Small SUV’s are a big thing, and they keep on getting bigger. And they’re not just aiming for small SUV and crossover buyers, they’re going after small car buyers too. The new Mazda CX30 for example, is more a tall hatch than anything else.
The Hyundai Kona could fit into that mold as well. It definitely has SUV styling cues, but the size certainly wouldn’t turn off buyers coming from small cars. And as a bonus, this is one of the most fun small SUV’s to drive. Spending a week in a Kona is a much fun as…. well, a week in Kona!
Styling that says Aloha
The first thing that attracts about the little Hyundai is its stylish and engaging exterior. It looks bold and adventurous, but not taking itself too seriously. The slim front LED head and running lights look aggressive, while the cut-ins around the fogs look purposeful.
The mesh grille certainly looks sporty, while “Body Armor” (Hyundai’s term), starts at the front and rear fascia and wrap around to the overfenders. Throw in some black bodyside cladding, a coupe-like profile, and you’ve got one sporty-looking ride.
Helping our tester was the bright Chalk White exterior which offers bold contrast to the black trim. There’s a fun palette available as well, you can also choose from Lime Twist, Thunder Gray, Pulse Red, Ultra Black, Sunset Orange and Surf Blue. And since our tester was the Ultimate model, we enjoyed rolling the large 18-inch wheels which give a very capable look.
Hawaiian Ho’okipa (Hospitality to you and me)
The Kona’s interior is certainly inviting. Despite not being large on the outside, the inside feels spacious and well laid out. Room is especially good for those in front, and the front seats are excellent, with lots of support and good shaping. Our Ultimate’s leather seats felt especially plush. With power lumbar support and 8-way adjustability, the driver gets the best seat in the house. The front passenger will be comfy, too.
Adults will even fit in the rear seats, which are well-shaped, but the trade-off with rear seats up, cargo space is only OK. But fold them down and it’s quite good. To be fair, no one else in this class does much better.
You’ll find plenty to smile about outside of that. The quality of materials is very good, and while the design is not as exuberant as the exterior, it looks modern and fresh and more expensive than you’d expect.
A nice large tach and speedo frame a useful 4.2-multi-color display, while the floating 8-inch tablet display is easy to read, and features standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, so our beloved WAZE app looked great. Helping keep you informed, our Ultimate featured a heads-up display that includes navigation instructions, lane keep assist info, audio and cruise control features. Like other low-priced vehicles it is displayed on a transparent piece of plastic that is raised above the instrument panel. While it’s useful, like other vehicles with this kind of system, it looks cheap.
The Kona is rich on tech though, and also includes available SiriusXM radio, HD Radio and Blue Link LTE connectivity. Vehicles like our tester include navigation and Hyundai’s Blue Link Connected Car system which has all sorts of nice stuff like remote start and climate control through Google Home, remote lock/unlock, car finder, even Stolen Vehicle Recovery. (Mi Kona no es su Kona!) Some features even work with your Apple Watch or Android wear. Super Cool. Top if off with a great-sounding 8-speaker Infinity premium audio system and wireless charging, and you’re well connected.
The Pineapple Express
The best part of the Kona – for folks like us – it’s a ball to drive. A good reason to go for the Limited or Ultimate trim is the standard turbo 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine. Pumping a respectable 175 horsepower and an impressive 195 lb.-ft of torque at just 1,500 rpm, and working through a sports-car worthy 7-speed DCT transmission (no sloppy CVT here!), the little Kona is a rocket..
And thanks to that DCT, shifts are super quick and sharp, especially when you switch to Sport Mode Thanks to the Kona’s small size, and great outward visibility, it’s a weapon in traffic – slicing and dicing its way through the daily grind. This is a good sounding engine too, we wouldn’t mind a little more engine note pumped into the interior, but that’s just us.
The suspension is another high point. Quick to respond to the steering wheel, there’s good grip – our tester was front wheel drive, but we bet the available all-wheel drive would be even better. And while the Kona is a bit taller than a sedan, it never fills tippy, body lean is well controlled.
Yet with the sporty handling and trucky looks, surprise! The ride is commendably supple. That pays off dividends everywhere from gliding over speed bumps to smooth going at freeway speeds. New for 2020 , the Kona Ultimate gets adaptive cruise they call Smart Cruise Control which adjusts for speed. A nice help, especially since the Kona is happy to zip up to legal speed (and beyond) if you’re not careful.
Short commutes to long trips, the Kona is a fun, capable partner. It’s a frugal one too – with our heavy-footed antics we were still hitting 30 mpg. Not bad for frequent trips to the turbo zone!
Affordable Hawaiian Holiday?
So far, the little Hyundai is a big win. But can we afford to spend time in Kona? Pack your bags!
The Kona SE starts at just $20,300, and you get the cute looks, and goodies like Forward Collision Avoidance, Lane Keeping Assist, a 7-inch color touchscreen display and Android Auto & Apple CarPlay. That is excellent value. We’d at least pop for the SEL at $22,100, which adds Blind Spot Warning, Rear Cross Traffic warning, proximity key with pushbutton start and alloy wheels. Also, excellent value. At $23,950 the SEL Plus adds a power driver’s seat, Infinity Premium Audio, Blue Link and Wireless charging.
Ok, you who love to drive should step up to the Limited model, with gets you the awesome turbo engine, 18-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, power sunroof and LED headlights and taillights. Yours for a reasonable $26,100. Add all-wheel-drive for $1,400.
Our Ultimate is truly the ultimate, adding the heads-up display, Pedestrian Detection, larger 8-inch color touchscreen with navigation and smart cruise control. Still sensible for $27,950. AWD again adds $1,400. With no options and $1,120 for delivery, out tester carried a sticker of $29,370. We should mention that along with a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, Hyundai is now including a 3-year/36,000-mile complimentary maintenance plan at no charge. Nice!
Competitors would include the Kia Soul GT-Line Turbo, which comes in at $28,610. Same powertrain, same fun to drive, plus funkier looks, but no available AWD. A fine choice as well. The Mazda CX-3 would be a natural choice, but they’ve scaled back the trims, so we’re looking at the Mazda CX30 Premium which would be $29,300. Alas no turbo, but the guess is it will be fun.
The Kona remains our favorite small SUV, with great looks, solid utility, and wonderful performance. All at a great price. Mahalo, Hyundai!
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, and learning to surf.