To drive a 2020 Hyundai Kona is to love a 2020 Hyundai Kona, but the key is to get the turbocharged engine and the all-wheel-drive (AWD) system. So equipped, a Kona is quick, responsive, and fun to drive. Without them, the Kona relies mostly on its big personality, exceptional warranty and ownership benefits, and impressive available equipment list to woo small SUV shoppers seeking something different from the status quo.
For 2020, this Hyundai’s third year on the market since its arrival in 2018, the Kona gets a new SEL Plus trim level loaded with standard equipment. Choose a Kona Limited with Sunset Orange paint, and you’ll get new Orange interior accents. Ultimate versions receive a new standard adaptive cruise control system.
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a front-wheel-drive (FWD) Kona Ultimate equipped with carpeted floor mats. The price came to $29,525, including the $1,120 destination charge.
What Owners Say…
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2020 Kona, it is helpful to understand who buys this small SUV, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.
Compared to the segment as a whole, there are few substantial deviations between Kona owners and small SUV owners when it comes to demographics and psychographics, according to J.D. Power data.
Slightly more Kona owners are women (60% vs. 58%), and Kona owners make slightly more money in terms of median annual household income ($79,342 vs. $78,727). Kona owners are also more likely to identify as Performance Buyers (17% vs. 10%) and are less likely to prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (30% vs. 49%). Both Kona owners and small SUVs owners report a median age of 56 years.
Where Kona owners differ from small SUV owners is in the areas of safety, style, and performance. J.D. Power data shows that 89% of Kona owners agree that they like a vehicle with responsive handling and powerful acceleration, and that 80% are willing to pay extra to ensure their vehicle has the latest safety features. Additionally, 72% of Kona owners agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (vs. 66%) and 57% of Kona owners disagree that to them a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place (vs. 51%).
Owners say their favorite things about the Kona are (in descending order) the exterior styling, interior design, visibility and safety, infotainment system, and driving dynamics. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Kona are (in descending order) the seats, engine/transmission, climate control system, fuel economy, and storage and space.
In the J.D Power 2019 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Kona ranked third out of 15 small SUVs.
What Our Expert Says…
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 Hyundai Kona measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.
Some people like cars with plenty of visual personality, and the 2020 Hyundai Kona has a surplus of it. Limited and Ultimate trim levels come with fog lights, full LED headlights and taillights, chrome accent trim, and machined-finish 18-inch wheels. These elements add a layer of sophistication to the Kona’s otherwise youthfully exuberant styling.
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
The busy yet balanced look is not for everybody, but one thing is certain: you will never mistake this small SUV for anything but a Kona, especially when its painted one of the more vibrant available colors.
If you’re expecting an equally expressive interior within the Kona, you might be disappointed. Relative to the outside, the inside is conventional in layout and design.
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
What’s unconventional is the rock-solid build quality and the refinement evident in the controls and displays. Yes, there are acres of hard plastic in this car, but that’s to be expected at this price point. Regardless, every time you use the transmission shifter, you’ll be reminded of the level of quality and attention to detail in the Kona.
In particular, the Kona’s nighttime illumination is compelling in a soothing, Zen kind of way with white instrumentation and a soft blue for everything else. Driving this SUV at night is a pleasure.
Drivers sit up higher than expected, given the Kona’s diminutive dimensions. Get SEL Plus, Limited, or Ultimate trim and the Kona has an 8-way power adjustable driver’s seat that supplies an excellent driving position. But even the SE and SEL supply a manual seat height adjuster for the driver, making every example of this small SUV comfortable.
Once the driver is situated, he or she will find the steering wheel pleasing to grip, and the center console armrest is padded for comfort. The upper parts of the front door panels, however, are hard plastic. Hyundai should swap this out with the soft material used on the dashboard, especially on higher trims.
Front-seat passengers will be happy enough with their seating assignment, even if there isn’t a height adjuster. Entry and exit are easy, too, especially on the driver’s side, and the Limited and Ultimate trim levels include leather instead of cloth seats. Every Kona except for the base SE trim level includes 3-stage heated front seat cushions.
Unquestionably, the Kona’s rear seat is a snug fit for adults, and the plastic front seatback panels are unfriendly to knees. The rear seatback angle is a bit too reclined for comfort, too. But kids fit perfectly.
Climate Control System
Equipped with a single-zone automatic climate control system, the Kona Ultimate had no trouble contending with a Southern California heat wave, blowing ice-cold air shortly after starting the vehicle and setting out to a destination. Still, given the leather seats, a ventilated front seat option sure would be nice.
My children expressed dismay that the Kona offered no rear air conditioning vents, but otherwise found this Hyundai agreeable.
Typically, infotainment systems don’t rank very high on vehicle owners’ lists of their favorite things about their vehicles. The Kona is an exception, and it’s easy to understand why.
The standard 7-inch touchscreen display is mounted high where it is easy to see and use. Every Kona includes Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto, and all but the SE offer HD Radio and SiriusXM satellite radio. Moving up to SEL Plus trim, the Kona adds an 8-speaker Infinity premium sound system, wireless smartphone charging, and three free years of Blue Link connected services.
Offered only with Ultimate trim, an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with navigation is available. It includes a sophisticated natural voice recognition system that works exceptionally well, even to change radio stations. For a small and inexpensive vehicle, the Infinity premium audio system sounds good, too.
Generally speaking, thanks to its intuitive design, helpful shortcut buttons on either side of the screen, and knobs for both stereo power/volume and tuning, the Kona’s infotainment system is a good example of the technology done right.
Storage and Space
If Kona owners are happy with the infotainment system, storage and space each get a frowny face. People buy SUVs for utility, and they expect even small ones to be more useful and practical than a car. The Kona, equipped with a modest 6.7 inches of ground clearance, has less useful storage and cargo space than a Hyundai Elantra GT hatchback.
Within the cabin, aside from a sizable glove compartment, the Kona has a remarkable lack of useful storage. Even the door panel bins are skimpy. And the wireless smartphone charger is placed at the bottom of the main center console tray rather on the shelf above, making it hard to use this location for storage if you also plan to use wireless charging.
The Kona’s trunk is small, too, and while Hyundai advertises a volume of 19.2 cu.-ft., it is hard to see how the company arrives at that number. Maximum volume with the back seat folded down is 45.8 cu.-ft., which is on the small side even for this segment.
Visibility and Safety
Outward visibility from the Kona’s driver’s seat is not a problem thanks to an unobstructed view forward, large side mirrors, and a rear backup camera with guidance lines. The Ultimate trim level also comes with a head-up display that shows the speed limit for the road on which you’re traveling, your current speed, blind spot warnings, and the status of other driving aids.
Speaking of which, the Kona offers a full complement of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS), newly expanded with the addition of adaptive cruise control to Ultimate trim. The Kona SE gets the basics, including forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warning with lane keeping assist. The SEL trim level adds blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic warning. Pedestrian detection and adaptive cruise control are reserved for the Ultimate trim level.
During testing, the Kona’s ADAS worked smoothly, and neither the lane departure warning nor the collision warning systems proved overly sensitive or startling when issuing alerts.
Crash-test results include a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and a 5-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In all individual crash-protection assessments from both organizations, the Kona earns the highest rating possible.
Kona owners do not rate this SUV’s engine and transmission high on their list of favorite things about the vehicle.
One reason for that could be the fairly modest 2.0-liter 4-cylinder in the SE, SEL, and SEL Plus trim levels, which makes a meager 147 horsepower and 132 lb.-ft. of torque but is bolted to a satisfying 6-speed automatic transmission. The other reason for that could be the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT) that is paired with the turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine that comes in Limited and Ultimate trim levels.
Based on experience with the Kona Ultimate, the turbocharged engine is perfectly suited to this SUV. It makes 175 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque, the latter of which the Kona surfs like a wave from 1,500 rpm to 4,500 rpm. Acceleration is quick and satisfying, making it easy to accelerate onto freeways, pass slower vehicles, and get up to speed on multi-lane highways. Plus, turbocharged engines always perform better at altitude, in places like Denver and Salt Lake City.
As for the DCT, I’m fond of this type of transmission, though I understand that some people are not. A DCT is basically an automated manual gearbox, and when you shift into gear or you release the brake and step on the accelerator, some DCTs exhibit a delay or some unexpected unevenness in power delivery, or both. The one in the Kona is more refined than many, exhibiting little of the hesitation during initial acceleration that is common to these types of transmissions.
Additional drivetrain characteristics include Normal and Sport driving modes, and an optional active all-wheel-drive system that adds a couple hundred pounds to the Kona.
The test vehicle did not have AWD, but it did have both torque steer and a strange wobble in the powertrain at idle that I’ve never experienced in a Kona with AWD. While sitting at a traffic light or in a restaurant drive-thru line, you can feel the subtle, rhythmic wobble as the Kona idles in gear.
Note that Hyundai also sells an electric version of the Kona that offers an impressive 258 miles of range on a single battery charge and is priced at less than $38,500 before applying any federal, state, or local tax incentives or rebates.
When equipped with the turbocharged engine and FWD, the Kona is rated by the EPA to get 30 mpg in combined driving (27 mpg with AWD). On the mountainous testing loop, the Kona returned 28.2 mpg, with part of the route driven with enthusiasm with the SUV in Sport mode.
I’ve been a fan of the zippy Kona turbo since it debuted for the 2018 model year, but this example simply was not as much fun to drive as I recall from previous outings with the SUV. Two factors are likely to blame.
First, without AWD, the Kona’s turbocharged engine easily attempts to spin the front wheels while torque steer tries to twist the steering wheel out of the driver’s hands. This makes it harder to get the power down to the ground in an efficient and effective way.
Second, front-drive Konas have a less sophisticated torsion beam rear axle suspension design, which can negatively impact driving dynamics. With AWD, you get an independent rear suspension design for a more controlled ride and more athletic handling. Plus, the rear drive unit adds a little more weight down low in the SUV, likely lowering the center of gravity a smidge while slightly altering the front-to-rear weight distribution.
All in, the improvements to the Kona’s driving dynamics make the $1,400 price for AWD worthy of your consideration because the upgrade isn’t solely about extra traction in slippery conditions. Based on my experience, the front-drive Kona Ultimate feels more nose heavy and prone to understeer, less planted in terms of ride motions and roll control, and is less engaging to drive than the Kona AWD.
Still, in comparison to most other small SUVs, any turbocharged Kona is a relative riot on pavement. But that driving enjoyment comes at something of a cost in terms of outright practicality and off-roading capability.
When you buy a new Hyundai Kona, you get expressive design, enjoyable driving dynamics, solid build quality, and impressive technologies. These characteristics make the small SUV irresistible even before you take into consideration its excellent warranty and roadside assistance programs, three years of free maintenance, and free Blue Link connected services for three years.
Just make sure you go turbo, and AWD.
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