IF YOU’RE going to be late to a party then bring it or don’t bother attending.
Positioned beneath the big-selling Tucson, the Californian-styled, German-engineered newcomer makes a grand entrance with striking looks backed by an array of colour and accessory couture. This South Korean-built crossover is literally high fashion right now.
Based on the latest i30 hatch platform, Hyundai’s packaging boffins have also created a comparatively spacious and sensibly laid out interior, despite being even shorter than arch-rival Mazda CX-3, courtesy of a wide and lengthy footprint. So, five at a squeeze will fit, with a segment-average cargo capacity out back to boot.
And then there are the benefits the brand is renowned for, such as low starting prices, high equipment levels (even the base Kona scores an auto transmission, rear camera, 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto multimedia, alloy wheels and roof rails), pleasing build quality and a strong aftersales focus. And while AEB isn’t standard on the cheapest variant, another $1500 solves that, bringing with it goodies like blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keep assist, auto high beam, driver attention warning and powered folding mirrors.
Add a pair of powerful engine choices including a strident 1.6-litre turbo/seven-speed dual-clutch combo for $3500 extra (worth every penny as it also turfs out the torsion-beam rear end for a more sophisticated multi-link IRS set-up, plus all-wheel drive and bigger brakes), and it is conceivable that the crowd-pleasing Kona might become the toast of the burgeoning small-SUV soiree.
However, under the brutal morning-after-like spotlight that is COTY judgment, disappointing blemishes begin to appear.
Hyundai expects most will buy the front-drive-only 2.0-litre, and while it’s a solid and dependable performer, it isn’t especially spirited and becomes coarse at higher revs. That turbo AWD alternative is a peach by comparison.
Perhaps, more importantly, although Hyundai says the Kona underwent substantial Australian-specific suspension and steering tuning to imbue a “sporty, get-up-and-go feeling”, the result is an at-times noisy and harsh ride that never feels settled. If comfort is a priority, stretch to the 1.6 turbo with IRS, but not the 18-inch-wheeled Highlander flagship as it can become too choppy.
On smooth roads, the steering is pleasingly measured and responsive, making the most of the chassis’ planted agility and contained body control, but weights up heftily in Sport mode. On gravel the stability-control system reacts late and with little finesse, underscoring the additional work that’s required to hone the Hyundai’s dynamics.
Ultimately, these foibles, plus poor wet- and gravel-road braking, a propensity to occasionally bottom out where rival SUVs didn’t, some steering rack rattle and the cabin’s dreary, plasticky ambience highlight the fact that the Kona doesn’t really progress anything in its segment aside from the 1.6 turbo’s performance.
Also present at this year’s COTY was the more-rounded Hyundai i30. In terms of refinement, comfort and value, the hatch easily outclasses its closely related SUV stablemate. We know whose party we’d rather attend.
How to hone a Kona
Like most Hyundais, Oz-specific chassis tuning was undertaken to make the Kona feel sportier, over “thousands of kilometres of testing on a variety of surfaces, from country lanes to freeways to corrugated dirt roads”.
The upshot saw three sets of front and two sets of rear springs tested, as well as 13 different front and 23/29 (FWD/AWD) rear damper combinations, and two anti-roll bars. Plus, both Euro 5 compliant engines run on 91 RON. There’s no diesel or manual in the works.