During the same week that Ford announced that it would curtail selling most of its car lineup in North America, that Tesla’s production woes finally got the attention of alarmed Wall Street analysts, and the last snowbank disappeared from my dooryard, a ray of bright blue sunshine arrived in the form of a mini Hawaiian village — the new Kona subcompact crossover.
Seasoned travelers will easily recognize the name of this town on the west side of the “Big Island,” and experienced bike riders also will recognize the benchmark Kona brand, yet Hyundai has equally large plans for this new Elantra-based small crossover. Currently available in four trim levels starting at $19,500 for SE, and rising to $28,700 for a loaded AWD turbocharged Ultimate model, the Kona also will feature two very distinct all-electric versions later this fall. Think larger Chevy Bolt with either 150-mile or 250-mile all-electric range when these EVs debut — prices to be determined.
Aimed straight at the very same buyer who has been purchasing compact and subcompact commuter cars, the five-door Kona races to the top of the segment by offering more content, better driving dynamics, plus the usual Hyundai warranty and price value that eclipses rivals. In a class populated with the Chevy Trax, Ford Eco-Sport, Buick Encore, Mazda CX-3, Jeep Renegade, Honda HR-V, Nissan Rogue Sport and Subaru Crosstrek, the Kona is less expensive than every rival except the entry-level Renegade. Available with front- or all-wheel drive with a locking 4WD button — an engineering aid several rivals lack — the Kona also stocks two different powertrains: a 147-hp 2.0-liter four with a six-speed automatic, plus a 175-hp 1.6-liter turbo-four mated to a slick seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
The magic of this class is creating a utilitarian vehicle that doesn’t drive that way. Hyundai has hit the target while keeping dimensions and overall weight competitive in this fast-growing segment. The Kona undercuts each of its rivals on the scales — helping agility and fuel economy — while producing a more balanced ride than every other rival except the larger Rogue Sport and Subaru’s Crosstrek, which is a category stretching a foot longer than the Kona. Steering feel and general responsiveness are much closer to our recent Elantra GT than all of the Kona’s competitors, while the 1.6-turbo engine delivers an impressive dose of power controlled by a nice-shifting Euro-bred transmission.
Several years ago, we predicted in this space that small and compact crossovers would rule the sales charts if they could achieve 30-plus miles per gallon in daily use. Well, that day has arrived as our spritely Hyundai returned a solid 31.4 mpg for our 750 miles together, far exceeding the EPA estimates for an AWD Kona of 26/29/27 mpg. Trust me, the throttle was not babied either, so fuel economy closer to the lighter front-drive models — 27/33/30 mpg — seems more than attainable.
With two solid days of steady-state rain driving, the Kona’s bright blue paint left me more confident while plying the whiteout spray blanketing the highway. With so many cars today painted dull silver, gray, black and white colors, the radiant Kona stood out, which is part of the safety battle on the road, being seen. Given that a full 5 percent of drivers won’t use their headlights in rainy conditions — the point is to be seen, not to see — the Kona’s bright LED lighting helped increase my overall visibility.
On the plus side, the Kona stands out in this crowded segment because of a wealth of features. Controls are easy to see and use, the larger touch-screen is intuitive, Apple and Android come along for the trip, plus simple climate functions and heated seats please all. The Kona is fun to drive, four adults will fit happily, plus the locking 4WD button and selectable drive mode options on the console are but a part of what make the Kona Limited a pleasant surprise. The base motor will work, yet the 1.6-Turbo is very satisfying here.
On the flip side, the front passenger seat is low and lacks height adjustments (like far too many cars that relegate the passenger seat to second class status), although I have to say that the driver’s seat was more comfortable than our recent Accord, which cost $6,000 more. Road noise could sometimes become unpleasant on worn surfaces at elevated highway speeds, and I wish that the automakers would enable all doors to automatically unlock when you unlock the driver’s door.
The Kona gives up some peak cargo room to rivals like the Honda HR-V and the larger Crosstrek but not by much. Five-door hatchbacks are much more user friendly that four-door compact cars.
The Kona definitely reshuffles the deck in the subcompact segment. With the full-electric models coming soon, this small Hyundai has jumped into the driver’s seat.