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What on earth is a Kona?
It’s Hyundai’s new little crossover. Before you accuse it of having an odd name, Kona is a place in Hawaii, helping this fit in with Hyundai’s naming structure for its SUV-type things: reasonably adventurous American places. Beats a boring letter and number combination, anyway.
While there may be convention in its name, there’s very little in its looks. You can accuse just about any little crossover of trying to emulate the Nissan Juke’s success, but this is the first to do so with the same, deliberately punchy styling language. If the Kona had arrived with Nissan badges you’d probably accept it as the Mk2 Juke.
Some of it looks familiar…
None of it is hugely original – the grille is Audi-esque and there’s a reasonable amount of Jeep Cherokee in there – though I think it all comes together quite nicely. Some will be put off entirely by its looks, but I like that it resembles nothing else in the Hyundai range. This is a crossover that isn’t merely a supermini which has been jacked up an inch or two.
With good reason, too: it’s not based on its equivalent supermini, the Hyundai i20. It sits on an all-new platform which can accommodate an electric powertrain or four-wheel drive – this is one of the few cars in its class with a genuine 4WD option rather than just some fancy traction control.
That platform also helps elevate the Kona above many of its rivals when it comes to handling. It rides quite firmly in town – something you could accuse of many of its rivals, too – but the pay-off is that it’s quite entertaining when you’re out of town. More so than a good chunk of the mini-SUV market.
Is that relevant?
Fair enough, most people will never drive these things with enthusiasm. And softer suspension for town use might have been a more useful priority. But I really like the sense of fun in this car, the fact it feels like an individual product, not merely a small hatchback with added ride height, two-tone paint and frivolous roof rails (though it has all of that, too).
Pick the 118bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo, as most will, and you’ll find an engine that’s pretty keen, making the same appealing little warble most of these little triples do when pushed, while its steering and suspension feel like they’ve been set up by people who ‘get’ driving. It doesn’t object to being thrown around a bit.
Hyundais are usually pretty good at feeling thoroughly developed, but until the i30 N hot hatch, rarely have they ever been much of a laugh. The Kona is the next car to buck the trend. It’s notably more fun than a basic i20 or i30, and the second most appealing Hyundai to drive. Just imagine if they went a bit mad and put the i30 N’s 271bhp 2.0 in it. A KonaN, if you will…
That would be silly…
Perhaps. But the Kona’s surprisingly keen chassis makes it a more convincing car than the Kia Stonic. Logic would suggest two similarly sized crossovers launched by related companies in the same month or so would feel very familiar (let’s call it VW Group syndrome).
Inside, they do, with prosaically designed but ergonomically tidy interiors and solid build quality. But while the Stonic really is just a ratcheted-up Rio hatchback (borrowing its oily bits), the Kona feels more flamboyant.
Alright, it’s decent. Which one should I buy?
This is the million-dollar (well, 20 or so grand) question. Where lots of crossovers have you agonising for hours over a configurator as you attempt to navigate their myriad spec and colour options, Hyundai’s done a lot of that for you.
Want or need four-wheel drive? You must have the more powerful 1.6 engine and an automatic gearbox. Ergo, if you want or need an auto, you’d better also want a 1.6 and 4WD…
And if I don’t have such stipulations?
The 1.0 manual you end up with will be swift enough, and it also offers a claimed 52.3mpg. No diesels, you may have noticed.
Then there’s the spec. A little Hyundai such as this is probably at its most sensible lower down the range, with the best value price tag possible.
But splash out on the near-£22k Premium SE and you’ll end up with nicer trim, a bit more colour inside and an unfathomable amount of equipment; heated and ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel and a head-up display all put rivals with posher badges to shame. Just like the Kona’s general demeanour does. If you can stand the way it looks…