Hyundai Kona: Korea serves Hawaiian punch

The Kona pushes a lot of the right small SUV buttons in respect to its style and specification. Does it drive as well as it looks?

DOES anyone suspect Hyundai will do anything other than sell lots and lots of Konas?

This is a car that has success writ all over it. Arriving at a time when the market is especially mad for modest-sized SUVs, it further backs up its chances by being better outfitted than other relevant competitors even though it’s cheaper than almost all of them too.

Plus, it looks great. Really great. Whatever else you can fault the Kona for, it's not going to be style. Do buyers in the SUV segment go for sex appeal above all else? If that’s the case, then the Kona is sitting pretty indeed, not least when presented in brighter hues – and Hyundai have a couple of eye-catchers – and treated to some of the customisable patterns and two-tone roof options.

Notwithstanding that everyone in this sector has twigged that overt design is a plus in this sector, it’s a really extreme looking machine for Hyundai and, in some ways, out of character because of this. Korea’s No.1 is  conservative by nature and generally prefers to let its Kia sub-brand take the lead for adventurous looking product.

Not this time. Comparing the Kona to its big brother Tucson and Santa Fe will have you wondering if they have any common DNA. Though handsome enough in their own right, the larger cars are nonetheless shown up to be more restrained, if not dated, by the Kona’s approach.

An expressive style was always on the cards - Kona’s breeding programme was defined by different rules. A Hyundai high-up at this week’s two-day local media launch which ended yesterday explained to me that the primary dictate given the designers was to inject some youthfulness into the brand.

Hyundai is another big player concerned that youngsters today being fickle about shapes; anything conservative just doesn’t cut. Thus, the remit given Hyundai’s California styling studio was to lay on the ‘funky’ in spades. Their response is a look intended to create an impression of a dual personality: The top part is ‘sleek and sophisticated’, the bottom section made to look rugged via its contrast-colour and blistered guards.

Toyota, of course, asked the very same of its team behind the C-HR, which also released this year. Given that the cited buyer types are similar – both brands suggest they’ll primarily sell to empty nesters, though Hyundai NZ says it hopes to sell as many Konas to young couples who have yet to have kids than those who have raised a family then been left to their own devices – it’s probable the cars will be compared.

From my view, the Kona stands a good chance of being considered a more rounded, less divisive product. While it’s also obviously strongly flavoured, it’s also less outlandish. That it presents more boldly in the back and the front than it does in profile might seem a cop-out for Kona, but it’s actually a strength. It looks as alluring and attention-grabbing at the kerbside as it does in the rear-view mirror.

There are, perhaps, a couple of caveats. I’d have to suggest the C-HR, for all its origami-inspired quirkiness, is ultimately more original. Hyundai might well get a call from Citroen asking how it has come about that a signature feature of double chevron product of recent years - neat-looking light bars under the bonnet line – have found their way to the Kona. (Not that it looks any the worse for picking up a touch of French flair, of course).

Also, whereas the Toyota interior is as extrovert as its metalwork, the Kona cabin is far less flamboyant. It’s not boring, and it certainly well-constructed - everything feels well-hewn and the overall build quality fits neatly into Hyundai’s unimpeachable portfolio - but overall it’s just not as interesting, or as expensive-looking, as the exterior.

Black and grey plastics rule and even though it shares some general similarity to the i30, including also taking a tablet-style infotainment screen mounted on top of the dashboard, it doesn’t carry any of the brightwork that does so much to enliven the hatch, so as result immediately seems somewhat less snazzy. Perhaps the idea behind all those hard-wearing plastics was to enhance impression this is a rough and tumble kind of car, but the end result is that it looks a bit cheap and cost-conscious. It’s ergonomically solid, however, with all the major controls within easy reach.

The Kona is, of course, a sub-compact, but it feels less that way from the front chair than the back seats. The driver’s chair is very supportive and comfy, and the driving position good.

But there's not a huge amount of space in the back, though; it’s potentially no worse than any competitor, but certainly not superior either. You can fit a six-foot adult behind another, but it’s not going to be without discomfort.

That the boot is small, too, is another reality of the class: As the maker suggests, this car is really for couples who might have to only occasionally cater for extra passengers and might also expect to travel relatively light when heading away. If you want something sorted for full-sized families, then there’s the Tucson or Santa Fe.

The range comprises four models, in two engine types, but impressions gained for this story are based on driving just one, the 110kW/180Nm 2.0-litre Elite, which at $36,990 is the top front-drive edition but nonetheless a rung below the flagship 1.6-litre Elite, which packs more power, has a more sophisticated rear suspension and is also all-wheel-drive. The 1.6 line was also on the launch and the programme was supposed to have allowed me one day with each engine type, but somehow that didn’t happen.

The derivative I drove is expected to be the most popular with customers. That’s understandable from a value point of view. The Elite spec provisions a lot of kit and, let’s face it, for a lot of people going down the crossover route buying into the off-road look is more important than having to pay a premium – in this case, some $5000 – on a drivetrain that provides some of the ability as well.

Still, feedback from colleagues who did get behind the wheel of the all-paw car were pretty insistent its extra oomph – not so much the additional 20kW of power as the additional 85Nm of torque – and its tighter handling, resultant from necessarily from it being all-paw (because, often, due to this being an on-demand system that favours front-drive unless grip diminishes, it’s not) so much that the suspension is more sophisticated than the 2.0-litre’s torsion bar setup, would be better received by enthusiast drivers.

I guess it all comes down to how, and where, you drive this car. Our first run was ambitious in respect to distance – it’s been a good 20 years since I’ve been on a launch programme that ran from Auckland to Wellington – but not so much for quality of road condition, insofar that the majority of the 642km distance was restricted to major highways.

This was not so much to keep the cars off more demanding secondary routes, I was told, but simply a safeguard to ensure that our contingent made it from A-to-B without getting lost; a distinct possibility given that there were more overseas’ guests – from all over the Pacific – than there were Kiwis and most of whom had never been here before.

So, for day one, State Highway One from Auckland to Taupiri, hooking down to Ngaruawahia, onto 39 to Otorohanga, then 3 and 4 to an overnight at The Chateau (tired rooms, crap internet) and, thereafter, back to 1 via Ohakune to the capital.  

Not the most challenging route, but one most Kiwis would choose and one that the car had no particular problem coping with.

The 2.0-litre expresses as a model that delivers sensible, middling competence across the board but falls short of excellence in any one area. It is decent, dynamically, but only if you add the caveat 'for an SUV.' Ask serious cornering questions of it and you'll soon realise you're better off in the i30 - which is basically now Korea’s VW Golf equivalent and which also rides on the same platform as Kona, though in lengthened form.

There is more lean and more obvious weight transfer than you'd find in the hatch, and that does limit your dynamic fun. Yet, by the standards of its class, it's not so bad.

The steering is nicely weighted and quite quick and accurate when flicked from the Eco/Comfort modes into a Sport setting that tenses it up and the chassis is flexible enough to deal with bumps and poor surfaces, though those 18-inch tyres do generate a lot of surface-induced roar.

The engine is strong enough for laidback cruising, and offers potential for extremely good economy – we saw a 6.7 litres per 100km day one average from a plant that is cited to return an official 7.4 – but rapidly shows weakness when punted, especially on ascents when it demands lots of handshifting to keep it on song. The manual shift is with the gear selector; paddle shifters are not a Kona feature, but hopefully can still be introduced in time.

In 2.0-litre form, then, the Kona comes across as being a car that does notning particularly wrong yet fails to impart any particular brilliance. In this guise, it will sell primarily on appearance and content, both of which do impress.

Hyundai NZ’s insistence on Kona coming with a class-leading equipment level is a touch misleading. The driver assist spec is certainly strong, but incomplete with the absence of radar-guided cruise control (which the Subaru XV and Mazda CX-3 now have). Although Hyundai is confident of it measuring up well in crash testing, it has yet to be rated by ANCAP.

It certainly has a lot of good stuff on board, including the surprise feature of an inductive charging pad, in the Elite, for applicable smartphones – which are required for all Konas anyway, because it’s the first Hyundai to fully eschew in-built sat nav in favour of external inputted Google and Apple maps.

Also, using a smartphone allows access to a new proprietary app, Hyundai Auto Link, which is way for buyers to interact more with their car. Initially it will deliver diagnostic and driving behaviour data, from fuel consumption to where the car is parked and for how long, when it needs to be serviced and where the nearest Hyundai dealer is. This big leap tech achievement is unmatched by anyone else in the class that debuts on Kona (and also will progressively roll out into all other Hyundais, starting with i30).

There’s more to come from Auto Link. Phase two, enacting next year, will provide an accident alert function, with facility to autodial and text message pre-selected emergency numbers, though not 111 because that network will not recognise this technology (to meet this, Hyundai plans to implement a 24-hour assistance desk).

The Kona has arrived into a congested sector, but there’s a lot about it that leaves impression that it is set to shine.

Yes, there’s room for improvement – a bit more pizzazz in the cabin and to the driving would not go amiss. We’d be delighted if Hyundai at some point in the future decided to allow its N performance division opportunity to whip up a performance version.

The idea of a Kona N – or, why not just ‘Konan?’ – would go down a treat.