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Review: Hyundai joins the cute-ute game with the fun-to-drive 2018 Kona

Road test

Hyundai joins the cute-ute game with the fun-to-drive 2018 Kona

Late to join the popular segment, the auto maker believes it has benefited by taking this time to understand what the customer wants

The 2018 Hyundai Kona.

Kona, the destroyer? Hyundai hopes so.

Named after the district in Hawaii's big island, the Kona wants to beat a list of wee rivals with more complicated names – the Nissan Qashqai, Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V and Toyota C-HR.

Hyundai knows it's late to the cute-ute game – with a 32-per-cent increase in sales last year, it's the fastest-growing segment in Canada – but it thinks it has the customer figured out.

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"We're not ahead of the game in terms of timing, but it gave us the opportunity to understand the customer," said Rafael Bechelli, Hyundai Canada product manager. "Our primary target is the young demographic – early 30s, late 20s.

"They want something that's fun to drive, that stands out and has all the technology they expect."

The target extends to "pre-family" and "post-family" buyers – people with no kids or empty nesters – who live in cities but still like to do sporty stuff, or at least like the idea of doing sporty stuff. Pre-family buyers are typically moving up (literally, these subcompact CUVs are usually taller) from a starter hatchback.

To appeal to buyers, Hyundai says it didn't want a ute that was too cute. Instead, it was aiming for rugged. "We think about 65 per cent of buyers will be women," Bechelli said. "Generally, women say they prefer masculine styling."

Hyundai says it designed the Kona to look like it's wearing armour (think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). It's also added dark plastic cladding (think Chevy Trax, Subaru Crosstrek or Rubbermaid) around the wheels.

While less divisive in its styling than the Nissan Juke, the Kona certainly stands out.

It's also a segment where buyers expect a good deal. Until now, Nissan's Qashqai and Mazda's CX-3 have had the cheapest starting prices – both at $19,998 with front-wheel drive and a manual transmission.

The Kona doesn't offer manual transmission in Canada – Hyundai says most buyers won't want one – but its FWD base, with an automatic, costs $20,999.

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That's less than you'll pay for an automatic from the nearest rival.

Adding the $2,000 AWD boosts the price to $22,999 – the best price for AWD in the segment, at least for now.

"The segment is very price-sensitive," Bechelli said. "And not just the price, but the cost of ownership."

There are five trims – Essential, Preferred, Luxury, Trend and Ultimate – three with the 147-horsepower base engine and two, starting at $26,899, with the 175-hp turbo.

That means decent fuel economy. To get that, Hyundai went with the Elantra's 147-hp, 2.0-litre, Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder, Bechelli said.

For the fun-to-drive part, Hyundai went with a 175-hp, 1.6-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder, which is paired with the dual-clutch automatic and only available in AWD.

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The top turbo trim, the Ultimate, is $31,799 with eight-inch navigation and all the safety tech.

Hyundai expects the Preferred, at $22,749 for FWD and $24,749 for AWD, to be the most popular. Features include push-button start, a heated steering wheel, blind-spot detection and rear parking sensors.

To show its confidence in both engines, Hyundai let journalists drive each version during a winding trek from Vancouver to Ucluelet on the outer west coast of Vancouver Island

Hyundai also pitted both versions of the Kona against the CX-3, HR-V and C-HR in drag races and on an obstacle course on an airport runway in Port Alberni.

Hyundai didn't provide acceleration numbers, but in the drag races between journalists, the 2.0-litre Kona beat the Toyota and Honda. It was beaten, barely, by the 146-hp CX-3, but the CX-3 was trounced by the Kona turbo.

With so many rivals, and more (including the upcoming Nissan Kicks) to come, which is the one to beat? Let's add it up.

"It has a few very strong competitors – if I may say, maybe the Qashqai is the most powerful one right now," Bechelli said. "But even the competitors that have been around for a while are going to have facelifts soon and we want to be prepared for that."

Tech specs

The 1.6-litre turbo is the more fun of the Kona’s two available engines.

  • Base price: $20,998
  • Engines: 2.0-litre Atkinson four-cylinder, 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
  • Transmission/Drive: Six-speed automatic or seven-speed dual-clutch/front-wheel or all-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.6 city, 7.0 highway (2.0-litre, FWD); 9.2 city, 7.8 highway (2.0-litre, AWD), 9.0 city, 8.0 highway (1.6-litre turbo, AWD)
  • Alternatives: Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade, Kia Soul, Mazda CX-3, Mitsubishi RVR, Nissan Juke, Nissan Qashqai, Subaru Crosstrek, Toyota C-HR

Looks

The Kona doesn't blend in, even if you go with a tamer colour than Blue Lagoon, Acid Yellow and Tangerine Orange. The two-tiered lights – LED daytime running lights on top and headlights and signals below – and fake vents in the front got this writer thinking of a Speed Buggy lunch box he had as a kid. It might be more cute than masculine, but the look works. A similar two-tiered light set up in the back is a little awkward. The looks aren't as polarizing as, say, the Juke.

Interior

The Kona has a simple, functional interior.

Apart from houndstooth cloth and optional lime-green trim (a $200 add-on). the interior isn't quirky. Instead, it's simple and functional – and the controls, including knobs and buttons for the radio, make sense. The seven-inch touch screen is brighter than some rivals. There are a lot of hard plastics that feel a little cheap, especially compared to the Qashqai. The seats are comfortable and the rear seats are relatively roomy for the class. It's noticeably quiet in front but noisier in the rear. Visibility is good.

Performance

The peppy 1.6-litre turbo is the most fun, but the 2.0-litre base held its own and was surprisingly balanced. Both have more power than rivals. Handling and braking were solid on the sharp curves on the way to Ucluelet. It's no sports car – drivers probably won't be yelling "Wheee!" – but it doesn't disappoint. You can adjust between normal, sports and eco mode in all models.

Technology

The availability of only a single USB port is a limitation on the Kona’s suite of technological features.

All models come with rear-view camera, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. But, there's only one USB port – Hyundai says that will change for the next model year. The top model has wireless cellphone charging. Both turbos come with a motorized heads-up display. The driver-assist features you get depend on the trim. The second-tier trims have blind-spot warning and rear-parking sensors. But you can only get autonomous emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and driver attention warning on the Luxury and Ultimate trims. Adaptive cruise control isn't offered.

Cargo

The Kona’s 554 litres of cargo space put it behind the Nissan Qashqai and Honda HR-V.

It's got 554 litres of cargo space with the seats up, which puts it in the middle of the pack – the HR-V has 657 and the Qashqai has 648. The seats fold down, but there's still not enough space for a surfboard (something Honda touts). There's a dual-level cargo floor with a storage tray with compartments for smaller items.

The verdict

7.5

The Kona's cute, it starts cheap and – with the turbo – it's more fun to drive than you'd expect.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.


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