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Exclusive: 2018 Hyundai Kona First Drive

Good Things, Small Packages, A Little Bit Late By ,

Automakers are rushing to poke as many holes in the crossover dam as possible so they can drain the seemingly endless pent-up consumer demand for all-wheel drive haulers straight into their respective corporate coffers. The 2018 Hyundai Kona might not be the biggest bucket in which to catch the current crossover zeitgeist, but subcompact SUVs like this latest Korean effort are siphoning off substantial heat from the sedan and hatchback segments, making them far more important than their diminutive stature might suggest.

The Hyundai Kona feels the burn a little more than most of its subcompact rivals because, like the Toyota CH-R, it's a bit late to the party. Set to arrive at dealerships during the first quarter of 2018, the Kona has some catching up to do. Fortunately I was able to make the trip to Hyundai's Namyang research and development facility in Namyang, South Korea to get a head-start behind the wheel of this upcoming up-and-coming sport-utility.

All the right ingredients
On paper, everything looks good: the Kona boasts a pair of four-cylinder engines, two transmission options, available all-wheel drive and a starting price predicted to hover just over the $20,000 mark. In person, the crossover makes an even stronger first impression thanks to its shark-eyed, big-grille forward styling, flowing profile and chunky rear.

Despite the fact that those descriptors sound like they might be incongruous when taken all together, the Kona's design brief is cohesive and appealing, and represents one of the few times when plastic body cladding actually adds to, rather than subtracts from, the visual equation. Credit goes to Hyundai for its ability to match the mouldings to the cuts and curves in the crossover's sheet metal, particularly on the doors as well as the rear taillight housings.

Inside, things are simpler but no less appealing, as the Hyundai Kona offers a full range of equipment and features that will be familiar to fans of the brand. In addition to a choice of touchscreen infotainment systems (propped up in front of the dash in an easy-to-reach spot), the Kona can be had with cloth or leather upholstery, automatic climate control, navigation and a full suite of active safety gear that includes forward collision warning with automatic braking, blind spot monitoring and pedestrian detection.

Dimensionally, the Hyundai Kona fits somewhere in the middle of its crossover cohort, falling behind more spacious options like the Honda HR-V but bypassing the tight confines of the Mazda CX-3, tying it with the boxier Jeep Renegade when it comes to practicality. Despite its relatively modest size, the Hyundai features a liveable rear seat for adults and offers 850 litres of cargo space behind it (with more available by folding the back bench forward).

Good power, comfortable ride
Small typically means 'fun' from a driving perspective, or at least as 'fun' as a task-focused SUV can get in a modern context. The Kona makes the most of its relatively lightweight design to offer pleasing dynamics and comfort for such an affordable vehicle. My time behind the wheel of the crossover was limited to Hyundai's Namyang handling course and straight-line acceleration pad, but I was able to gain at least a little insight into the vehicle's top-tier 1.6L turbocharged 4-cylinder drivetrain.

Paired with a 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission, the motor's (roughly) 180 horsepower was a good match for motivating the Kona's mass, proving itself worthy both off of the line and when simulating passing above the 60 km/h mark. My tester was equipped with all-wheel drive, which brings with it a multi-link rear suspension to replace the front-wheel drive model's torsion beam design. Although a back-to-back comparison wasn't possible, I was impressed by the calm with which the all-wheel drive Hyundai dispatched the troughs and manhole covers scattered across the noise, vibration and harshness portion of the test course.

All-wheel drive is also available to anyone who chooses the 150 horsepower-ish 2.0L 4-cylinder engine and 6-speed automatic transmission combo, and the system is set up to either manually lock and split torque 50/50 front and rear or automatically leap into action when called for by road conditions and available traction. Still, if you want the mightier motor you'll have to opt for one of the Kona's top two trims, as the entry-level models are restricted to the 2.0L unit.

Recipe for success
The 2018 Hyundai Kona seems destined to succeed on the Canadian market. Its larger siblings―the Santa Fe Sport and the Tucson―are perennial top 10 contenders among families seeking reliable and affordable daily transportation, and while the Kona might be more targeted towards couples seeking the practicality of a lifted hatchback rather than true family-friendly utility, adding a subcompact to the mix is only going to strengthen Hyundai's well-entrenched position.

Given that the platform won't be shared with corporate partner Kia, and that Hyundai is convinced small crossovers are siphoning off sedan shoppers rather than cannibalizing existing SUV customers, the Kona seems ready to add to, rather than subtract from, the company's bottom line.

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