Small cars were once the perfect segment for automakers to let their hair down and have fun. Since no one buys small cars anymore, that ideology spread to subcompact SUVs. But here’s the thing, not a lot of automakers are taking the chance to go crazy with their subcompact options. There’s the Toyota C-HR, which is trendy only in design, the Kia Soul that is groovy in every sense of the word, and the Fiat 500X that’s odd because it’s more of an abomination. With these three, funky isn’t a good word, but a word that describes how peculiar they are. If you want a subcompact SUV that’s funky in a good way, you’re going to find yourself being drawn toward the 2020 Hyundai Kona.
Here’s the thing about the Kona. It has one of the strangest designs on the market with a polarizing design that’s sure to bring more peculiar looks your way than the new Toyota Supra. But just like that vehicle, it works on the Kona. And if you were to strip the odd body pieces away, piece by piece, you’re left with such a well-rounded option, that you’d be a fool for writing this mad bulldog off. If you manage to get past the Kona’s design, you’re left with a class-leading option.
Hyundai left an Ultimate trim with all-wheel drive for us to test for a week. Without any optional features beyond carpeted floor mats, the Kona rang in at $30,380. With the average price of a new vehicle hovering around $32,000, the Kona brings you a lot at a reasonable price.
There’s no getting past the Kona’s exterior design. You’re going to love it or hate it, there’s no middle ground where you’ll be able to live with it or get used to it over time. For me, it’s kind of like fruity hot tea. I despise it and don’t understand it. Fruity cold tea is fantastic; fruity hot tea is disgusting. But I appreciate the Kona’s design for what it is, because it’s unique. In a world of gray, black, and white SUVs that all look like identical twins, the Kona’s oddball look is so peculiar that it actually works in its favor.
Those skinny LED daytime running lights, the rugged body cladding that wraps around from the front wheels to the bumper, and the odd positioning of headlights and fog lights give the Kona a stylish look. This isn’t as handsome or as classic as the Palisade, and it certainly won’t age well, but for the time being, the Kona certainly is a quirky machine.
One has to imagine that Hyundai’s designers must have really pushed hard for the company to let them have some fun with the Kona’s design. Fun isn’t a word that’s used often in the world of automotive design these days. Yet, fun is what comes through when you look at the Kona.
With such an odd exterior design, you open one of the Kona’s doors hoping to find an alien sitting in the passenger’s seat. Sadly, that’s not the case. Things are almost normal on the inside. If anything, the cabin is much more approachable and charming. Build quality isn’t an issue, as the Kona features good materials for the class and buttons are logically laid out, but I find myself wanting something crazy. A pop of color, obscure vents, alien noises, wonky trim. Anything that reminds me of that exterior, but there’s nothing like that. While I’m disappointed by the lack of cohesiveness, I’m sure consumers will enjoy it. You don’t have to look at the outside, but you have to live with the interior.
Even for the subcompact class, the Kona’s interior is tight. Sitting in the back is a squeeze, even if you’re an average-sized human, and cargo capacity is just enough to fit my massive box of cleaning supplies. It’s all relative, though. If you’re moving up from a hatchback, then the Kona’s cargo space will seem large. If you’re making the move down from a compact SUV, you’ll definitely need some time to adjust.
One interesting thing that I noticed with the Kona is the size of the infotainment screen. While the Kia Soul can be fitted with an enormous 10.25-inch screen, the largest one you can spec in the Kona is an 8-inch unit. It’s fine and comes with all sorts of features, but seeing the size discrepancy is odd. The retractable head-up display is a nice feature to have and looks oddly familiar to the one found on Kia’s subcompact option.
Sure, the exterior design will surprise you, because it’s so abnormal compared to the rest of the class, but you’re in store for another surprise when you go out for a drive. There are two available powertrains with the Kona: a modest 147-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that’s paired with a six-speed automatic and a bonkers 175-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder that comes with a seven-speed dual-clutch. The base four-cylinder is fine for the majority of people, but if you like your cars to feel like they’ve got a chili lodged in a sensitive area, go with the turbo unit.
Power for the engine is rated at a stout 175 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. Thanks to the quick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch, the Kona doesn’t just feel quick for the class, but downright quick. Boost takes a few seconds to build in the rev range, but when it comes on, the Kona scoots and hoots with the gusto of a much lither vehicle. Then there’s the way it corners, which is bizarrely good given its size. Despite having decent ride quality, the Kona corners like it’s sitting on its toes. It’s agile and dare we say fun. Man, if Hyundai offered an N version of this thing it would be a riot.
There is a major issue with the powertrain, though, and it seems to be an issue that’s apparent on every vehicle, even Kias, with the same powertrain. It’s the transmission’s refinement. At low speeds, the gearbox shudders, stumbles, and struggles to get the SUV moving in a smooth manner. At higher speeds the transmission doesn’t have any of these issues, but if you plan on doing a lot of driving in the city or you find yourself parallel parking on a regular basis, the gearbox is going to be a nightmare.
The Hyundai Kona is such a fantastic vehicle. When my mom was shopping for a subcompact SUV, I recommended three vehicles: the Mazda CX-3, Hyundai Kona, and Honda HR-V. I was secretly hoping that she would choose the Mazda, but she eventually went with the Honda. I think if I had shown her the Kona, she would’ve changed her mind. Looking back at it, I regret not showing her the Kona. It’s the clear leader in the segment – as long as you can stomach looking at the front end straight on.