuum, it flies in the face of practical reality, where the Tucson plays in the same space as the CR-V and RAV4 (both compacts, not subcompacts) and the Santa Fe Sport is more of Ford Edge or Jeep Cherokee competitor (slightly more substantial).

To call this all "confusing" is grossly oversimplifying it. With Kona in the mix, it just gets even weirder. Why? Well, Hyundai says it's essentially in a whole-new segment, right? But by the company's own admission, its chief competitors are the likes of the Honda HR-V, the Mazda CX-3, the Jeep Renegade, the Subaru Crosstrek, and, and, and...

Somehow, the Kona simultaneously slots below the subcompact CUV segment and competes directly with all of its constituents.

SimplifyingAt the end of the day, what we decide to call it matters less than what it is, and the numbers don't lie. The Kona sports a 102.4-inch wheelbase and an overall length of 164 inches. This puts it firmly in Honda HR-V and Jeep Renegade territory. Kona rides on an all-new platform, so unlike some others it is not simply a "lifted" subcompact hatchback, but the fundamental formula is the same.

As such, base models are equipped with front-wheel-drive and a naturally aspirated, 2.0L engine making 147 horsepower and 132lb-ft of torque. We didn't get the opportunity to drive this configuration, but we expect that's about the limit of what may feel peppy for that powertrain. All-wheel-drive is optional with that engine, but we suspect it's a bit of the dog.

Moving up, a 1.6L turbocharged four becomes available (the same fundamental engine found in various Hyundai "eco" models and the Veloster Turbo/Elantra Sport). It's tuned for 175 horsepower and 195lb-ft of torque in this application and, like the 2.0, is available in either front- or all-wheel-drive configurations. Hyundai's seven-speed DCT is the only transmission mated to this engine.

Inside, the Kona seats five (as is the norm) and does offer reasonable rear-seat room for shorter adults. Don't expect to stack six-footers one behind the other, as you'll quickly run out of legroom, but with some forethought, you could fit four adults in reasonable comfort. You'll also find 19.2 cubic feet of cargo room behind the rear bench (or 45.8 cubes if you don't need the rear passenger space).

First blushWe spent our time with Ultimate models--the highest trim level available--boasting both the 1.6L turbo and all-wheel-drive. Put another way: loaded. The interior is impressive enough on first glance, and presents well for a car with a starting MSRP below $20,000. We started second-guessing that impression when we saw the sticker. Our top-tier test vehicles were (near-as-makes-no-difference) $30,000 vehicles.

This is where the value prop starts to take a nosedive. $30,000 is below the average transaction price for a new vehicle sold in the United States, but those of us with longer memories still associate it with the entry point for what we consider premium cars. At this price point, the switch-gear, dashboard materials and feature integration start to feel a bit shoddy.

That continues outside, too. Take the proximity locking buttons on the door handles, for instance. Those little rubber domes stick out like sore thumbs. We have to say, though, that this price is not at all out-of-line for the marketplace. $30k is where these cars just happen to top off, and we can't name any competitors that do a particularly spectacular job of hiding their humbler origins. It's just part of the deal when you make a cheaper car expensive by box-checking.

Base models are even more spartan, but still compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. It's worth noting, too, that the Kona is not available with adaptive cruise control or dual-zone climate control no matter how much you're willing to spend.

UnboxingSince we touched on the exterior a bit, it's worth taking a moment to talk about the looks. Hyundai embraced the inverted front lighting look that was pioneered by the (since face-lifted) Jeep Cherokee. Dare we say it works much better here than it ever did on the Jeep? The front is busy, but surprisingly cohesive and the two-tiered lighting doesn't help or hinder.

The sides are somewhat aggressively sculpted, and there's enough cladding to make you think maybe they just dropped the whole thing in a bucket of plasti-dip, but it all works. The floating c/d-pillar design is a little more subtle here than it is on other cars, and that's a good thing. Hyundai also committed to cargo space over a racy liftgate slope, giving it hatchback proportions that we can live with.

Overall, we like it. It's somewhere along the ugly-cute/funk-and-funky spectrum, but we'd certainly take these looks over the Honda's.

UnwindingSo, how does it drive? Well, Hyundai gave us two days and the run of the Big Island of Hawaii to find out. As evaluation venues go, well, let's say it's not exactly an ideal vehicle dynamics proving ground, but we still accepted the invitation. Under strict protest, we flew to Kona to drive the Kona. You're welcome.

Angeles Crest it was not, but the route from Waikui to Hilo and back was informative. Consider this: our route took us from sea level to an elevation of over 6,500 feet; subjected us to just about every quality of road surface (and lack thereof) one might encounter; and incorporated highways, winding back roads and just about everything in between.

In the "pluses" category, we were pleased with the Kona's steering, which is light and comfortable enough for daily duty but not completely devoid of feedback. Hyundai is finally learning how to do a decent steering setup. Dynamically, this is a car that is pretty easy to live with. The Kona tips the scales at roughly 3,200 pounds depending on configuration, so it's not too portly for its bigger powerplant, nor too unwieldy in the corners.

Stomp on the gas, and it'll scoot. Grab the brakes and it will stop. Elevation changes didn't prove much of an obstacle, though we did note that the DCT is only vaguely adept at keeping the Kona from running away over long, downhill stretches. You'll want to keep on the brakes (or the cruise control) if that's something you encounter regularly, otherwise you may find yourself creeping into ticket territory.

It's not unusual for automatics to be fickle with steady-state speeds in those scenarios, but we point it out here because DCTs tend to be more like manual gearboxes (better, in other words) compared to traditional automatics.

We don't have many negatives to report. We did notice a decent amount of road noise, which is not unusual for smaller cars like this one, but bear in mind that Hawaiian roads are not known for being whisper-quiet. Your mileage may vary, but we were surprised by how loud it could be, especially on what might be considered premium rubber (Goodyear Eagle Touring in 235/45R-18) for the segment.

Leftlane's bottom lineIn all, we found the Kona to be more than adequate as a runabout and capable enough to be on the fun side of the segment with the likes of the 1.4L Jeep Renegade or Mazda CX-3. Resist the urge to check too many boxes and you can walk away with a decent little car for the money.

2018 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD base price, $28,700; as tested, $29,775Carpeted floor mats, $125; Destination, $950

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Hyundai.

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