Car reviews - Hyundai - Kona - Highlander AWD
Upmarket feel from eye-catching design and interior detail make, nimble urban dynamics and twisty road fun, excellent AWD driveline, superb touchscreen and head-up display among desirable standard kit
Room for improvement
Cramped boot, equipment omissions vs. i30 and some rivals, jiggly and roly-poly low-speed ride, no rear air vents or power outlet
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14 Dec 2017
HYUNDAI has finally filled the gap in Australia’s small SUV segment vacated by the popular but lacklustre ix35 with the Kona.
An important sales pillar supporting the i30 small car and Tucson mid-size SUV, the Kona borrows from both those vehicles while adding a unique twist on current Hyundai styling – both inside and out.
Like Volkswagen’s Tiguan from the next size up, the Kona clearly attempts to blend the best attributes from its top-selling competitors into a package that is hard to ignore.
It’s a mostly successful mix, but we’d struggle to walk past the brilliant i30 in a Hyundai showroom and plump for a Kona instead.
Price and equipment
The Hyndai Kona range is split in half by a pair of drivetrain options, a 2.0-litre petrol engine driving the front wheels through a six-speed torque converter automatic transmission and the 1.6-litre turbo-petrol with all-wheel drive and a dual-clutch automatic transmission as tested here.
AWD Konas also have a more sophisticated independent rear suspension set-up.
Each drivetrain option is available in three specification grades: Entry-level Active, mid-spec Elite and flagship Highlander.
By and large, upgrading from 2WD to AWD costs slightly less than choosing a higher spec level.
For example, an Active AWD costs $500 less than an Elite 2WD or an Elite AWD costs $1000 less than a Highlander 2WD.
We drove the Highlander AWD that tops the Kona range at $36,000 plus on-road costs and is priced $11,500 higher than the entry-level Active 2WD.
The Active comes with a 7.0-inch touchscreen providing comprehensive Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring via USB, and the reversing camera display. Also fitted are rear parking sensors, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear selector knob, cruise control, automatic headlights, tyre pressure monitoring, air conditioning, roof rails, 16-inch alloy wheels, black plastic lower body cladding, six airbags, electronic stability and traction control, and anti-lock brakes.
A $1500 safety pack option on the Active comprises autonomous emergency braking (AEB) that works up to 75km/h, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keep assist, automatic high beam and driver attention monitoring. Heated, electrically folding exterior mirrors are also thrown in.
The Elite includes the safety pack as standard plus leather upholstery, keyless entry with push-button start, climate control, rain-sensing wipers, front fog lights, 17-inch alloys and upgraded exterior trim, head-reducing solar control window glass, rear privacy glass and storage upgrades comprising map pockets and a luggage net in the boot.
The top-spec Highlander expands on this with a head-up display, power-adjustable heated and ventilated front seats, front parking sensors, wireless inductive device charging, a heated steering wheel, LED headlights with auto high beam, LED front indicators, LED tail-lights, a colour multi-function trip computer display and 18-inch alloys.
A $295 contrasting roof colour option is exclusive to Elite and Highlander variants that get the full nine-colour paint spectrum, of which six are compatible with the two-tone colour scheme. Active variants are limited to six colours.
Premium paint costs $595 and combining this with the contrasting roof costs $895. Our car was finished in Acid Yellow (almost fluorescent green) with a Dark Knight (metallic grey) roof.
The Kona cabin layout and general style is familiar from the i30 hatch, with the addition of contrasting coloured trim, piping and stitching to match the exterior paint colour. In our case this meant the interior looked like someone had gone crazy with a yellow highlighter pen.
Colourful embellishments surround the air-con vents, gear selector and engine start/stop button. The steering wheel, seats and gear selector boot have contrast stitching and the seats have matching piping. Even the seatbelts are colour-coordinated.
For some it may seem a bit much, but there is no doubt these details are applied in a way that stays classy and they create a more upmarket ambience due to the semi-bespoke feel of a cabin decorated to match the exterior.
Hyundai has also done a good job of getting away with minimal soft-touch plastic. There’s a swathe of the stuff across the centre of the dash but that’s it, the rest is hard but with a texture so well matched to the soft bit that only probing fingers will find out the truth.
Luckily, the touch-points that matter are upholstered and padded with leather or a synthetic version thereof. And everything in our car felt well put-together, with few obviously shabby or cheap plastics on show. Somehow, the black dash, seats, pillars and ceiling do not result in a cave-like ambience, either.
We put this down to the large, deep windows that provide an airy ambience and great all-round visibility that is aided by the vehicle’s boxy shape.
Although the Kona’s interior shares much with the i30, compared with Hyundai’s equivalent top-spec small hatch the Kona lacks some equipment.
For example, there is no sat-nav (and the screen is an inch smaller), no DAB+ digital radio reception, no adaptive cruise control, no dual-zone climate control, no sunroof, no electric park brake and no rear air vents. The i30 also has 10-way electric driver’s seat adjustment whereas the Kona makes do with much more rudimentary controls.
The top-grade Kona does, however, come with an (excellent) head-up display and all-wheel-drive over the equivalent i30. But it is $2050 more expensive than an i30 Premium or SR Premium. For the record, we’re comparing the 1.6-litre turbo Kona here as the front-drive model shares a weedier engine with the base-spec i30.
Also making the Kona decision more difficult when faced with an i30 in the Hyundai showroom is interior and boot space. Don’t be fooled that the Kona’s boxy SUV shape is more practical, because the i30 offers superior rear legroom and a bigger, more usable boot.
Got small kids? The i30 is better. You can’t get a rear-facing infant capsule in the Kona and expect an average-sized adult to be able to sit in front of it.
We couldn’t fit a pram in the Kona’s boot without removing one of its wheels either, despite a reasonable 361-litre on-paper luggage capacity.
The boot does have one shopping bag hook and a bin for small items, though, and the cargo net on the floor is handy. Its not a patch on the i30 boot and we’re unconvinced about the divided under-floor storage area small and the space-saver spare wheel, too.
Of course, getting a child in and out of their seat was easy with the Kona due to its large, uniformly shaped and wide-opening doors plus of course its increased height over an i30. But we’d be inclined to take the hatch anyway.
We’re aware it’s likely you are not cross-shopping the Kona against an i30.
Perhaps a Mazda CX-3, in which case the Kona is decidedly more practical. A Subaru XV is way, way more spacious inside but is let down by its ridiculously tiny boot.
And despite looks that suggest compromised packaging, a Toyota C-HR is a tad roomier than the Kona, with a slightly bigger but much more usable boot.
Even if you never carry passengers – let alone children – in the back, both the Subaru and Toyota also include things missing from the Kona such as sat-nav, dual-zone climate and adaptive cruise control for a few hundred dollars less than the Hyundai.
That said, they do lack ventilated seats and a head-up display, while Subaru’s 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engine and the Toyota’s 1.2-turbo-petrol are both significantly less punchy than the Kona’s segment-leading 1.6.
Anyway, back to the Kona. It was easy to find a comfortable driving position behind the pleasant-to-hold steering wheel and we could spend long journeys up front without suffering discomfort. A little more thigh support for taller occupants wouldn’t go amiss but what Hyundai provides is adequate.
Owing to the tall SUV shape, headroom is good front and rear, although there isn’t heaps of legroom for tall rear passengers behind lofty people up front.
The bench is narrow and the central position humped, rendering it almost useless for anyone but skinny children who have outgrown the requirement for a booster seat.
And it’s stuffy back there. We got complaints from passengers in the back asking us to adjust the air-conditioning to suit their needs. Unfortunately keeping rear occupants cool meant those in the front faced an arctic blast from the vents.
It led us to really rue the lack of rear air vents in the Kona. Something about the big windows and proximity of the rear windscreen to the rear seats – perhaps combined with the black-on-black-on-black colour scheme – just seemed to make it get really hot in the back, despite the presence of heat-reducing glass and privacy tints on our up-spec model.
And there’s no USB or 12V outlet for those in the back or the boot, either.
Compared with many rivals apart from the almost silent Subaru, the Kona impressed us with its quiet cabin. Coarse-chip country roads that cause some vehicles to fill with roar and drone were no problem for this Hyundai, while sounds from behind the firewall were also well suppressed and distant. This is a positive development for Hyundai, a maker of engines that often sound unpleasantly thrashy when revved.
Interior storage is pretty good. The glove box and front central armrest bin are both sizeable and there is a large tray in front of the gear selector for storing phones – with wireless inductive charging for compatible devices – plus a single USB port, auxiliary audio input and a pair of cigarette lighter type 12V power outlets.
There is a sunglasses holder in the ceiling, small net-style map pockets on the front seat-backs and a pair of usefully different-sized cup-holders in the centre console, plus all four door bins will hold decent-sized drinks bottles – but not much more besides. Another two cup-holders reside in the rear central fold-down armrest and the door-pulls are like miniature bins that can double as extra storage as well.
As with any recent Hyundai, the Kona’s touchscreen system is excellent and the trip computer in the instrument cluster easy to use, with clear dials on either side and a digital speedometer. The head-up display also impressed us, particularly the inclusion of blind-spot monitoring symbols that saved a glance across to the mirrors before considering a lane change.
It was odd to have blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping assistance good enough to tempt the lazy driver to take their hands off the wheel (it knows and tells you off if you do) but no adaptive cruise control. But the systems worked really well during our time with the Kona.
Overall, the Kona interior is great if you don’t need boot space or lots of rear legroom. For singles, childless couples and empty nesters it fits the bill. If Hyundai lavished the same levels of equipment on the Kona Highlander as it does on flagship i30 variants, it would be a pretty unbeatable package.
The company may well be keeping that up its sleeve for when competition gets hotter or the Kona starts to age.
Engine and transmission
Being an all-wheel drive variant, our Kona is fitted with a 1.6-litre direct-injection turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine developing 130kW of power at 5500rpm and 265Nm of torque from 1500-4500rpm. Like Tucson variants that use this engine, power has been dialled back by 20kW compared with the higher-revving Veloster and i30 SR sports variants, while torque output remains the same.
There is also a crisp-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission helping the Kona achieve the 0-100km/h sprint in a claimed 7.9 seconds.
No doubt about it, the Kona really shifts and feels every bit Australia’s most potent small SUV (the Nissan Juke puts out 10kW more power but 25Nm less torque, channelled through an emotion-sapping CVT).
Its mid-range pull is particularly impressive, making easy work of overtakes, on-ramps and steep hills. Everywhere else it just feels effortless and willing.
The engine is quiet and smooth, too. Above the 5500rpm power peak it starts to get a little thrashy, but there is little to be gained by visiting that end of the tachometer and the amount of noise entering the cabin is pretty minimal.
Even better, there is next to no delay when the Kona is asked to accelerate.
Small turbo engines and dual-clutch transmissions can be a nightmare for pulling out of junctions but we never experienced a problem in this car. On the move, the Kona’s engine is brilliantly responsive and the transmission kicks down with almost telepathic accuracy.
During everyday driving the transmission operated almost imperceptibly when in Comfort or Eco driving modes. Sport mode causes it to hang onto each ratio longer, with a marked increase in aggressiveness during up-shifts under hard acceleration.
It’s almost as good as the transmissions used in small Mercedes-Benz models such as the A-Class and GLA.
On twisty roads we preferred to use the manual shift gate, as it would tend to use higher gears than we’d have liked and down-change a little late, so we lamented the lack of paddle-shifters. But generally this was one well-behaved transmission and its quick changes – up or down – were admirable.
There is a small but detectable moment between a throttle input and the turbo coming into play, but for most of the rev range, there is enough natural thrust available from the little 1.6 that it doesn’t matter. This includes, as we will describe later, the Kona’s fun throttle-adjustability under hard cornering.
Hyundai’s official combined-cycle fuel consumption rating for the Kona is 6.7 litres per 100km (and 153g/km of CO2) but during our week with the car it averaged 7.9L/100km. Suburban errand-running followed by our dynamic test route bumped that up to a rather thirsty 11.7L/100km.
But unlike many downsized turbo engines that insist on pricy 95 RON Premium Unleaded as a minimum, the Kona will happily run on standard 91 RON Unleaded.
The Kona’s driveline is a highlight of the car, and indeed the small SUV segment.
Ride and handling
Car launch drive programs almost always take in some excellent twisty driving roads among beautiful scenery, despite the majority of Australians occupying sprawling urban islands and rarely getting to enjoy their cars in the type of environment just described.
As such, of our 10-day Kona road test, just one morning was spent fanging it around the countryside.
In the real world, the Kona, at least on the 18-inch alloy wheels with 45-section tyres fitted to our Highlander test vehicle, suffers jiggly and firm low-speed ride quality on broken urban and suburban streets. It also exhibits more initial body-roll in corners than expected, given its seemingly unyielding suspension tune.
As a result, the Kona passenger experience – already marred by the poorly ventilated rear cabin – is not exactly pleasant. It’s a shame because by comparison the larger Tucson cossets its occupants and can be driven around corners without worrying that other occupants are being thrown about or throwing up.
If your neighbourhood is hilly or littered with two-lane roundabouts and you tend to drive with passengers, think twice about buying a Kona. It’s fine if your local roads are straight and flat, or if you do a lot of motorway miles, especially as comfort levels improve markedly at higher speeds.
As alluded to in the first paragraph of this section, the trade-off is excellent handling. If you tend to drive solo, the Kona AWD will deliver pleasure in spades. Despite the aforementioned tendency to roll a fair bit, the Kona feels lighter and nimbler than its 1507kg heft would suggest.
This makes it entertaining to drive round town – helped by the responsive driveline – and because ride comfort gets much better as speeds rise, the Kona is an absolute hoot on fast roads that are twisty and undulating. In particular, tight switchbacks and hairpins deliver grins that would not look out of place on the Cheshire Cat.
With the beautifully weighted, smooth and accurate steering providing a crisp almost Mazda-like turn-in, the Kona’s initial roll settles nicely into fast sweeping bends.
That said, it doesn’t settle quickly enough for brisk successive direction changes, making for a slight lack of composure on really wiggly sections of road.
But generally, on curvaceous country lanes littered with lumps, bumps and inconsistent surfaces, our chosen course was admirably uncorrupted by mid-corner ridges or ripples.
In fact, on parts of our dynamic test route where many cars are thrown off-course or their steering gets snatchy, the Kona barely acknowledged the less-than-ideal conditions.
The way it slammed over a raised drain cover at the bottom of a dip suggests a lack of suspension travel, but it recovered in plenty of time for the fast right-hander that immediately followed. It also soaked up some really rattly roads with ease, provided we were travelling at more than 75km/h.
Grip from the 235mm-wide Hankook Ventus Prime tyres are plentiful and they are not prone to screeching and squealing under duress. But neither are they so grippy that the Kona dispatched our dynamic test with robotic efficiency. There is plenty of engagement on offer for the keen driver here.
Flowing from that brilliantly judged steering set-up is a level of feel missing from many a modern car, and equally pleasantly surprising is the communicative chassis. These attributes compliment the Kona’s excellent visibility and mean we can place the Kona exactly where we want it.
And although the Kona won’t waver when presented with mid-corner surface changes, there is a lot of adjustability on offer for the driver. On fast corners, it is positively eager to tighten its line with a little mid-corner lift and thrillingly tail-happy with more ham-fisted releases of the accelerator pedal, but entirely controllable and predictable due in large part to the drivetrain’s responsiveness.
Slower, tighter bends enable us to capitalise on the presence of all-wheel drive in our test car and maintain some pretty good speeds through and out of switchbacks, free from overbearing stability control interventions but with a clear sense of the AWD system shifting drive front to rear.
In fact, in some circumstances having drive to the rear wheels provides a bit of fun oversteer under hard acceleration with all four tyres loaded up close to their limits of lateral grip.
This is also true of gravel driving, at which the Kona was surprisingly and pleasingly adept. With measured control inputs aided by the selection of Eco or Comfort driving modes and the centre differential lock activated this was a stable car with which to traverse low-grip surfaces.
Sport mode’s more aggressive throttle response and some exaggerated driver inputs elicit more of that tail-happy nature, appealing to our inner rally hero. But again, reining in the results of any over-exuberance is simple due to the fact the Kona is so nimble, manoeuvrable and downright controllable.
Indeed, the Kona is a very rewarding car to dance along any challenging road, with the sense of complete control making it all the more engaging.
It is a shame, then, that the uninspiringly soggy-feeling brake pedal is connected to brakes of the same description. Deceleration from high speeds is not exactly assertive and the pedal’s build-up of resistance deeper into its travel is disconcerting.
Braking, low-speed ride quality and the way the Kona transmits suspension and body movements to occupants at low speeds are all disappointing compared with much better-riding but still admirably engaging rivals such as the Toyota C-HR and Subaru XV.
Safety and servicing
Just in time for this road test, ANCAP handed down a five-star rating for the Kona with an overall score of 35.07 out of 37. It got 14.07 out of 16 in the frontal offset test, a full 16 points in the side impact test and a perfect 2 out of 2 in the pole test. Whiplash protection was judged ‘good’ and pedestrian protection ‘acceptable’.
Hyundai provides a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty and 12-month roadside assistance package.
All-wheel-drive Konas have 12-month/10,000 kilometre service intervals that are 5000km shorter than front-drive variants. Hyundai’s capped-price servicing program costs $259 per visit for the first five years or 50,000km (75,000km for front-drive variants).
The Kona serves an important purpose in today’s SUV-crazed world and plugs a conspicuous gap in Hyundai’s line-up.
But while it is an excellent segment contender that seems to apply much of what we like about its best competitors without introducing too many new bugbears, we couldn’t help but think most buyers would be better off with the brilliant i30.
If the visibility and accessibility advantages of the Kona’s ride height are important, or you’d benefit from the availability of all-wheel-drive then it makes sense. Perhaps you just want the quickest small SUV on the market, or are in love with the way this Hyundai handles.
All good reasons to buy a Kona, provided you don’t expect to carry passengers too often. People in the back might have just about enough room, but they are thrown about a bit and suffer for lack of ventilation in hot weather.
Do look hard at the Toyota C-HR, which rides better and has a bigger boot, or the Subaru XV that also rides well and is super-spacious (except for its silly and minuscule boot).
And failing that, there’s always the i30.
Hyundai i30 Premium or SR Premium from $33,950 plus on-road costsMore space and equipment – except all-wheel drive and a head-up display – for less money compared with the Kona, plus a choice of luxury-oriented turbo-diesel or performance-oriented turbo-petrol variants that are both excellent in their own way. You’re already in the Hyundai showroom, so why not take both the Kona and i30 for a spin to see which you prefer?Toyota C-HR Koba AWD from $35,290 plus on-road costsWe anticipate a lot of people cross-shopping this game-changing Toyota with a Kona. Apart from the obvious styling departure inside and out, the C-HR is a very different Toyota that gets us excited about the Japanese giant’s future because it is so different in so many good ways. If you can get over the looks, we highly recommend you take a test drive.
Subaru XV 2.0i-S from $35,240 plus on-road costsAn excellent effort from Subaru with heaps of standard kit, some great on-board tech, a top-quality interior that has heaps of space and some pleasing ride and dynamic qualities too. Shame then, about the small boot, but it’s still on our best small SUV shortlist.
Mazda CX-3 Akari AWD petrol from $35,490 plus on-road costsClassy and elegant but perhaps a bit conventional for someone considering a Kona. Plenty of equipment, excellent handling and a lovely driveline are offset by intrusive noise, a small boot and cramped accommodation.
Honda HR-V VTi-L with ADAS from $34,340 plus on-road costsStill looks striking and good value too. The Jazz-based HR-V offers strong practicality along with a perky engine, solid handling, and a polished interior.
Suzuki Vitara S Turbo 4WD: $34,990 plus on-road costsThe charismatic Vitara is fun to drive, and has a pleasingly punchy driveline but the low-rent interior and lack of modern safety tech and driver aids let it down.
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