2018 Hyundai Kona First Drive: A Small Crossover With a Big Face—And Big Potential

Hyundai throws a Hawaiian punch into the fast-growing small crossover crowd...but how will Americans react to its looks?

Will Sabel Courtney

To hear the carmaker's people tell it, the 2018 Hyundai Kona has its name long before the company even knew what this tiny crossover would look like. The name of the administrative zone on the Big Island of Hawaii brings to mind all sorts of positive associations: balmy ocean breezes, lush tropical flora, heavenly coffee beans. Any vehicle that brings all those things to mind every time you spy the name seems destined to sell more than a few units on simple word association alone. So where else was Hyundai going to give the media their inaugural taste of this small sport-ute but Kona itself, thousands of miles away from the rest of the world, where the air is thick and sweet enough to ladle into your tea—even in March, as snow pounds the Northeast and the rains lash Southern California? 

And the world's third-largest vehicle manufacturer didn't restrict the invites for its new crossover to the usual gaggle of plump middle-aged Caucasions that make up most of the automotive press. When it came to calling up people to drive the Kona, Hyundai's PR department pulled a Gary Oldman-in-The Professional...and brought everyone.

Seriously, everyone. Your humble author was in the company of about two dozen journalists, including some who brought guests (presumably on Hyundai's dime)—and that was just the third of four waves of people flown thousands of miles across the Pacific to cover this crossover. On the last night of the trip, my wave overlapped with the "social media influencer wave." True story: I wound up sitting across from a very pretty, very nice brunette mommy 'grammer named Desiree who eventually let slip that she'd picked him on a reality TV show.  I've been on a few media junkets in my day, but breaking bread with The Bachelorette was uncharted territory. 

[My best picture of the Kona only got 39 likes, but I'd like to think they meant more to me.]

2018 Hyundai Kona elbows its way into the increasingly-popular small crossover category

Bringing dozens upon dozens of media representatives to Hawaii at great expense for a humble Hyundai might seem excessive—but only until you stop to consider the Kona's potential importance to the carmaker's bottom line. The mini-crossover market combines the now-all-but-universal love of SUVs with the always-popular proposition of a low price; Hyundai's vice-president of product corporate and digital planning Mike O'Brien told the assembled journalists the company expects the so-called small CUV category to grow by 16 percent over the next five years, a figure that seems eminently reasonable given current trends. Better yet, unlike most SUV subcategories, this one is still nascent, marked by vehicles as varied as the jacked-up wagon that is the Subaru Crosstrek, the cute-but-stupidly-capable off-roader called the Jeep Renegade, and the exclusively-front-wheel-drive pile of awkward design cues known as the Toyota CH-R

Will Sabel Courtney

Pop-up HUD is a clear sign you're looking at an Ultimate Kona

The Kona, even with its odd countenance, seems likely to fit in well with this disparately-designed crew. Admittedly, it looks better in person than it does at first blush in photos (which seems to be turning into a recurring theme with Hyundai and Kia vehicles). Once you settle on which set of lights to make eye contact with—it's the LED running lights up top, for the record—the front end settles into a handsome-if-busy expression of the carmaker's corporate face. Beefy, muscular fender flares, a sharply-creased character line, and a steeply-inclined greenhouse make it look well-planted, while the rear overhang is of the sort of shockingly-short proportions that make the profile view look a tad unbalanced but work nicely from most other angles. Hyundai's reps stressed how the designers emphasized the car's stance, to the point that I wrote it down in all-caps in my notes; they also claimed that the "spontaneity of lava flows" inspired the free-flowing design of the Kona's flanks, which seemed like a bit more of a stretch. 

Will Sabel Courtney

Tail lamps echo the design of the front end's multi-light face

As unconventional as the exterior looks, the Kona's guts are fairly typical for a small crossover, apart from the (blessedly optional) green accents available on some variants.  The controls, screens, gauges, and buttons will be familiar to anyone who's driven a Hyundai anytime in the last few years; a touchscreen infotainment system with hard buttons for the primary controls (volume, tuning, access to each major menu) grows out of the top of the dashboard like a 21st Century fungi, as has become the style these days, with a row of climate controls arranged below it and a set of charging and media ports (including a Qi-compatible wireless phone charger) a rung below that. It may not be fancy, but it's simple and intuitive—the sort of layout more automakers ought to strive for. High-tech touchscreens may sell cars in the showroom, but it's hard to beat the simplicity of physical knobs and buttons when hauling ass at north of a mile a minute. 

Hyundai

Sensible control layout standard; green piping thankfully optional

Kona emphasizes "utility" over "sport"

Not that you'll be hitting that kind of speed too quickly in the Kona. Hyundai's newest SUV may be small (it's a full foot shorter than the Tucson, hardly a whopper itself), but that lack of metal doesn't make it a Lotus. Higher-trim Konas come equipped with the same 1.6-liter turbocharger inline-four found in the Elantra GT, here making 175 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque; the prolechariot versions pack a 2.0-liter I-4 doling out 147 hp and 132 lb-ft at full whack. The beefier engine, in conjunction with the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox that comes standard with it, proved adequate, if not thrilling; highway-speed passing maneuvers on Hawaii's ubiquitous two-lane roads (good luck finding an interstate when the nearest state is 2,400 miles away) provoked mild heart palpitations at the sight of oncoming traffic, but they never felt unsafe. 

The majority of buyers, however, will likely be choosing the lesser models with the wimpier engine and the torque converter six-speed automatic, so they'll need to get accustomed to introducing the gas pedal to the firewall if they intend to move with verve. A quick drive around the back roads in a 2.0-liter SEL revealed it to be an asthmatic little critter, one requiring both ample runway and planning to do any open-road overtaking. 

But most people opting for crossovers are more interested in how much they can cram inside than how fast they can whip through a turn, and the Kona performs better than expected where it counts there. Both rows can accommodate humans of the six-foot-plus variety without much trouble, though their knees may occasionally rub against the dashboard or front seatback. The cargo bay is rated at 19.2 cubic feet of space, though the security cover above cuts off a good percentage of that. 

Hyundai

You'll become fast friends with that drive mode button and the manual shift gate if you like to drive

Still, apart from the lack of face-stretching power, there's little to complain about in the driving experience. Once on the move, the Kona proves itself more capable than expected of maintaining its speed through the corners—especially in AWD versions that offer brake-based torque vectoring on all four wheels. The compact crossover rides more or less like any compact car from the not-too-sporty division (Toyota Corolla, Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, etc.); its compact wheelbase and overall lack of mass make it fairly tossable, but the suspension seems set up more for open-road cruising than back-road barnstorming, and there's not a lot of excitement to be found in the steering. Popping the car into Sport mode using the drive mode button by the shifter thickens up the virtual molasses in the electric steering, but it also prompts the transmission into a more-aggressive shift map that might dock you a mile per gallon or so.

Hyundai Kona starts cheap, but can get pricey if you let it

That might be a problem for people on Hawaii, where gas prices rank among the highest in the nation (as of this story's publication, a gallon of regular averaged $3.508, according to AAA)—but it certainly wasn't for the mass of writers and social media mavens Hyundai had assembled. As with many new vehicle launches, the carmaker sought to show off the product at its best; while the mid-tier trim levels are expected to be the volume sellers, Hyundai set us loose on our drive routes in all-wheel-drive Ultimate versions that came with all the trimmings, from comfort and convenience features like leather upholstery, a sunroof, automatic climate control, and an eight-speaker Infinity stereo to gizmos and gadgets like lane departure prevention, pedestrian-detecting automatic emergency braking, and a head-up display. All that comes at a cost, though; equipped with AWD (a $1,300 option on all Konas), my Ultimate tester went for $29,775 with destination—fully 46 percent more expensive than the starter SE's base price of $20,450. 

Apart from the lesser engine output, the SEL model I took a spin in seemed a far better deal. Even it comes equipped with heated seats, a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system (that's just one inch narrower than the top-trim models) packing Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and SiriusXM satellite radio, hill-descent control, cruise control, automatic headlights, and push-button start; a $1,500 Tech package (the sole option) adds on most of the active safety features found on the Limited (as well as a sunroof, fog lamps and a power driver's seat), but even the normal SEL comes standard with both blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert. Pass on the Tech package but opt for AWD—which is how I'd order up my slice of Kona—and you'll drive off the lot for $23,675. Which is a comparatively small pile of cash for this much car. 

Hyundai

Kona SEL's interior may be less luxurious, but still comfortable and utilitarian

Hyundai's new crossover could be a hit...if people warm to the looks

Between its price and its unusually-aggressive exterior, the Kona seems like a car aimed at young folks, from the high school years up through the first months of first baby. But it may likely find itself a place as a car for thrifty empty nesters who want the ease of entry and egress and the AWD grip and the nice view that comes with a trucklet's perch, but don't want to conform to the Jelly Belly cute-ute set. (Remember, folks: Woodstock was almost 49 years ago.) No matter what sort of buyers it seeks or finds, it’ll have to win people over with its looks. But in 2018, an era when the possessions we buy, the media we consume, and the activities we do define us more than ever—me when people define themselves as much by the lifestyle they post online as the life they lead in analog life—the Kona’s edges might be as much boon as burn, a way for people itching to blend in by standing out in socially-acceptable ways to show they’re cool by buying a car that doesn’t look like it also starred in a bank commercial.

There's no doubt that the Kona has nailed down the basics. On paper, it's perfectly set up to be exactly the sort of teeny compact crossover people across the world have become ravenous for. (And the upcoming addition of an all-electric version with comparable range to a Tesla could prove its own sort of crossover hit, bringing EVs to the masses in new droves.) Its success, though, will likely come down to how people react to that front end in real life. But with lease specials already starting at $199 per month (with $2399 down) for an SEL, Hyundai seems pretty much ready to do whatever it takes to get people into this sucker. And they’ll likely be fairly impressed once they are...once they get used to that face.

Hyundai Nexo Prototype with Level 4 Autonomous Capabilities
The Drive