Hyundai shows its playful side with a new small crossover that’s (not so squarely) aimed at the young at heart...
Throughout the past decade (or so), Hyundai South Africa has steadily grown its local market share – and consolidated its brand reputation – in the local market. These feats can be attributed to a combination of factors, not least the consistent quality of its products and ever-improving levels of after-sales service. However, the local distributor of the Korean brand has also demonstrated its innate ability to anticipate the trends of the prevailing market and adapt accordingly. While the strategies behind the locally developed limited-edition Tucson Sport and the introduction of the neatly packaged Creta small SUV have proved sound, the arrival of the Kona small crossover in a fiercely contested, if not over-traded segment, represents a bold change on Hyundai’s part.
For a carmaker renowned for clever packaging and well-considered levels of standard specification, whose products are aimed at predominantly rational-thinking customers, the quirky Kona (named after a district in Hawaii) and widely lauded new i30 N hot hatch represent a loosening of the corporate tie.
Introduced with a bold new colour palette (including Pulse Red, in which the test unit was finished), the Kona targets an altogether more expressive and image-conscious buyer: one that’s ostensibly less concerned with practical packaging and prudent specification, and more interested in making a statement of their decidedly individualistic taste. It’s a marketing strategy often employed by French brands in this segment (and not always with much success in a predominantly conservative market). Incidentally, some members of the test team recognised hints of Citroën in the Kona’s fresh and distinctive styling, in particular the newcomer’s slim LED daytime-running lights, which are located above a fresh interpretation of Hyundai’s signature grille. The latter is flanked by headlamps quirkily positioned within chunky plastic cladding.
Built on an all-new B-SUV platform, which was designed to accommodate both all-wheel drive and all-electric powertrain configurations in other markets, the Kona may be shorter (by 105 mm) than the Creta but is nevertheless wider and lower slung than its Indian-built stablemate. The combination of standard 17-inch alloy wheels and more cladding both front and rear contribute to a distinctly sporty stance, which is offset by 170 mm of ground clearance.
Compared with its exterior, the Kona’s interior is a somewhat more subdued affair and we think it is better for it. While the aforementioned French brands still try to bend the rules in terms of cabin design and functionality (Peugeot’s i-Cockpit, for example, either enthrals or frustrates depending on who you ask), Hyundai has thankfully kept things relatively simple and familiar inside its exuberantly packaged newcomer. While faux leather trim adds a touch of sophistication and subtly placed luminescent trim bits (matched with the seatbelt colour) add character, highlights of the Kona’s interior include a suitably sporty-looking multifunction steering wheel and a seven-inch example of the brand’s latest (in terms of our market) touchscreen infotainment system, which includes smartphone integration. Other standard specifications listed throughout the two-model (both Executive spec) range include air-conditioning, cruise control, auto headlamps and a comprehensive array of charging and docking points.
Despite boasting a slightly longer wheelbase than the Creta, the Kona’s rear passenger comfort is compromised which, to be fair, is understandable in a vehicle favouring boutique appeal over school-run practicality. That said, rear legroom remains fair and, by our measurements, the Kona boasts a slightly larger luggage compartment than the Creta (224 litres compared with 208). A 60:40-split rear backrest allows for the accommodation of bulky cargo.
The Kona was launched with a choice of the brand’s familiar naturally aspirated 2,0-litre petrol engine – mated exclusively with a six-speed automatic – or a new 1,0-litre three-cylinder turbopetrol, replete with a six-speed manual ‘box. It’s the latter powertrain that offers the most intrigue and arguably suits the excitable character of the Kona package best. The gearbox has a pleasingly precise action (although it’s not that keen on being rushed) and the 88 kW/172 N.m motor feels sprightly round town while delivering a welcome level of calm sophistication on the open road, which is the reserve of a tall sixth gear. Impressively refined even at idle, it’s an engine that should easily replicate our 6,80 L/100 km fuel route consumption in most driving conditions, including at altitude.
In contrast with its relatively softly sprung, practically minded SUV siblings, the Kona exhibits a somewhat firmer default ride quality. That said, combined with those aforementioned 17-inch wheels and a lower ride height (20 mm lower than the Creta) there are welcome measures of sharpness and agility that can be enjoyed from behind its tiller. By virtue of an electrically assisted steering system that’s pleasingly weighted (compared with what we’ve come to expect from Korean products) – and despite the presence of an uncomplicated torsion-beam rear suspension – the Korean crossover offers an impressive ride quality. It can soak up most road imperfections while remaining relatively nimble both round town and on the odd arterial road.
Marginally away from recording an excellent rating in our braking tests (while bettering the Creta’s results, it must be noted), the new Kona is fitted as standard with stability control, a total of six airbags and Isofix child-seat mounting points. What’s more, the newcomer scored a five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP.
While similarly sized (and powered) crossovers such as the Renault Captur and Mazda CX-3 provide compelling entry points to this segment, Hyundai South Africa has employed a comprehensive standard specification and a healthy dose of model-specific flair to position the new Kona towards the upper spectrum of the boutique-crossover niche. Given its admirable blend of traits and surfeit youthful appeal, the Kona could cannibalise some Creta sales, even if it loses out to the likes of the more practical Nissan Qashqai. However, what our consumer-focused voting doesn't always factor in are the compelling levels of charm and character that niche models offer customers who are pining to buy and drive something refreshingly different.
Full credit to Hyundai for stepping out of its comfort zone and acknowledging that not every potential customer wants maximum comfort or practicality from their purchases. Certainly, while the Creta and Tucson still continue to sell well in their respective segments, models such as the Kona are afforded more leeway when it comes to marketing their unique wares. What remains below all the cladding (and ridiculously slim lighting) is another solid product from a brand that continues to go from strength to strength in our market ... and globally.
*From the February 2019 issue of CAR magazine...
ROAD TEST SCORE
See Full Hyundai Kona price and specs here