2018 Hyundai Kona first drive: small crossover hit parade

March 25, 2018

Some of us remember when dirt-cheap hatchbacks were the first stop for first-time new car buyers. Freedom was a fold-down rear seat, longboard, and sleeping bag for the only weekend vacation we could afford. The small cars only asked that we compromise our expectations for a tall ride, decent radio, and door handles that reliably worked for none of the above.

Times and tastes and values have changed. Pop music has not.

The new 2018 Hyundai Kona picks up where even the Veloster left off. This new Kona is small, affordable, semi-funky, and sharp. The Veloster, by evolution and for example, is now more serious about performance—less spunk, more speed.

The Kona doesn’t need speed, it needs a powertrain for the future—it’s on the way. For now, to get the low price of nearly $20,000 and cheap freedom, the Kona requires some compromise.

But not much.

DON'T MISS: Read our full review of the 2018 Hyundai Kona

2018 Hyundai Kona first drive

2018 Hyundai Kona first drive

Biggie smalls

The interior of the Kona is more spacious than its subcompact footprint would suggest. Up front, driver and passenger get cross-country leg room, a 7.0-inch touchscreen (upgradeable to 8.0 inches), multiple cubbies and cupholders, and a commanding view of the road.

The rear seats are surprisingly spacious too. Tall bodies won’t want to fold into the back for long, but those of us blessed as “average” on the BMI scale won’t find many issues. Six-footer or taller? Sharpen your “shotgun”-calling skills.

The Kona’s 6.7 inches of ground clearance on the diminutive crossover isn’t enough to fool our eyeballs into thinking we’re driving a Caterpillar D9T, even if both have big front scoops up front.

What the Kona’s wide maw, stilted ride height, sharp daytime running lights, and high-contrast body colors affords is an aura of on trendiness like Top 40 radio. All the lasting hits are in the Hyundai: a wide opening rear hatch with nearly 20 cubic feet of cargo space, available all-wheel drive, good active saftey features, big wheels, and more sheet metal to sculpt around the body sides. The tradeoffs are inexpensive cladding everywhere to hide seams too expensive to smooth, a tight walk through trim levels that vary in practicality, and slow powertrains.

MUST READ: 2018 Hyundai Kona crossover to start at $20,450

We’re fine with all that. At least the door handles work, and so does the interior—it works hardest with the rear seats folded flat for 45.8 cubes of cargo room.

Can we talk alone, please? Just us, away from the luxury cars: Cheap cars aren’t crap inside, mostly. Forget what the luxury folks tell you. The Kona’s interior is built to a budget, yes. Crap? No. Thanks.

A steady mix of firm—not stiff or hollow—black plastic adorns the doors and dash, with a card of durable-feeling cloth covering the seats. The gray fabric is OK, but the black cloth is best. Top Kona Limited and Ultimate versions get leather, but it’s not enough to transform the interior to anything but an economy crossover with budget roots. (Kona Ultimate versions with leather and a green exterior get lime-colored accents inside. Skip those altogether, for multiple reasons, we say.)

The Kona’s best moves are below $25,000 with active safety features such as automatic emergency braking, across the intersection of value and fun, in the neighborhood of hip.

 

Beat on the street

It’s not in the same ZIP code as fast, however.

The base 2018 Hyundai Kona is equipped with a 2.0-liter inline-4 that makes 147 horsepower and a 6-speed automatic. An optional 1.6-liter turbo-4 that makes 174 hp is available on Limited and Ultimate trims, mated to a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, but the Kona is ace in its base.

The 7-speed dual-clutch doesn’t do slow—we think small crossovers are likely urban runabouts, too—and there’s no incentive to pick it for fuel economy either. Both engines are rated up to 30 mpg combined, and the 6-speed has better in-town moves.

The 2.0-liter is no thriller, 0-60-mph sprints take 10 seconds or more and the task of lugging 3,200 pounds around leaves the small engine out of ideas quickly. To lighten the mood, the 2018 Kona gets good gearing down low for better off-the-line acceleration (same as the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio), and a “Sport” button for livelier shifts. The Kona lacks the drivability of a Mazda CX-3, but it’s not the 1.5-ton sedative called “Toyota C-HR.”

The 1.6-liter turbo-4 should wake the Kona up more, but it doesn’t.

Front-wheel drive is standard on the Kona, but all-wheel drive is optional and preferred for now. The basic all-wheel-drive setup lacks trail credentials, but it offers a rear suspension tuned for comfort that succeeds.

Front-drive models get a twist beam in back that’s admirable in its damping efforts, but admittedly used for its low cost. All-wheel-drive versions upgrade to a multi-link rear that absorbs fussy roads better, especially on big 18-inch wheels with little sidewall give.

For $1,300 more at every trim level, all-wheel drive isn’t just all-weather traction, it’s all-road comfort too.

2018 Hyundai Kona first drive

2018 Hyundai Kona first drive

2018 Hyundai Kona first drive

2018 Hyundai Kona first drive

2018 Hyundai Kona first drive

2018 Hyundai Kona first drive

Final countdown

Value is the Kona’s best move, but Hyundai tries hard to hide it.

Starting at $20,450 for a front-wheel-drive Kona SE, the small Hyundai crossover runs through SEL, Limited, and Ultimate trim levels to tempt $30,000 fully loaded.

Officials at Hyundai expect the SEL trim to hit a sweet spot for most buyers, and we do too. Equipped with a sturdy interior, 7.0-inch touchscreen, all-wheel drive, and active safety features such as automatic emergency braking and active lane control, the 2018 Hyundai Kona SEL checks in at a hair less than $25,000. That’s good news. The bad news? The good safety tech is only available (inexplicably) in certain paint shades and the handsome black on red two-tone trim isn’t one of them. I can’t go for that. No can do.

Good news: The Kona will do just anything else that we want it to.

Hyundai provided travel and lodging to Internet Brands Automotive to bring you this firsthand report.

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