Car Culture: New, revamped Hyundais have hip ambitions

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

Hyundai chose downtown Detroit to highlight its latest models, the new Kona and Veloster urban cars.

Going from the hip Foundation Hotel via bustling Campus Martius Park to the flourishing Wayne State area, Hyundai’s tour highlighted Motown’s ongoing revitalization.

With pricing in the $19,000 to $28,000 range, both the Kona and Veloster are aimed at young, active consumers, much like the people fueling Detroit’s comeback.

The 2018 Kona is Hyundai’s first stab at a small crossover, a relatively new market sector that’s growing by leaps and bounds. “This segment is up by 16 percent,” said Mike O’Brien, Hyundai vice president of product planning. “It is the Wild West in terms of vehicle specification because automakers are still feeling their way into the segment.”

While small sedan competitors are all sized virtually identically, the small crossover rivals — Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR, Mazda CX-3 and Nissan Kicks to name a few — differ markedly in size and features.

Compared to some in the class, the Kona is a few inches shorter in overall length, but O’Brien said an emphasis on tight packaging of the powertrain and suspension system has created a fairly spacious interior and roomy cargo compartment.

Following Hyundai’s usual practice with other models, the Kona offers a slew of standard and optional features, some of which — all-wheel drive for example — are not available on some rivals.

Buyers have to step up to the more expensive Limited and Ultimate models to benefit from the best engine option — a 175-horsepower 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder — but the reward is a surprisingly spirited performer (faster than most rivals) with tidy handling to match.

Hyundai designers have done their best to breathe a little creativity into the interior, but the mostly hard-plastic surfaces of the instrument panel and doors are disappointing. On one Kona version, the well-equipped but plain-looking dashboard is livened up by accent lines, which match a new lime-green available exterior color.

While the 2018 Kona is new to Hyundai’s lineup, the 2019 Veloster is a refreshed model, a sporty coupe with an unusual, asymmetrical three-door design. Though car sales are drooping for most automakers, Hyundai argues that the Veloster’s value lies partly in its “reverse halo” appeal to consumers, in that it will draw people into Hyundai showrooms, buyers who will later move up the brand’s model line.

Be that as it may, the Veloster (available in standard and turbocharged versions) is an engaging, nimble and well-equipped option for consumers looking to stand out from the crossover crowd. The turbo version kicks out a healthy 201 horsepower, but an even more appealing 275-horse model is on the way later this year from Hyundai’s forthcoming N performance division.

Versus the odd collection of surviving, small specialty cars on the market — such as the Mini Cooper S, Honda Civic coupe, VW Beetle and Fiat 500 — the Veloster is impressive, not just for its good driving dynamics, but also for its excellent safety and infotainment features.

Taken together, the Kona and Veloster show that Hyundai is determined to build on its market position as a value brand, with more entertaining and diverse models. “We’re moving the brand into a new place,” noted Brian Smith, Hyundai’s chief operating officer. “We will have eight new or refreshed models coming in 2018.”

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at