What Is It?
This is the Hyundai Kona, a small, B-segment crossover which launched back in 2017 as a fairly straightforward – if interestingly styled – semi-urban runaround. It came with modest petrol and diesel engines, and was generally a so-so contender in a growing class of accomplished rivals. Like many Hyundais, it strengths were that it was extremely well equipped, it had a strong warranty, it was ergonomically sound and great value for money, and on the other hand its weaknesses were that it wasn’t particularly exciting nor memorable to drive.
Fast forward to the 2020s and the Kona has undergone a major image makeover, which now makes it one of the most interesting and versatile models in its class. Indeed, while it is physically no larger than before, the improved spread of Kona variants you can get has allowed Hyundai to launch another B-segment crossover – the Bayon – in the interim, which in turn lets the Kona push ever further upmarket and sort of reinvent itself as a pseudo-C-segment machine.
Nowadays, you can get the Kona in 1 of 4 overarching flavours: there are the mild-hybrid electric vehicle (MHEV) models as the entry point to ownership; then there’s an enhanced full Hybrid (HEV) version a little further up the tree, for those who want some electric driving capability but who aren’t ready to abandon internal combustion entirely; and for those who are ready to embrace the zero-emissions future, there’s the Kona Electric – yep, its name does what it says on the tin.
Finally, enlarging Hyundai’s growing and already highly critically appraised ‘N’ go-faster division, there’s a Kona with the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine from an i30 N installed under its snub bonnet, giving us the storming Kona N… and allowing you to make endless references to a certain 1982 sandals-and-swords epic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you’re so inclined, of course. Ahem.
Here, we’re testing the range-topping Kona N (the Barbaria…N… sorry) performance model, but much of what holds true about the 280hp version applies to the more humdrum variants in the Hyundai’s range. So let’s find out what’s hot and what’s not about the Kona in 2022.
What’s Good About It?
Always strikingly designed, the Kona’s facelift in 2020 toned down its dramatic appearance to good effect, and also sought to clearly differentiate the Kona Electric from the rest of the line-up by giving it a largely smooth, featureless front end. Whichever model you choose, however, you’re getting a good-looking machine.
However, no Kona has ever looked better than the N. With its big 18-inch alloys, lowered stance, meatier lower body kit and roof-mounted rear spoiler, the high-performance aesthetic suits the Kona’s lines brilliantly.
The inside is another big plus point, because the interior feels very high quality and it’s laid out in an intuitive, easy-to-grasp fashion. You also get lots of toys on the Kona, even on SE Connect entry-level models, but once you stride up to something like the N, then luxuries such as heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, a Krell premium audio system, adaptive cruise control, a head-up display, a fully digital instrument cluster and a wireless smartphone charging pad are just some of the highlights of a truly extensive kit list. Few rivals the Kona has boast as many standard toys as this Korean crossover, that’s for sure.
What Could Be Better?
The Kona has never been the roomiest for passengers seated in the second row of the car and that remains the case now. It’s not bad back there by any means, but legroom is adequate rather than amazing if you’re a taller adult. Also, some of the material finishing isn’t as impressive in the rear of the Hyundai as it is in the front, which is a sign of careful cost-cutting by its parent carmaker.
What’s It Like To Drive?
The Kona MHEV, Hybrid and Electric models are all very impressive, smooth and refined to drive. They cover ground effortlessly and gracefully, and while they might not have standout steering nor much in the way of chassis sparkle, they’re all perfectly well-sorted crossovers when compared to the prevailing dynamic standards of this class.
However, the Kona N is something else entirely. It is quite, quite remarkable how well this thing drives, it really is – to the point that it’s such a good performance crossover-SUV, that we feel perfectly comfortable in mentioning it in the same breath as some of the most exalted vehicles of this type, like the Porsche Macan GTS and Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio. Both of which are far bigger and far more expensive than the Hyundai.
You notice the engineering genius which has gone into the Kona N through the steering, at first. It takes barely 50 yards and a few exploratory turns of the wheel in your hands for you to be astounded by just how good the set-up is on the Hyundai. It’s full of feedback and nice, hefty weighting, and we’d even say it’s better than the steering on the i30 N hot hatch – perhaps even matching the smaller i20 N for feels.
Then there’s the damping. The Kona N can firm up or slacken off its ride quality depending on which of the 5 drive modes you opt for, and there are some who would say it is too frenetic and busy in full ‘N’. To which we’d begrudgingly accept that it is pretty demented on the roads in its most aggressive mode, although there’s no doubting it’s enormous fun at the same time by way of recompense. That said, in Sport or Normal, it rides with a taut but limber elegance, and so not only is it exceptional in the corners, it’s comfortable enough that long motorway journeys conducted at 70mph are an absolute breeze.
Nevertheless, it’s the handling, speed and noise of the thing that sticks with you. Despite having the same 280hp and 392Nm peaks as the i30 N DCT, and despite weighing about 70kg more than its hatchback relation, the Kona N has a 5.5-second claimed 0-62mph time if you put it into Launch Control. This isn’t because it has all-wheel drive – indeed, it channels all of its 2.0-litre’s grunt through the front axle and a mechanical limited-slip diff alone – but that time is 4/10ths quicker than the fastest i30 can manage it.
And the Kona feels every bit as muscular as it is claimed to be, mainly because it deploys its power so cleanly but also because it sounds tremendous while doing so. Few, if any, 4-cylinder turbocharged petrol engines sound as good as this Korean rocket, its song augmented by plenty of pops, rumbles and bangs from the standard-fit Active Exhaust system. Such aural histrionics help embellish the impression the Kona N is going even faster than it is, which is already fairly damn fast indeed.
Brilliantly, it doesn’t all fall apart in the corners, where the Kona N feels energised, involving and just downright phenomenal fun. It’ll move around on the throttle, it has grip aplenty from its wide sports tyres, and despite being a taller crossover, the body control is such that the 280hp Kona doesn’t actually feel SUV-ish. It merely conveys itself like what it is – a startlingly talented hot hatch that just so happens to stand a bit taller on the tarmac. Enthusiasts might therefore still veer towards the i20 and i30 N models first and foremost, but there’s a good argument to be said that this Kona N is the most amazing performance-car achievement that Hyundai has put out so far.
How Practical Is It?
As we’ve already said, the Kona isn’t the roomiest in the back, but a 361-litre boot is fairly useful in this class of crossovers. That figure rises to 1143 litres if you fold the Kona N’s rear seats down. For the MHEV and Hybrid models, that all-seats-up number increases to 374 litres, although on the Electric it drops to 332 litres, so pick the zero-emission model carefully if you’re after the most cargo capacity.
Elsewhere, the Hyundai’s cabin is replete with the sort of stowage touches you’d expect in the modern age – good cupholders, a sizeable glovebox, door pockets with scalloped-out receptacles for bottles, cubbies in various places – that make it every bit as practical as other family cars in this compact class, while its exterior form (just 4.2 metres long) means it is easy to park. Not only that, but rear parking sensors and a reversing camera are standard on all Kona models, while from Premium spec and upwards front parking sensors are also added to the mix.
How Much Will It Cost Me?
The cheapest way to drive a Hyundai Kona is with the MHEV models, which are available in 4 specifications – SE Connect, N Line, Premium and Ultimate. All of these are fitted with the 1.0-litre T-GDi turbocharged 3-cylinder petrol engine plus a 48-volt mild-hybrid system and 6-speed intelligent manual transmission (iMT), with a peak output of 120hp.
The Hybrid, meanwhile, is a little more expensive and teams a normally aspirated 1.6-litre petrol engine with a 1.56kWh lithium-ion battery and 32kW electric motor for a total output of 141hp, sent to the front wheels via a 6-speed DCT dual-clutch gearbox.
Moving over to the full Electric, it is considerably more expensive to lease or buy than the Hybrid, but it is also sold in SE Connect, Premium and Ultimate trims, and comes with a choice of battery packs – the standard range (39.2kWh) or the long range (64kWh), with 189 miles of 1-shot range from the former and up to 300 miles to a charge from the latter. Bear in mind that, while both versions deliver the same 395Nm peak torque, if you go for the smaller-batteried Kona Electric then you get a 100kW (136hp) e-motor, while the long-range version comes with a 150kW (204hp) unit instead for improved driving performance.
The Kona N is the flagship of the entire family and therefore costs the most to lease, and it will also cost the most to run with its powerful petrol engine. It comes in just 1 generously equipped specification and is sold with an 8-speed DCT gearbox alone.
In terms of running costs, for any of the Kona models with an internal combustion engine onboard, they’re not bad at all. The 1.0-litre MHEV delivers around 46-47mpg and 135-138g/km of CO2, depending on trim spec, while the Hybrid 1.6 improves those data to 55-57mpg and 112-115g/km. The N isn’t appalling for fuel economy, with a claimed 33.2mpg WLTP combined, but its 194g/km of CO2 emissions will make it reasonably pricey to tax.
The obvious winner here is the Kona Electric, which emits no CO2 and therefore qualifies for the lowest rates of both road (VED) and benefit-in-kind (BIK) taxes, while it will do between 4.2 and 4.3 miles/kWh on its electric reserves, according to which battery version you choose.
Anything Else I Should Know?
‘Kona’ is one of the western districts of the island of Hawaii, which is where the Korean crossover gets its unusual name from. And don’t go asking us about what it means in Portuguese, either – we’ll simply say that, in that particular Iberian country, the car is marketed as the Kauai, which is another region of Hawaii if you’re interested.
What Alternatives Should I Look At?
The Puma has similar MHEV choices to the Kona and a superb performance variant, too, in the form of the 200hp ST, yet Ford has no all-electric Puma model to call upon.
Another genre-straddling crossover, this time from VW, and there’s a hot 300hp R model – but far fewer electrification options for the T-Roc than the Kona.
Can match up to the Kona Hybrid and has smart looks, although there are neither electric nor performance versions of the Toyota C-HR.
3 Things To Remember About The Hyundai Kona N:
It’s a reasonably practical crossover underneath it all
Tremendous fun to drive
Strong performance from 2.0-litre engine