STELLENBOSCH, Western Cape – A single glance at either of the exterior photographs above is all you need to realise the Hyundai Kona is one of the most boldly styled models the brand has yet offered in South Africa.

Slim LED daytime running lights – separated by a slit just above the latest interpretation of Hyundai’s signature grille – trace the front edge of the bonnet, while the main LED headlamps are positioned further down and integrated into the chunky plastic cladding that itself extends over the wheelarches. The foglamps, meanwhile are sited below the grille, unusually close together.

While not quite as quirky as the front, the Kona’s rump nevertheless sports a handful of eccentric styling elements, chief among them the C-shaped light clusters – like the headlamps, framed by black cladding and sited far lower than is traditional – comprising indicators and foglamps. The narrow taillamps, meanwhile, are separate units located just below the rear screen.

Of course, Hyundai already fields a contender – and a popular one, at that – in this segment. But where the Indian-built Creta is fairly restrained in its styling (even after its recent facelift), the slightly smaller Kona is downright wild. And that's part of the reason the local arm of the South Korean brand believes both models can excel here, despite competing in the same (crowded) section of the market … and despite somewhat of an overlap in pricing.

Engine options

Another key distinction between these two front-driven crossovers is found under their respective bonnets. While the Creta is offered with either a free-breathing 1,6-litre petrol unit or a turbodiesel engine of the same capacity, the Kona can be specified with a new turbocharged 1,0-litre, three-cylinder petrol mill (offered exclusively in conjunction with a six-speed manual) or an older naturally aspirated 2,0-litre four-banger (available only in six-speed automatic guise).

Hyundai Automotive South Africa says it has no immediate plans to import all-wheel-drive or diesel derivatives of the Kona, nor the all-electric variant, citing pricing concerns (these models would likely tread firmly on the larger Tucson’s toes). The 1,6-litre turbopetrol offered in some overseas markets is seemingly also not on the cards for SA.

The 2,0-litre engine has the edge over its forced-induction sibling on paper – boasting outputs of 110 kW and 180 N.m compared with 88 kW and 172 N.m – but it’s the turbo-triple that really impresses in practice. While the normally aspirated motor exhibits a certain gruffness under even moderate acceleration (regardless of which of the three driving modes is selected), the three-cylinder remains remarkably refined throughout the rev-range, all while delivering its punch across a far wider band.

Gearbox choices

Based on our brief drive, the manual is the better gearbox on the open road, too, with the self-shifter displaying a tendency to hunt (those who spend their daily commute in bumper-to-bumper traffic, though, would understandably prefer the latter cog-swapper). The weight savings that come with the smaller engine (and lighter gearbox) also seem to have a small effect through the bends, lending the 1,0-litre model a slightly more eager turn-in. Both models, though, benefit from particularly fast steering.

Running on 17-inch alloys as standard, both also employ MacPherson struts fore and a torsion-beam arrangement aft, and feel fairly stiffly sprung, with the secondary ride suffering somewhat as a result. The payoff, though, is a little more body control, with the lower-riding (by 20 mm) Kona cornering noticeably flatter than the Creta.

The Kona’s cabin, too, displays more flair than that of the Creta, featuring either red or yellow (the latter reserved for models finished in Acid Yellow exterior paint) seatbelts, seat stitching (on the faux-leather perches, for example) and air-vent surrounds, along with a floating 7,0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, shared with the Tucson.

Standard spec

The standard equipment tally (both models are offered in Executive trim) is more generous as well, with the Kona featuring various items – such as reach adjustment on the steering column, cruise control, traction control and tyre pressure monitoring – the Creta does without.

Priced at R399 900 (or R20 000 less for the more polished 1,0-litre), the Kona 2,0 Executive AT slots in just R10 000 below the base Tucson and flagship Creta, yet is some R30 000 more expensive than the mid-tier, self-shifting, petrol-powered Creta. The latter is, of course, far more practical, boasting a larger luggage compartment (Hyundai claims a figure of 361 litres for the Kona), plenty more rear legroom and a ground clearance better suited to gravel-road jaunts.

And that, together with its particularly brave design, lengthy features list and more enjoyable driving experience, means the new Kona will appeal to a distinctly different audience than the Creta (one that would otherwise consider the likes of the Mazda CX-3 and Toyota C-HR).

Still, it’ll be utterly intriguing to see whether Hyundai’s styling and range-positioning gambles pay off…