Starting Price: $20,450 | Price yours
Max Capacity: 5 passengers
Engines: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
EPA Fuel Economy: 30 mpg combined (FWD), 27 mpg combined (AWD)
Similar: Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, Toyota C-HR, Subaru Crosstrek
On Sale: Now | See listings near you or Get a price quote


If you need convincing that the Big Island of Hawaii is under constant renewal, drive the Chain of Craters Road south of the Kilauea crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The road cuts through rain forest and lava fields alike, the latter clearly marked by date: 1973, 1976, 1979. Standing at the cliff face where the black rock meets the blue sea feels like standing on the edge of creation, because that's what it is. Yet look down into the water and you'll see that erosion has already taken its toll on rocks just a few decades old, the constant pounding of the waves smoothing their jagged edges.

It was against this backdrop of constant change that we drove the 2018 Hyundai Kona, the newest small crossover SUV to hit the market. While Hyundai undoubtedly chose the Big Island (known for the Kona District, coffee and coast) for name-association purposes, the geological metaphor was inescapable. The crossover market is only a few decades old, and yet since then crossovers have evolved to permeate virtually every size and budgetary class you could imagine. The 2018 Hyundai Kona enters the newest crossover market against such varied competitors as the rugged Jeep Renegade, sporty Mazda CX-3, and the everyone's-buddy Honda HR-V. It brings with it unique styling, a comfortable interior, and plenty of safety and upscale features in its small but relatively spacious package. The 2018 Kona has the goods.

Style and Utility

There's a lot going on with the 2018 Kona's exterior design, but despite the busyness, varying lines, and different textures it all hangs together nicely. Hyundai doubled down on the gray plastic fender trim, extending it well into the fenders and front and rear bumpers for a ruggedly aggressive look. The narrow LED headlights and taillights are a razor-thin evolution of the design aesthetic we've seen on other Hyundai crossover SUVs. The grille tapers into a half-hourglass shape at the bottom, and if you think this all strays too far from Hyundai's design ethos, look at the new Hyundai Santa Fe coming our way, which sports a similar nose. Pick red, white, or blue if you want to emphasize the gray trim, black or gray if you want to minimize it, or the signature metallic Lime Twist green if you've gone colorblind.

The interior gets a more subdued treatment, which is probably for the best. The textures and shapes retain a certain funkiness, but it's nearly all black or gray plastic. The exception is if you order the lime green exterior, which grants you similarly colored accents around the vents, start button, shifter, and contrast stitching and piping on the seats. It dresses things up, but we wish it wasn't limited to green; we think it'd look quite fetching in blue or red, too.

Hyundai moved its infotainment screen to an upright panel on the dash, and by integrating buttons along the sides the screen manages to not just retain functionality, but it also avoids the iPad-glued-to-the-dash look of some competitors, like the Mazda CX-3 and Ford EcoSport. Below that are vents, then climate control, then a spot for your smartphone. This area is complete with Qi wireless charging and a small cubby above the charging pad to put your phone in if it's tethered to the nearby USB. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard regardless of model, although higher trim levels get more infotainment options, such as a bigger screen, built-in navigation, and an Infinity sound system. The top-level Ultimate that we drove also boasted a color information display between the gauges (other models get a black-and-white one) and a color head-up display.

This is a sport utility, and on that front the Kona also scores well. The front seats are especially comfortable, with plenty of head and legroom for drivers of all sizes. Everything's easy enough to find and use, and if you've driven a modern car in the past 20 years you'll be right at home with where Hyundai puts everything. Despite its small exterior size, the Kona does a solid job of space management inside. There are numerous cubbies and pockets to store small items, and good-sized door pockets with bottle holders. Cargo space behind the rear seats is solidly mid-pack, but there's an adjustable floor for either additional room, or for hiding sensitive items.

Driving

Hyundai says that the 2018 Kona rides on an all-new small CUV platform, but the engines are familiar. The base engine is a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with 147 horsepower, connected to a 6-speed automatic transmission. However, the Kona Ultimate we drove had the upgrade engine: a 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, sending its 175 horsepower through a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Regardless of engine choice you can have either front- or all-wheel drive, and all-wheel-drive models come with a center differential lock in case you decide to try a little light off-roading. Fuel economy should be pretty good, with combined EPA estimates ranging from 30 mpg for front-wheel-drive models with either engine, down to 27 mpg when equipped with all-wheel drive.

When it comes to horsepower, the turbocharged engine puts the Kona near the head of the class,  but don't think the little crossover is some sort of hot-rod. While it avoids the outright sluggish acceleration of the Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, and 3-cylinder Ford EcoSport, this is still no stop-light dragster. Complicating matters is the 7-speed automatic. Most of the time it's fine, with smooth shifts up and down, usually trying to stay in the highest gear possible to help fuel economy. However, call on it to downshift quickly and there are often long hesitations, and the drivetrain's reaction time when asked to pass other vehicles or sprint away from a stoplight won't win awards. Additionally, at very low speeds (0-5 mph) there's a slight but noticeable shudder from the drivetrain. This lack of refinement is something the Kona shares with other Hyundai (and Kia) models with this transmission. We're not calling it a deal killer, but be aware.

The Kona offers three drive modes -- Normal, Sport and Eco -- which change how the transmission shifts, how heavy the steering feels, and how sensitive the gas pedal is, but leaves the suspension alone. For what it's worth, we left it in Normal nearly the entire time and were perfectly satisfied with its performance. The suspension is on the firmer side, and while it was stiff on the rougher stuff it wasn't punishing. Even the base Kona benefits from Hyundai's torque-vectoring system, which helps control the power being sent to each corner by applying the brakes to the wheel opposite from the one that needs extra juice. Without an "off" switch it's hard to tell when it's active, working or not, but the little Kona corners well, better than you might expect for the class. Sport mode made the throttle and transmission more responsive, but it also made the steering feel too heavy, without providing any additional feedback. Note that this was in a loaded all-wheel-drive model, which features an independent rear suspension. Front-drive Kona models get a torsion-beam rear suspension which we didn't sample, but is likely to be a bit bouncier on rougher roads.

Safety and Technology

So far a lot about the 2018 Hyundai Kona is fairly standard in the small crossover SUV segment. However, Hyundai likes to point out that it offers a comprehensive suite of safety features on its small crossover that's hard to find on competitors. Standard on all but base SE models is blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert. Adding to that as an option on SEL and standard on Ultimate models is Hyundai Smart Sense, which bundles forward collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, lane keeping assist, high beam assist, and a driver attention monitor that warns you if it thinks you're getting drowsy behind the wheel. It's a nice set of features, and considering it's available for less than $25,000 on the SEL model, it's a pretty good bargain as well. Absent is active cruise control, which is available on the Toyota C-HR and Subaru Crosstrek, but neither of those have the driver attention warning.

Standard technology, even on the base model, ranks well. The 7-inch infotainment screen includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, there are automatic headlights, Bluetooth, cruise control, and individual pressure monitoring for each tire. The backup camera has an anti-glare and water-repellent layer that's supposed to keep the lens clear during wet weather, but that didn't quite hold true when the Kona was soaked in a tropical rainstorm. Aside from the safety tech there's a bigger screen with more features, including navigation and an available upgraded Infinity sound system. SEL, Limited and Ultimate models get a power driver's seat (optional on the SEL), and they also get heated front seats. Note that if you want leather, you're also getting the turbo engine, since it's only available on the Limited and Ultimate models.

Gripes

We already mentioned the wonky transmission and so-so acceleration with the turbo engine, but there are a few more things. If you plan on carrying rear-seat passengers frequently, you might want to skip the Kona. Its short wheelbase means rear-seat legroom trails many of its competitors, especially the Honda HR-V. The same is true for headroom, but it's not quite as bad. Like other vehicles in the category, its center rear position is for short trips only. We were surprised that the active safety suite didn't include active cruise control, especially considering that most of the pieces for that kind of system are already in place. While the interior is stylish and useful, it's also awash in hard plastics, with just a smidgen of soft-touch surfaces to rest your arm on. Plus there are the aesthetics: Like any polarizing design, the Kona has its detractors, and the vast expanses of unpainted gray plastic aren't everyone's cup of tea.  

Worth It?
A base model 2018 Hyundai Kona SE starts at $20,450, or $21,750 if you want all-wheel drive. On the other end of all that is the all-wheel-drive Kona Ultimate, which loads up the little crossover with leather and the turbo engine, and ends up costing $29,650. That's not cheap, to say the least, but it's right between loaded versions of the Mazda CX-3 ($29,125) and Subaru Crosstrek ($30,655), so it's not unheard of for the small-crossover class. You can get all the safety tech with cloth seats in the Kona SEL with the Technology package, and at just under $25,000 for all-wheel drive, we think it's a pretty solid deal. 

Numbers and Details
With four different trim levels, two engines and transmissions, all-wheel drive, and a plethora of safety and tech options, it can be hard to separate what's best for you. So, we broke it all down below. Note that prices include the $950 destination charge. All trim levels are available with all-wheel drive, which costs an extra $1,300.

SE
Starting price (MSRP): $20,450 | Price yours

5 passengers
2.0-liter 4-cylinder, 148 horsepower
6-speed automatic
7-inch touchscreen infotainment center with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth
16-inch alloy wheels
Keyless entry
LED daytime running lights
Tilt/telescope steering wheel
Cruise control
Note: On the base model Kona SE, the only option besides color is whether you want the front or all four wheels driven. However, you can dress it up with a handful of dealer-installed accessories, such as mud guards.

SEL
Starting price (MSRP): $22,100 | Price yours

17-inch alloy wheels
Blind-spot warning with rear cross-path detection
Push-button start
Heated front seats
Leather-wrapped steering wheel
Available Technology Package adds moonroof, 8-way power driver's seat, foglights, forward collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, driver attention warning
Available black-painted roof
Note: For our money, this is the real entry-level model. With the Tech Package you get all the safety goodies you could want, and then some. The only thing not available is leather upholstery.

Limited
Starting price (MSRP): $25,650 | Price yours

1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, 175 horsepower
7-speed dual-clutch automatic
18-inch alloy wheels
Moonroof
Leather upholstery
LED headlights and taillights
Fog lights
Chrome-framed grille
Automatic climate control
Available Lime Twist paint
Note: The Kona Limited adds leather, LED headlights, and a lot more higher-end features along with its more powerful turbocharged engine.

Ultimate
Starting price (MSRP): $28,350 | Price yours

Head-up display
Technology Package
8-inch touchscreen infotainment
Automatic high beams
Rain-sensing wipers
Infinity audio system
4.2-inch color multi-information display
Blue Link
Qi wireless charging
Note: The only choices you have to make with the Kona Ultimate is color, and whether you want all-wheel drive. Beyond that, the Ultimate adds several other features to justify its near-$30,000 price.

 

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