Payne: Hyundai Kona is nutty outside, meaty inside
For those of us who mourned the passing from the American market this year of the defiantly funky Nissan Juke, there is good news — the Hyundai Kona is here.
The frog-eyed, multi-colored, fun-to-drive Juke was an early entrant in the subcompact ute-stakes along with other quirkboxes like the Kia Soul, Nissan Cube and Scion xB. The Juke thrilled us with its taut chassis, 188 horses, and — um — unique wardrobe. Remember the mustard interior?
But as we Yanks have gone whole-hog for SUVs, the subcompact class is no longer an outlier but a full-blown, entry-level mainstream class.
It’s now populated by respectable five-doors like the Ford Ecosport, Honda HR-V, Subaru Crosstrek and Chevy Trax. These latest cute-utes carry familiar family DNA. Even Nissan has gotten the mainstream fever by ditching the alternative R&B Juke box for the more mainstream classical Kicks.
I get it. Mass audiences require a broader taste. No mainstream station survives on a steady diet of Devo. Ya gotta play the Beatles and Springsteen and Swift. Is there still room in subcompact utes for outrageous?
Well, slip into a Lime Twist Hyundai Kona, crank up “Whip It” on Apple CarPlay, dial in all-wheel drive, and let’s play in the twisties.
Whip it! Whip it good!
To be honest the sub-ute class is hardly devoid of character despite the dropouts. The class has a bit of everything from the aforementioned mainstreamers to the athletic Mazda CX-3 to the funkadelic Toyota CH-R.
“It’s a wild, wild west segment,” says Hyundai chief engineer Mike O’Brien. “It’s all over the place in size and capability. What is the ideal set of attributes?”
For Hyundai, the ideal – to squeeze my music metaphor one more time – is to borrow from different genres to create a pleasing whole. The Kona is classic Hyundai set to a hip-hop dance beat.
Yes, Hyundai. The conservative Korean brand took a backseat to brother Kia over the last year as the latter redefined itself as a sexy, upscale brand with the introduction of the sensational performance Kia Stinger sedan.
But where Kia’s halo car trickles down to smaller fish like the Forte and Sportage, Hyundai’s halos bubble upwars like a ground spring. Like Mazda and its MX-5 Miata.
Credit elves like O’Brien, a serious motorhead restoring his own open-wheel race car, who has a passion for performance and has used every tool in Hyundai’s box to make Kona worthy. Kona joins the three-door Veloster quirkster I reviewed in June as entry-level, $20,000-somethings that introduce customers to the brand with funk ‘n’ spunk. They share drivetrains, value and attitude. Lots of attitude.
My Kona tester looked like a supersized Hot Wheels tester with its lime paint job and show, five-spoke wheels. The front end isn’t shy either, adopting a three-shelf headlight stack – last seen on the 2014 Jeep Cherokee – that glues on the running lights where the headlights usually sit.
The rear is no less radical with two stacks of taillights framing the license-plate stamped rear hatch.
With the white, front running lights ablaze next to a gaping, Veloster-like grille, the Kona looks like the demonic Chernabog from Disney’s “Fantasia” (look it up). Which would fit with O’Brien’s anthropomorphic description of the styling as “urban smart armor that shows the bones — the exoskeleton of the vehicle.”
Makes ol’ froggy Juke seem downright cute by comparison.
The Hyundai’s slashing lines and heaping dose of cladding does indeed give the appearance of skin stretched over a carcass. There is no mistaking this car on the road – if you can keep up with it.
The Kona may have spent a lot of time dressing up in front of a mirror, but it put in the hours at the gym, too. Although its sits higher off the ground than cousin Veloster, Kona is eager to tackle curvy roads. It is quite comfortable chasing other athletes in the class like CX-3 and CH-R, but Hyundai has gone them one better – it’s has provided the driveline to match its chassis ambitions.
Where Toyota and Mazda stop with 2.5-liter 145-horse four-bangers, Hyundai offers the same pair of engines offered with the sporty Veloster – a 143-horse, 2.0-liter 4-banger and a stonkin’ 175-horse, 193-torque, 1.6-liter turbo.
My tester came equipped with the latter, turning the lime into a red hot chili pepper out of corners, the smooth, seven-speed automatic downshifting in sync with my lead foot. This turbo is mated to a standard all-wheel drive system — standard, because that’s what you want out of an SUV, after all.
What I wanted was maximum traction with the four’s pony-power, so I kept the system set to “full-time all-wheel drive.”
This lovely drivetrain is controlled from a startlingly mature cockpit. The transition from the fan boy exterior to the cabin is abrupt. Green accents are tastefully distributed around the push-button starter and console, but otherwise the inside is all grown up with iPad-like touch-screen and silver-ringed instrument dials. Console space is ample, the seats comfortable, the value impressive.
Like fellow mainstream brands, Hyundai loaded my $29,775 tester with electronic features that would challenge some luxury marques costing twice as much.
Automatic windshield wipers and high beams, smartphone connectivity (who needs a nav system?), head-up display, auto braking, blind-spot assist...
(Pause to catch breath)
... dual-climate control, heated seats, sun roof, Amazon Echo remote start/commands, and best-in-class 10-year/100,000 mile drivetrain warranty. Options aside, buyers at the starting price of just $20,480, get good fundamentals like best-in-class cargo room.
The Kona – which at first appears a green-hair Dennis Rodman shock jock – turns out to be a well-rounded, Grant Hill all-star.
While Mrs. Payne wouldn’t be caught deal in Lime Twist, she did concede that the loaded Kona reminded her of her equally value-rich Subaru Impreza hatchback. All-wheel-drive, Apple CarPlay, heated seats — all the stuff she counts on day-to-day.
And she wasn’t bothered by the higher seating position, perhaps because – like her lower Subaru – the Kona is so well screwed together.
The Kona is reminiscent of the Subaru Crosstrek, the Impreza hatch’s body double – just raised a couple inches and layered with fender-cladding to give off that coveted crossover vide. Paint the Kona more conventional Surf Blue or Thunder Gray and it might almost seem conventional compared to the more conservative Subaru.
But for those of you in Juke withdrawal, you’ll want the Lime Twist.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Hyundai Kona
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV
Price: $20,480 base ($29,775 Ultimate AWD as tested)
Powerplant: 2.0-liter inline-4 cylinder; 1.6-liter Turbo-4
Power: 147 horsepower, 132 pound-feet torque (2.0-liter); 175 horsepower, 195 pound-feet torque (1.6-liter Turbo-4)
Transmission: 6-speed automatic (2.0-liter); 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic (1.6-liter)
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.67 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 135 mph
Weight: 3,344 pounds (Ultimate AWD Turbo-4 as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 25 city/30 highway/27 combined (4WD 2.0-liter); 26 city/29 highway/27 combined (4WD 1.6-liter)
Highs: Versatile cargo space; fun to flog
Lows: Quirky styling; more console cubbies, please
Overall: 4 stars