Does a larger engine and self-shifter make the halo Kona an automatic choice?

After our first taste of the Kona, it’s fair to say the CAR team was quite enamoured with Hyundai’s quirky little crossover, levelling particular praise at its bold styling and engaging road manners. The turbocharged 1,0-litre inline-three’s low-end peppiness and refinement was also a pleasant surprise but, with something as town-bound as the Kona, we were left hankering for a means to give the left loafer a rest in traffic.

Cue the range-topping model, replete with a more powerful 2,0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and six-speed automatic transmission. It’s got all the ingredients for an ideal Kona but, as ever, the proof is in the pudding and the end result isn’t quite to all tastes.

Barring a couple of transmission-dictated differences, there’s virtually nothing separating the 1,0-litre model from its higher-placed stablemate. You still get a very distinctive shell – here finished in retina-searing Acid Yellow – perched atop 17-inch rims, while Executive specification means there’s little to want for in terms of convenience and safety features.

Inside, echoes of that attention-grabbing paintwork are restricted to some dash and upholstery trim, plus the seatbelts. Like many of its ilk, the Kona’s interior packaging leans more towards rear occupant space than it does luggage capacity, with the 224-litre boot being sufficient for the weekly shop but hardly cavernous. In all, it’s a solidly constructed and reasonably roomy cabin with just enough visual pizzazz to keep things interesting.

The main change is nestled in the engine bay, in the guise of Hyundai’s long-serving 2,0-litre, four-cylinder Nu MPi (multipoint fuel injection) unit. This particular version doing service in the Kona is a more recent iteration adopting the Atkinson cycle in a bid to address the fuel thirst that sometimes afflicts Hyundai’s naturally aspirated powerplants, especially when coupled with a torque-converter auto ‘box. While this particular engine meets the efficiency proviso, clocking a respectable 6,7 L/100 km on our mixed-use fuel run, the Atkinson cycle sacrifices power density in the name of frugality, hence the rather modest 110 kW output.

Throw the six-speed torque shifter into the mix and the result is twofold. A leisurely approach is rewarded with smooth, scenario-matched shifts, making the Kona a doddle to drive round town and a pleasure to pilot on the open road. However, leaning on the throttle to overtake or build up a head of steam for a steeper section of road occasionally flummoxes the gearbox, making upshifts a bit of a lottery. Consequently, the engine sounds gruff and somewhat strained as the 180 N.m of peak torque only chimes in at 4 500 r/min.

Regular cut-and-thrust driving also sees much of that fuel efficiency go out of the window, with a couple of taxi-dodging, gap-stealing motorway stints sending the fuel consumption into the high eights and early nines. It’s a pity, as the transmission generally acquits itself well, only giving over to some recalcitrance when trying to provoke oomph from the engine. But if our experience with Hyundai’s naturally aspirated engines is anything to go by, this unit should prove mechanically robust to shoulder that strain without bursting.

Occasional transmission foibles aside, the 2,0-litre Kona remains a pleasurable car to pilot. With just 170 mm of daylight between axle and asphalt, not to mention a reasonably well-sorted chassis and steering that, although light, has some life to it, there’s certainly the means to have some fun behind the wheel. That little bit of extra weight in the 2,0-litre’s nose hasn’t eroded any of the directional dartiness we so enjoyed in the 1,0-litre model, but slightly more power and low-end torque to fully exploit the chassis wouldn’t have gone amiss.



TEST SUMMARY

Having sampled both locally available Kona models, there’s general consensus the ideal combination would be the lively 1,0-litre turbopetrol coupled with the automatic transmission. There’s just not enough separating the two engines in terms of performance; just a second in the 0-100 km/h sprint. The smaller unit’s broad torque spread (1 500-4 000 r/min) would likely iron out most of the shift-related kinks and wouldn’t make too much of a dent in the fuel consumption. Unfortunately, this combination is not on the cards for our market, making the 1,0-litre, with its livelier powerplant, precise gearshift and R20 000 lower price, the model of choice in the Kona range.