Handling will be fine-tuned according to region.
Full disclosure: Our first drive of the all-new 2018 Hyundai Kona subcompact SUV lasted about eight minutes. So this drive review won’t take more than eight minutes of your time to read.
Another disclaimer: We were in Seoul, South Korea, and the prototypes we drove were Korea-spec. The Kona is a global car that engineers say will have different suspension, steering and general dynamics depending on the region where it is sold.
In presentations as part of the global premiere of the vehicle in Seoul, it was described as having nimble driving for Korea, comfort for the U.S., and fun for Europe. Steering effort and dampers will be tweaked for each region.
We drove the Kona on the handling course at Hyundai’s massive research-and-development center in Namyang, about 90 minutes outside Seoul. The first thing we noticed was that the steering had enough heft to suggest this is a more mature entry into a hot segment with quirky offerings such as the Nissan Juke and new entrants such as the Toyota C-HR and the Ford EcoSport due late this year.
The steering was surprisingly heavy and solid, and the steering wheel also felt substantial and comfortable to grip. We suspect the steering will be adjusted for U.S. sales.
Our mini test drive included some uneven surfaces and crowned roadways. The suspension sopped it up fairly well, but again we expect it could change for the U.S., and there was some disagreement as to whether it would get stiffer or softer. Koreans generally prefer a softer ride, and Europeans prefer a stiff suspension, so the U.S. could find itself somewhere in the middle.
The standard engine is the 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the SE and SEL trim levels; it gets 147 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 132 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. It is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. That puts it in line with competitors such as the Honda HR-V (141 horsepower) and Toyota C-HR (144 horsepower).
However, the preproduction models we drove had a 1.6-liter turbocharged engine that will be available in the Limited and Ultimate upper trim levels. The engine delivers 175 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 195 pound-feet from 1,500 to 4,500 rpm. That would give it the oomph to take on the Jeep Renegade (160 horsepower).
The upscale engine is mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. The power seemed adequate on the straight stretch, courtesy of a pretty fat powerband. Hyundai executives feel their engine lineup is plenty powerful and say there are no current plans for a Kona N performance SUV. We noticed there are no paddle shifters.
All-wheel drive is optional on all trim levels. Executives expect 45 percent of buyers will add the feature.
The Kona was engineered with three driving modes: Sport, Normal and Eco, which change the torque distribution and gearshift settings. Sport was programmed for greater acceleration and, conversely, early downshift on braking, and Eco uses longer gear ratios to optimize fuel efficiency. But Eco will not be offered in the U.S. — to avoid people unwittingly leaving it in that setting and complaining that the vehicle is underpowered.
The base SE still requires a key in the ignition, rides on 16-inch wheels, and has cruise control, Bluetooth, and a 7-inch floating infotainment screen.
Step up to the SEL for push-button start, 17-inch wheels, roof rails, and safety systems such as blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert.
Limited and Ultimate trim levels have the turbocharged engine and seven-speed transmission, 18-inch wheels, leather seats, a power sunroof, and LED headlamps and taillights. Ultimate also offers rear park sensors, lane keep assist, rain-sensing wipers, an 8-inch navigation screen and a wireless phone-charging pad.
All trim levels have standard daytime running lights; none offers adaptive cruise control, a heated steering wheel, or ventilated seats — only heated seats.
The head-up display is projected onto a “combiner,” which is an 8-inch screen that pops up in front of the driver to show speed, cruise control, directions, and fuel level warnings.
The Kona is notable for its cladding, described as “body armor” to evoke a sense of being protected. It is more than just show. We watched a Kona in a 35-mph crash test, and the cladding stood up remarkably well as the metal and glass around it took a beating. Luc Donckerwolke, head of Hyundai design, says the cladding is unique to Kona.
The design concept came out of Hyundai’s Irvine, California, studio after a global competition between Hyundai studios around the world. Kona’s look was to be expressive, lifestyle-oriented, and appealing to a younger urban buyer. It has a bit of a raked windshield and a shark fin C-pillar. Kona is a latecomer to the segment and seems to have incorporated bits and pieces from some of the offerings that have come before it.