Crossovers are so popular, and they’re getting smaller.
Examples include the Honda HR-V, which was one of the very first subcompact crossovers and also the Mazda CX-3, which is one of the most stylish.
One of the latest is the Hyundai Kona, which came onto the market in 2018.
All of them are very small on the outside.
But they’re also much roomier inside than cars with much larger footprints. They have about three times as much room for cargo as a mid-sized car, which probably explains why mid-sized cars are selling like Mets hats at Yankee stadium.
The Kona is also different under the hood, which probably explains why it has become the best-selling newcomer in its class.
What It Is
The Kona is a subcompact crossover and related to the Kia Niro. Both are smaller in terms of length than a compact-sized sedan, but each has more room for stuff than three (almost four) compact-sized sedans.
Because, like all crossovers, the Kona’s cargo area isn’t a separate and walled-off compartment. It’s right behind the back seats, and when you fold the back seats forward, the entire interior becomes, in effect, one very large “trunk.”
What sets the Kona apart from other crossovers in this class is that it’s available with more than just one take-it-or-leave-it engine. Also, you can order its optional high-performance engine with or without all-wheel-drive.
One size does not fit all.
Prices start at $20,300 for the base SE trim, which comes standard with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, no turbo, but with a six-speed automatic, and front-wheel-drive. AWD is available as an a la carte option, bringing the MSRP to $21,700.
There are also SEL and SEL Plus trims, with the same drivetrain availability.
Limited and Ultimate trims get the underhood upgrade, a 1.6-liter engine with a turbo, and more horsepower.
This engine is paired with a more performance-minded seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and with or without AWD.
An Ultimate with FWD stickers for $27,950. With AWD, the price is $29,350.
And no matter what you spend, you won’t buy ASS—automated stop/start.
Hyundai doesn’t include this “feature” as either standard or optional equipment.
There are some other things you don’t get that you might like, too, such as a pull-up emergency brake instead of a push-button electronic parking brake.
Ultimate trims come standard with adaptive cruise control, which was previously optional.
The Kona takes up almost two feet less space in your garage than a compact sedan, while taking three times-plus as much stuff inside.
Available with more than one engine.
Available with AWD or without AWD.
What’s Not So Good
A bit less roomy than the HR-V.
A bit less sexy than the CX-3.
The high-performance engine is only available in the Limited and Ultimate trims.
Under The Hood
The Kona’s standard 2.0-liter engine, which makes 147 hp, is slightly more powerful than the only engine available in the Honda HR-V (a smaller 1.8-liter four that makes 141 hp). It’s also just one hp shy of the Mazda CX-3’s also-only engine, a same-sized 2.0-liter four that makes 148 hp.
The Kona’s 2.0-liter is paired with a six-speed automatic—not a continuously variable automatic—with either FWD or AWD.
So equipped, the Kona matches the performance and mileage delivered by its rivals.
But if you want to exceed their performance without much of a mileage penalty, order a Limited or Ultimate. Both of these trims come standard with a turbocharged 1.6-liter engine that produces 175 hp and 195 ft.-lbs. of turbo-boosted torque at 1,500 RPM. This engine is the most powerful available in the class.
It is also paired with a different transmission—a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Together, the combo delivers zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds, the quickest-to-60 time in the segment.
To put this performance into context: The one-engine-only HR-V needs more than 9 seconds to get to 60. Even the sporty-looking Mazda3 is far behind the hustlin’ Hyundai, taking about 7.2 seconds to achieve the same speed.
Amazingly, the EPA rated mileage numbers of the Kona’s turbo’d engine are only negligibly lower than those posted by the standard non-turbo’d engine: 26 city, 29 highway vs. 26 city, 30 highway.
Speed may cost money, but (in this case) it doesn’t cost gas money.
It also won’t cost you ASS. Neither of the Kona’s engines comes with automated stop/start—the “feature” that’s becoming hard to avoid in new cars that automatically shuts off the engine and, in many cases, the AC at every red light and pause in traffic. Then automatically (but not instantly or silently), the engine restarts when the light turns green, or traffic begins moving again.
ASS is marketed as a fuel-saver, but the savings are small—on the order of 1-2 MPG overall, maybe. Annoying feature at best!
Bless Hyundai for not making it standard.
On The Road
Performance is a Kona strong suit. You can buy it with either a conventional six-speed automatic or (if you get the turbo) the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Both shift through gears, as opposed to varying ranges, as the continuously variable (CVT) automatic in the HR-V does.
The difference in sensation and sound is marked, especially when you ask for rapid acceleration—no surge when it shifts. Instead, with each shift up, the reduction in engine speed also reduces engine noise.
CVT-equipped cars equipped with weak engines produce a racket rather than acceleration.
And with the turbo, it’s much less necessary to rev the engine, regardless, because of all that low-speed torque.
There’s also the power to pass, which is sorely lacking in one-engine-only rivals.
The difference here is most noticeable when you’re on the highway and driving around 60 or so and need the beans to get around a tractor-trailer struggling to maintain 50. In other models, you might as well sit back and enjoy the wait because if you try to get around the rig you probably won’t. Not without becoming a chunk of grease in the arterial road, blocking the progress of everyone else trying to get around the rig.
Of course, the standard engine also suffers from the slows, but the point is you can opt-out of the slows, which you can’t with the others. And you can still have a conventional/geared automatic rather than a CVT, which for some is a deal-breaker.
It isn’t here.
Another thing you can opt-in or out of is AWD—even if you do get the turbo. This is pretty unusual and not just in this class of vehicle. The general practice, when a given FWD vehicle is offered with a high-performance engine, is to pair it with a mandatory AWD system. This does add tractability—the higher power distributed to the pavement via four rather than two wheels. In the Kona’s case, you also get a locking rear diff and a revised rear suspension designed to optimize the whole enchilada.
There is no question this enhances winter-weather grip as well as dry-weather handling.
The AWD, unquestionably, adds both cost upfront as well as potentially down the road and has more weight all the time. You pay more, and you don’t go as fast.
And it is not as fun.
A bit less control can be just that—the driver modulating wheel-slip rather than the vehicle. And let’s be honest, it is fun to chirp the tires sometimes, especially in a vehicle that is built mainly to be practical.
All work, no play, makes Jack a dull boy.
The Kona isn’t.
At The Curb
The subcompact Kona is only 164 inches long.
To get a sense of how small an exterior footprint that is, compare it with the footprint of a one-size-larger compact sedan like the Honda Civic, which is 182.7 inches long, a difference of 18.7 inches in length.
But the Kona has 45.8 cubic feet of cargo space with its back seats folded vs. 15.1 cubic feet in the Civic’s trunk, which can’t be expanded because it’s walled off from the rest of the cabin.
The Kona’s space for cargo decreases with its back seats upright, but there’s still 19.2 cubic feet and it’s functionally more than that because of the taller roofline and because you can route cargo over the seats while people are still using them.
That’s something you can’t do in any sedan — without a Sawzall.
The Kona also has more room behind its back seats and with its back seats down than the Mazda CX-3 (17.8 cubic feet and 42.7 cubic feet). It has nearly as much as the class-best (in the space race) Honda HR-V, which also has significantly more back seat legroom (39.3 inches) than either the Hyundai (34.6 inches) or the Mazda CX3 (35 inches).
But neither of them offers more than just practicality, which the Kona comes standard with while also offering other things.
One such thing being a pull-up emergency brake lever rather than an electric parking brake. The latter is “On or Off “and so doesn’t give the driver much control over braking in an emergency. Pull-up emergency brakes allow the driver to manually modulate braking force, thereby bringing the car to a safer and more controlled stop in the event the primary (hydraulic) brakes fail.
The manually controlled emergency brake lever is also simpler. The lever is attached to a cable that cinches the rear calipers closed, slowing the car. The cable might break at some point, but it’s pretty simple to replace a cable. It’s less simple to replace an electronically controlled parking brake and almost certainly not cheaper.
There’s also matte-plastic fender flares, slit-eye LED lights and a kind of blackout treatment for the C-pillar that jazzes up the look just enough to make it interesting, which complements it not being disappointing when you drive it.
Like almost all new cars, the Kona isn’t a Blue Lite Special—remember them?
The base SE trim comes with remote/keyless entry, a 7-inch LCD touchscreen interface, AppleCarPlay and Android Auto, plus, of course, AC, power locks and windows. It’s living large without paying large—if you can remember when such amenities weren’t even available in high-end cars, which was as recently as ten years ago.
You can also get today’s high-end features (wireless cell phone charging, premium eight-speaker audio system in the higher trim) without the high-end charge.
Of a piece with the simpler is better philosophy, it’s worth a mention that the SE comes with manual, you-control-it AC. Turn a knob to the left or right to increase or decrease the temperature and the same for the fan. Electronic climate control is available, but it’s skipable if you prefer the simpler and probably more long-term-reliable manual set up.
Also, you get a 12V power point and USB and Aux ports to power up anything you’ve got, just about. Not just one or two of them.
Finally . . .
If you like the Kona but don’t want to burn gas you might want to have a look at the electric Kona. It’s the same thing without a gas engine—instead, a rechargeable battery pack and electric motors. You pay more for the car, though—about $36,000.
But you’ll never pay a cent for gas.
There’s also the hybrid Niro—the Kona’s cousin.
What you get if you go there is 52 city and 49 highway and even more room for cargo (54.5 cubic feet) plus a roomier back seat (37.4 inches of legroom) for a bit more cash — $24,590.
The Bottom Line
Small doesn’t have to mean cramped.
Or no fun, either.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos