Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2019 Hyundai Kona 1.6T Ultimate

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This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car
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Small crossovers are big business; and of all small crossovers, us Canucks seem to be digging the heck out of one model in particular.

At writing, the Kona was the best-selling all-new vehicle in Canada.

I live in Sudbury. And here, the Kona launched with a bang.

One minute, I’m gazing over the typical pre-launch press releases and photos and thinking “Oh, a baby Tucson with a weird face.” Shortly after, I went to run errands, and Konas had taken over the city.

There were two at the gym. Three more at the grocery store, and one at Home Hardware after that.

Konas were everywhere. I’d have become alarmed, if they weren’t so cute.

If you don’t think the Kona is adorbs, and just want to give it a dollar, then get out of my face.

Turns out, Canadians love small crossovers so much that small crossovers will likely replace small cars as our favourite mode of transport before too long. At writing, the Kona was the best-selling all-new vehicle in Canada. It’s been a smash for Hyundai, who even had to ask the factory to build more units to meet the strong demand.

On a smaller scope, this was also the vehicle your writer was asked about the most in 2018, by a sizeable landslide.

The look is part of the fanfare – largely because, having won the war against normal styling, the Kona doesn’t look like virtually anything else on the road. Also, it pulls off the rare-but-important task of standing out starkly in a segment that’s swelling and bloating like the judges on Chopped: Baked Beans Cookoff Edition (which is not actually a thing).

Hyundai doesn’t need fancy soft-plastic dashboards to sell the Kona, either.

Inside, its crispy panelling in abundance, with a few licks of gloss and stitching and accent colouring and texture to break it up. It’s no richer a materials palette than you’d find in an Accent – even if it is nicely put together and executed with a hip and modern vibe.

Where features are concerned, the Kona definitely does not suck.

My loaded-to-the-eyelids tester got a heated leather steering wheel with Kermit-green stitching, a sunroof, push-button start, remote start, automatic lights, and loads more.

The central touchscreen interface is logical and responsive and no harder to figure out than a chair. The angle of the back-up camera is bang-right-on, and the resolution is decent.

“Is that a child in a raincoat, or a fire hydrant?”

You’ll be able to tell.

Further, radar beepers even warn you if you’re about to back into the path of an incoming car, which can help you not lose the game of T-bone roulette if you’re backing out from behind a tall snowbank.

Splurging on the Kona 1.6T Ultimate gets you a power driver’s seat, a nice sunroof, an adequately punchy Infinity stereo, and a wireless recharging pad. Presumably invented by warlocks from Neptune, this recharges your (compatible) phone, automatically and without a cord, as soon as you toss it into the little cubby. What a time to be alive.

Let’s talk functionality. And for this next bit, remember that Kona is a small crossover.

The hatch is not large – though most will find it bigger than the average small car’s, and it should swallow three or four average carry-ons, or some taller things if you remove the cargo cover. The seats fold down (nearly flat) in a 60/40 split, because of course they do.

By the way, if cargo space is a top priority for you and you can do without AWD, then check out the Nissan Kicks.

Moving on up, your 5'10", average-sized writer can report that he “just” fit into Kona’s rear seats without feeling like he was wearing said Kona. I could sit behind a clone of myself without my knees touching the seatback, too. All said, average sized adults will be okay, kids will be great, while anyone who has ever won a burrito-chugging contest should ride up front.

There, I was greeted by adequate storage, both covered and open, for my things – with special thanks to the perfectly sized cupholders, the covered centre storage bin, and the generous door pockets with molded-in bottle holders (which work great for camera lenses, if that’s your jam).

Those of my size will find the front seat area comfy-snug, and find things adequately but not generously roomy in each direction and dimension. Feeling as if you’re in a roomy-ish, taller small car is likely, and you can see nearly to the edge of Kona’s hood from here, too. It’s like sitting in a crossover, but driving a small car.

The Kona is psychotically easy to park and zip through traffic – but also, being small means the 1.6-litre turbo engine doesn’t have all that much stuff to haul around.

Equipped thusly, Kona has 175 horsepower, 200 pounds of torque, and weighs about as much as a GTI. Because of all of this, the Kona is properly eager, happy to whiz along with just a tiny throttle nudge, pleasingly responsive from revs low enough that the engine is largely inaudible, and plenty snotty when shown your boot.

That’s a key advantage: Kona’s the most powerful machine in its segment, and typically by a fair margin. That’s great, and even better if an HR-V or Kicks gets all up in your grille at a red light. The little turbo engine is nicely behaved, generally sounds pleasing if you keep the revs a few ticks away from redline, and for the lighter-footed among us, it’s surprisingly quiet and smooth and responsive.

And for the saucy power output, the ride is fairly relaxed. She’s definitely on the stiffer side of the spectrum, but well within ride comfort limits. If you’re coming to a Kona from any small car that doesn’t ride like a total sponge cake, you’ll feel pretty at home.

I also frequently appreciated what felt like just a wee dab of softness around the very edges of the suspension travel. This smoothed things out nicely, to the benefit of more consistent ride quality. That’s even on the roads of Sudbury, which are mostly blown to kingdom come like that castle on Game of Thrones.

Steering is light, or a little heavier in Sport mode, which you deploy via a toggle button near the shifter. The steering lacks much meaningful feel or feedback, and clocks in at something like 90 percent easygoing, 10 percent quick and playful.

The transmission is a sporty dual-clutch setup often chosen for faster and smoother shifting, as well as fuel savings. Don’t worry: it’s called a “dual clutch” transmission, but there are only two pedals, and neither operates a clutch.

From behind the wheel, it’s just a nicely behaved automatic transmission that shifts clean and fast and means you no harm. You’ll never even notice it, usually, except in the one situation where you will.

Now, I’m going to tell you about a smell.

A horrid smell. The worst smell. The smell of hot clutch.

It’s a smell that smells like gunpowder and rancid eggs and chewed skoal and possum farts. Sometimes, the clutches inside of Kona’s transmission get hot enough to emit a hearty burst of this smell. It’s rare (thank heavens). In fact, it pretty much only happens when things are under a lot of load at a low speed (like creeping very slowly up a steep hill), or, while pushing it hard to claw through deep, deep snow.

The smell doesn’t come around often, but when it does, you’ll know. Oh, you’ll know.

Smelly transmission aside, driving the Kona in the snow might put you in the mood for some mindless fun. It gifts you, frequently and vigorously, with the gift of lift-off oversteer, and the short wheelbase and punchy engine make for some properly flouncy frolicking on slippery backroads if desired. Brakes feel precise and bite hard without a lot of foot-work, and it all works just fine in a blizzard, where you’ll find it typically feels planted, stable, and unlikely to do anything startling.

Still, I’m saying Kona’s more impressive in the snow for the grin it can put on your face. And I dunno about you, but that earns points with every driver I know.

The AWD system was engineered by ninjas. Not really, but it’s quite nicely dialled in.

Specifically, if you just point it ahead and try to climb or claw through door-deep snow, it extracts any available traction from the surface beneath in quick order, and typically never leaves a single wheel digging itself in for more than a rotation or two.

In varied winter driving, the general sense is one of invisibility: the system responds predictably and consistently, does what it needs to do, and keeps you moving along with nothing detectable of note from behind the wheel.

Further, the system isn’t too shy about sending plenty of power to the rear wheels when called upon. Because of this, if you have teenagers, they’re definitely doing donuts in the parking lot behind the mall after lights-out.

At times, Kona’s AWD system can feel just a hair slower to sort out certain specific situations than some competitors, but ultimately, you just press the gas, point the wheel, and let the thing sort it out for you. My tester was on winter tires, which help with all of the above, too. Finally, Kona even offers up an AWD lock button, which lets drivers pre-emptively dial up additional traction before a challenging or slippery situation.

This is the part where I list my gripes – but I don’t have any big ones.

I don’t even have most of the typical gripes that I usually gripe about after visiting the latest small crossover. Sure: at times, rougher road surfaces can spike Kona’s interior noise levels a good bit, and at my loaded tester’s nearly $32,000 asking price, I wish the interior greeted my fingertips with some nicer materials, more of the time. But that’s about it.

And therein lies, I figure, the reason that Kona is kicking so much ass in Canada: it’s great in the snow, punchier than most, nicely dialled in, and just does a really good job of what it’s supposed to do.

Pricing from $27,000 with AWD and turbo power.

Engine Displacement 1.6L
Engine Cylinders I4
Peak Horsepower 175 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Peak Torque 195 lb-ft @1,500–4,500 rpm
Fuel Economy 9.0/8.0/8.6 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 544 / 1,296 L seats down
Model Tested 2019 Hyundai Kona 1.6T Ultimate
Base Price $31,899
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,805
Price as Tested $33,804
Optional Equipment