Hyundai Kona 2.0 Elite: Front-drive not far behind

The 2.0-litre edition of this new compact crossover isn’t as complete a package as the flagship, but it still has plenty of appeal.

THE world’s top car makers will all say they’re not getting out of the sedan and hatchback game any time soon, but assuredly every one of them is hedging their bets and putting a lot of effort into knocking out the vehicles we clearly now prefer to drive.

Look at Hyundai. Seoul is on a sports utility-crossover roll: The sub-compact Kona, medium Tucson and large Santa Fe are all winners with private buyers, but that’s not enough for South Korea’s biggest brand. Only the other day it announced intent to have eight more new or redesigned soft-roaders out by 2020. These include models running on new drivetrains such as all-electric and hydrogen fuel cell variants.

It is also aiming to go bigger with its biggest offer: The Santa Fe. The next-generation of the model that has for the past five years been the top-selling Hyundai here will be out by year-end.

The actual production car is still under wraps, but not for much longer: All should be revealed at next month’s Geneva motor show. In the meantime, Hyundai has put out a design sketch that, unsurprisingly, suggests the fourth-generation edition will very likely take the same styling direction as Kona.

The artist’s rendition suggests it will share the compact car’s dual headlamp design but in even more dramatic presentation. Expect sliver-thin daytime running lamps positioned high along the bonnet crease and main headlamps low on the sides of the grille.

About that look: At the Kona’s national launch in October, the new face of Hyundai soft-roaders seemed to be the focus of every conversation.

Fair enough, it makes a bold, if not wholly original (Citroen did this lamp styling first) statement. And now that the Kona has come along for a more intensive test, we can attest it makes lasting impression, too.

Again, everyone seemed to be discussing the nose, the silhouette and the tail. And, admittedly, also the test car’s pearlescent white paintjob having been livened up by the addition of a pair of broad blue stripes. These are a key ingredient of a factory-provided extra-cost kit to liven up its already eye-catching kerbside presence.

Nice idea. But I’d pass, mainly because in this instance the ‘racy’ look is an exercise in mis-direction. Kona currently comes with just two engines, both petrol, yet even though the 2.0-litre model on test is the bigger capacity of the pair, comparing stated outputs and 0-100kmh times delivers a cruel blow. The 2.0-litre, being a naturally-aspirated engine in marriage to an orthodox six-speed auto, has its socks comprehensively blown off by the alternate 1.6-litre, which in addition to being turbocharged is also hitched to a slick-shifting direct shift automated manual.

Actually, the differences between the two editions don’t stop there. The ‘big’ car betrays its crossover air by serving up solely in front-drive – if you want four-wheel-drive and thus some degree of genuine off-road ability, you need to buy the 1.6. Which also fronts with a more complex suspension and a higher specification than the $36,990 2.0-litre Elite we had on test.

Basically, then, striving to make the lite edition look as ‘hard’ as the one for our use was is simply a silly sham, right? Well, yes, it is. I’m personally not for it. Then again, neither am I against Hyundai’s NZ thought that the 2.0-litre, for all it’s … well, let’s not call them outright ‘faults’ so much as ‘drawbacks’ … will still be the stronger seller. Because it will be. As cynical as it sounds, most buyers of this breed of car are foremost in it for the style, of which the Kona has plenty.

At least on the outside. If you see Kona’s being driven by teens and twenty-somethings, then rejoice: Regardless that these age groups rarely have the money to spend in this league, Hyundai’s primary hope is to attract younger customers who place importance on technology and smart looks.

That’s why the car has gone big on connectivity – with wireless charging and an 8-inch display – and why it has such a muscular shape. Those bold lines, the head lights’ shapes and the extrovert bumper and body side cladding are all identified with being in line with younger tastes, as are the two-tone body colour combinations, which are increasingly popular with buyers of small SUVs.

It’s a shame that having made such a great job of the exterior, the design team has rather gone off the boil a bit on the interior which just isn’t as expressive or trendy as it could have been and definitely has markedly less of the design boldness that has arrived with the Toyota CH-R, a potential rival even though it’s physically smaller.

Initially you’d think that much of the problem is that it sticks to the same boring dusty black and grey colour palette that Hyundai uses in its more conventional cars, but it’s potentially a reflection of a need for cost-conservation. Whatever the reason, it’s a pity that it represents a step back from the effort put into the preceding i30 hatch, which has more touchy-feely plastics and looks more expressive and expensive (even though it isn’t).

Hyundai has the wherewithal and ability to give this interior a complete makeover if they wanted to, and I hope that occurs at some point: At the moment, the car sends mixed messages – the outside says that Hyundai has finally shaken off being one of the world’s more conservative makers and the inside suggest .. oh, hang on, not completely.

Nonetheless, the cabin does score for being equipped with all the latest touchscreen infotainment and connectivity technology. It’s the first Hyundai with a head-up display that projects information into the driver’s line of sight and also steps ahead with the display audio that allows occupants to switch smartphone content via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Hyundai is also offering safety equipment such as lane-keeping assistance and driver-fatigue detection as standard, and options such as autonomous braking to avoid a collision, though the get the full gambit you need to buy the 1.6.

It's decently spacious too, if not class-leading. Rear headroom is generous and four adults of average size will have no issues fitting comfortably in. A fifth will feel a little perched up high in the middle of the back seat, but that's to be expected.

Hyundai has missed a beat by having a rear bench that cannot slide to allow you prioritise boot space over legroom or vice versa. The seat back splits and folds flat with the boot floor, however, and while the 361 litres’ luggage space isn't massive, there’s enough to be useful.

The driver’s chair is supportive and comfy, and the driving position good, but you’re going to struggle to call the 110kW/180Nm 2.0-litre a full-out driver’s car, and not simply because of the 20kW/85Nm deficient in output over the 1.6.

A comfort-first suspension tuning and the fact that it is pulling from the front, rather than distributing its power through all four wheels, means this derivative is not so much youthful in driving style as comfortably middle-aged; it’s well-rounded, but more sensible than outright sensational. I have no doubt that the one with the feistier engine and firmer suspension will tell a different story.

The steering is weighted just so to give confidence in any kind of driving, the accuracy improving when flicked from the Eco/Comfort modes into a Sport setting that adds extra feeling.

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. Ride comfort is good but not imperfect. Eroded asphalt has it shimmying subtly and sharp-edged ruts can send something of a thump and shiver up its spine, though most of the time it is settled. Body control is quite well tied down. Even long wave undulations don’t have it bobbing or pitching. It is not hugely dynamic, but it does feel unflappable.

The engine is strong enough for laidback cruising, and offers potential for decent economy (officially it’s said to deliver an overall 7.4 litres per 100km). But there’s no particular sense of urgency to its delivery.

Step-off is smooth but unhurried and though it picks up pace without much fluster, there’s no excitement to it. It is not as refined as the 1.6 turbo, either; a gritty dirge filters into the cabin if the transmission allows the revs above the peak torque zone.  The manual shift is with the gear selector; paddle shifters are not a Kona feature, but hopefully can still be introduced in time.

Thinking at launch time that this version of the Kona is one that does nothing particularly wrong yet fails to impart any particular brilliance either continues. I continue to hold that, in this guise, it will sell primarily on appearance and content, both of which do impress.

It certainly has a lot of good stuff on board, including an inductive charging pad 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 this year, will provide an accident alert function, with facility to autodial 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 the big surprise about having one on test was that there didn’t seem to be many of them around.

Even though it could do with a bit more pizzazz in the cabin – and the 2.0-litre struggles to set the pulse racing – it is still, overall, an above-average entry. Its kit level and all-round fitness for purpose are big pluses and, for those who care not for AWD ability, it’s a good choice on the strength of being up to achieve everything you could possibly want it to, in a classy fashion.