2018 Hyundai KONA Ultimate FWD – Road Test Review – By Ben Lewis



We recently tested the Hyundai Elantra sedan and Elantra GT hatchback, which we really liked. We even mentioned the GT Hatch might be an excellent alternative to a small crossover.

And then Hyundai introduces the all-new Kona compact crossover – and makes liars out of us.

Well, maybe not liars. There’s a lot to like about the Elantra GT, but after our time in the Kona, we’re ready to go Island time, full time. (Kona, Hawaii reference for those playing at home).

We do it Island Style

Let’s start with the looks. The Kona is one great-looking small CUV, with a very a capable, let’s go have an adventure look. There’s an aggressive front end, with squinty LED daytime running lamps, Hyundai’s family cascading grille with a cool mesh design, and LED head and taillamps that stand out. Enveloping the car is what Hyundai calls “Body Armor” actually black fender flares and wrap-around pieces that tie to the front and rear fascia, along with black bodyside cladding.

Hyundai offers some wild colors for the Kona, including their signature bright green Lime Twist, as well as Surf Blue and Pulse Red. All though our tester had the boring name of Chalk White, we really liked the way it set off the black trim. What’s in a name, anyway?

Our tester was the top of the line Ultimate, and along with the Limited model underneath it, it gets extra punch in the looks department (and otherwise, we’ll get to that), with very cool-looking 18-inch wheels, fog lights, and a little extra chrome bling thrown in. With the big wheels, it’s got an athletic stance, and looks sporty and fun.

One surprise is the actual size of the Kona. Standing alone, or in pictures, it looks big. But like the Toyota C-HR, Mazda CX-3, and Kia Niro, they’re really closer to a tall hatch than an SUV. We parked next to a Tucson – the small SUV that's the next step up in the Hyundai ladder – and it towered over the Kona, and looked huge next to it.

Resort Accommodations

Well, maybe not the Four Seasons, but the Kona is like one of those fun resorts that have all the gear you need for your adventures – floaties, body boards, sun screen.

In the Kona’s case, it starts with plenty of interior room. A nice surprise, since we mentioned it’s not all that big on the outside. The front seats are super supportive and nicely shaped. The driver’s seat is 8-way power adjustable, with power lumbar support. It was easy to get comfortable. There’s loads of space up front – the rear seats have good room for 2 adults as well.

The cargo area has a low liftover height for easy loading, and folding down the rear seat gives good space for all sorts of fun gear. That said, none of the vehicles in this class are that big – they’re tall hatchbacks more than SUV’s.

With the overboard exterior, you might worry that  inside the Kona would be a fun house on wheels, but it’s actually sporty while looking upscale and modern. Leather on the seats, the wheel and shifter feel upscale, along with luxo touches like automatic climate control.

We liked the large speedo and tach bathed in a cool blue light. The usable driver info display – a 4.2-inch multi-color display on our loaded model – is an easy read. A floating 8-inch tablet display on the center of the dash is handy, and our tester had the optional Navigation that also works with the heads-up display. That HUD is handy, reading out speed and posted speed limit – especially nice with our tester’s turbo engine.

Hyundai and sister brand Kia have excellent info-tainment systems with quick handshake and intuitive design, and all Kona’s have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, so you’re well connected. On our Ultimate model, we also enjoyed the thumping 8-speaker Infinity premium audio system, wireless charging, and BlueLink suite of connected tech.

Island Hopper

We had high expectations for our Kona’s performance, and we weren’t disappointed. On Limited and Ultimate models, motivation comes from Hyundai’s familiar 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder turbo, teamed up with a 7-speed, direct sequential automatic gearbox. We’ve sampled this in a few other Hyundai (and Kia) vehicles, and we’re always impressed – it has loads of power with a strong low-end, quick shifting, and a zingy attitude that just loves to play.

Put the Kona in Sport Mode and it leaps off the line –our front wheel drive tester (4WD is available) could squeal the front tires with a healthy application of throttle. Fun, fun, fun… Along with the Kia Soul! that shares the powertrain, we’d say these are easily the quickest vehicles in the class, and great fun to drive.

Along with the turbo power, another reason to opt for the Limited or Ultimate are the larger 18-inch rims. The Kona’s suspension is responsive to the wheel and the tidy dimensions make it fun to zip around traffic or even tackle a twisty road. The grip of the 18’s put you in sport-sedan territory, and the ride is surprisingly comfortable and well-controlled. Brakes feel powerful, and the steering has a nice weight to it.

Who needs a hot hatch? (err…sorry Elantra GT…)

Affordable Hawaiian Vacation?

Another nice thing about the Kona. It’s very well priced. The entry-level SE model starts at $19,500 (add $1,300 for AWD), and comes with alloy wheels, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Power is by a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with 6-speed automatic. Next up the SEL starts at $21,500 and you get such notable goods as 17-inch alloys, pushbutton ignition and most important blind spot warning and rear cross traffic alert.

We’d step up to the Limited model at $24,700 if you can, because you get the 1.6 turbo and 7-speed that makes the Kona a ball to drive. Plus, you get a more aggressive body kit, 18-inch alloys, leather seats, power roof, auto climate control and more. It’s the sweet spot in the lineup, and a great value.

Which does not take away from our Ultimate model ($27,400) which earns its name, giving you Forward Collision-Avoidance Assist with Pedestrian Detection, Driver Attention Warning and Lane Keeping Assist, Heads-up Display, 8-inch LCD touchscreen display with navigation, Infinity premium audio, 4.2-inch color Multi-Information Display, Blue Link® Connected Car, Remote and Guide Services for 3 years and Wireless device charging. An impressive level of tech on a small vehicle. Ultimate indeed. Oh, and don’t forget, all Hyundai have that 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty.

Competitors? A loaded Toyota C-HR is $28,120, A Mazda CX-3, $28,155, so the Kona is fairly priced.

We Lava’d our time with the Kona. (Sorry, we couldn’t resist). We think it’s the best looking in the class, (the Toyota is cool, too), the best driving (the Mazda is fun, too), and is extremely well-equipped for the price. Putting it all in one package, makes it our choice as best in class, in a very competitive class.

We were in Kona all week.

And we don’t want to go back!

About The Author

Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round -- whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, or learning to surf.