With the launch of the new Tucson crossover in 2015, Hyundai had plans to extend its crossover range to cover the new but quickly growing subcompact crossover segment, as a means to attract new buyers to the brand. The i20 Cross, based on the Accent platform, launched in 2015, but couldn’t convince buyers to fork over crossover money for what was basically a lifted hatchback. The Creta, brought in for evaluation in the same year, took longer to hit the market, finally being greenlit in 2017. Despite boasting better specs and space than the i20 Cross, it didn’t last very long either. But the Kona, which launched the next year, was a smash hit. While you’ll see precious few i20s or Cretas on the road, buyers have flocked to the Kona, despite its higher starting price. Let’s find out why.
In the design brief for the Kona, the decision was made early on to embrace the nose-heavy shape dictated by front-wheel drive. Rather than pulling the grille back to shrink the gap between the nose and the front wheels, the Kona’s flat hexagonal grille is framed by massive fender extensions housing headlights disguised as foglights. As in the Nissan Juke, the first car to use this trick, the upper ‘headlights’ are turn signals and running lights, while the actual fog lamps are discreetly tucked in the lower fascia. The Kona’s swoopy greenhouse sits over relatively conservative flanks, cut up by chunky black cladding that visually lifts the body off the ground, while the rear mirrors the front end, with big black fender extensions housing turn signals and backing lights. There’s an extra set of high-mounted tail-lights above that, topped off by a rear window framed by black plastic aero-fences that disguise its small size. Large, attractive 17-inch wheels set off this chaotic clash of design cues that, against all reason, actually looks quite attractive.
After the crazy exterior, the interior is disappointingly normal. No, not due to the lack of leather. It’s a given that Hyundai had to cut costs somewhere to hit the Kona’s low price point. Rather, it’s the subdued gray and silver color palette, which is a letdown compared to the body-colored dash accents and contrast stitching on high-spec Konas elsewhere. That said, build and plastic quality are good, and despite the compact exterior, the Kona’s interior is a surprisingly comfortable place to be. While lacking the headroom of high-roofed rivals, there’s surprisingly good space once you slip into the low-slung bucket seats, and a telescopic steering column makes it easier to find a driving position than in other small crossovers.
Out back, legroom is at a premium compared to the likes of the Honda HR-V and the Subaru XV, but cutouts between the roof hoops allow decent headroom, and the extra width makes it less claustrophobic than the similarly quirky Juke. Trunk capacity is as you might expect given the pert rear, but the square load bay and hard tonneau cover make it useful for groceries or a weekend’s worth of luggage.
The Kona’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder Nu engine uses the Atkinson’s Cycle rather than the more common Otto Cycle. As in the Otto, it compresses an air-fuel mixture with a piston, ignites it with a spark plug, and the expanding mixture pushes down on the piston, generating power. The difference here is that some of the air is bled back out during compression. Which means less power wasted in compressing the air, and less fuel needed to burn what remains.
This allows the Kona’s relatively large 2.0 to achieve fuel economy of over 22km/L at 80kph on the highway with ease, matching more sophisticated and expensive direct injection engines while still running regular unleaded gasoline. Even in traffic, fuel economy is a decent 7-8km/L. The drawback is less power: 147hp and 179Nm against the 152hp and 192Nm for the similar 2.0 in the Tucson. But with less weight to lug around, it’s enough to pull the Kona from 0-100kph in around 9.8 seconds. While a tick behind turbocharged subcompacts like the Geely Coolray and the Chevrolet Trax, that’s still better most crossovers in this price range.
A six-speed automatic provides smooth and laid-back shifts in Comfort and Eco Mode. In Sport mode or when using the manual gate, downshifts are more decisive but not necessarily quick, and the engine revs can hang a bit between changes.
Which is a shame, because the Kona’s chassis feels up to a good romp. While other markets get optional all-wheel drive and a multi-link rear suspension, our front-wheel-drive variant comes with a simpler and lighter rear torsion beam suspension. And it’s all the better for it. With high-performance 215/55R17 Nexen N’Fera SU1 tires sitting at each corner, the front-drive Kona feels agile and nimble, more like a hatchback than a crossover.
The steering isn’t necessarily dripping with feedback or immediacy, but it inspires confidence, striking a good balance between nimbleness and comfort. While the suspension is firmer than that of the HR-V, the ride is generally good, save over sharper corrugations on the highway.
In traffic, visibility is surprisingly decent, and the small rear window isn’t much of a handicap in traffic, though an aftermarket back-up camera to aid in parking should be the first modification on your list after purchase.
The rear camera isn’t the only thing missing. While the Kona boasts foglights, keyless entry, push-button ignition, a tire pressure warning light, and USB power outlets, there’s no touchscreen, proximity sensors, or smartphone integration beyond the typical Bluetooth tethering. And if we’re really picking nits, I do wish the projector headlights were HID or LED—halogens just don’t cut it on dark provincial roads. At least there’s steering-mounted cruise and audio controls, and the sound quality is commendable—though it might need a little fiddling to suit your tastes.
Still, cutting just the right corners has allowed Hyundai to release a subcompact ‘lifestyle’ crossover priced P100,000 to P300,000 less than primary competitors like the HR-V or CX-3. Granted, newer Chinese crossovers and smaller-engined subcompacts from Suzuki and Ford come fully loaded at this price, but none of them has the dramatic presence of the Kona. And what you save on purchase price and running costs versus competitors can go a long way towards personalizing what is already one of the most unique crossovers on the road.
Engine: 2.0-liter gasoline I4
Power: 147hp @ 6,200rpm
Torque: 179Nm @ 4,500rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive layout: FWD