The Hyundai Kona has a funky name, offbeat styling and a pint size package.
So it’s just like pretty much every other subcompact SUV.
The template was set a decade ago when the groundbreaking Kia Soul carved out this segment and became an instant hit, which makes it a bit surprising that it took corporate cousin Hyundai so long to get in on the action.
It’s one of the last major automakers to enter the class, which was probably an advantage. The Kona gets nearly everything right, assuming you like bizarre headlight arrangements.
The Kona starts at $20,480 and is one of the smallest SUVs, but can accommodate four adults more than just fine in its surprisingly spacious and high quality cabin. The cargo area isn’t the biggest, but the rear seats fold down to expand it with a perfectly flat surface. The standard engine is a 147 hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder and all-wheel-drive costs $1,300.
It’s equipped with a standard backup camera and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration in this configuration, but move up the trim levels and things start to get very interesting.
There you’ll find heated leather seats, a blind spot monitor, a wireless charging pad, head-up display, automatic emergency brakes and 175 hp 1.6-liter turbocharged engine that comes with a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission – just like a Porsche 911 has. (Well, technically.)
Hyundai calls the top of the line model the Kona Ultimate, and a fully-loaded one rings up at $29,680. That includes a booming Infinity audio system and one of the best lane keeping assist systems I’ve ever experience. On a road with well-marked lines the Kona locks itself dead in the center of it and doesn’t play ping pong between them like a lot of other cars do. As long as things don’t get too twisty, you hardly have to steer.
You do have to keep your hand on the wheel to prove you're paying attention, but the feature works so well it makes you wonder how much longer that will be needed. Sadly the Kona doesn’t offer adaptive cruise control to go with it, but I guess Hyundai has to give you a reason to look at its other models.
You might not have to otherwise. Unless you really need a lot more space, the Kona fits many bills. The engine is potent, smooth and efficient. The EPA highway rating on the all-wheel-drive Ultimate I tested is just 29 mpg, but I saw 32-33 mpg in mixed driving.
I took it everywhere from the city to the freeway and twisty mountain roads still pockmarked from winter, and the Kona was an ace on all of them. Hyundai’s engineers nailed the ride quality, which isn’t too stiff or sloppy and doesn't get upset by the kind of washboard surfaces that can trip up even some luxury cars. At this price point, in a vehicle like this, you couldn’t expect anything better.
It can be legitimately fun to drive, too, especially when you put it in Sport mode. It plays longer in the lower gears in this setting, adds weight to the already excellent steering feel and livens up the throttle. Combined with pleasantly sharp handling, it’s much more entertaining than most of its ilk.
Hyundai may have been sitting this one out for a long time, but now it’s sitting near the front of the class.
2018 Hyundai Kona
Base price: $20,480
As tested: $29,680
Type: 5-passenger, 4-door all-wheel-drive SUV
Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 175 hp, 195 lb-ft
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
MPG: 26 city/29 hwy