It was a year ago almost to the day that I traipsed to the far left side of the country to test out a new small utility vehicle, hotly anticipated and one that was about to become an instant leader in its segment. The Hyundai Kona, in the eyes of many a Canadian motorist, simply has everything, from a varied trim lineup to great fuel economy to a highly appealing shape.
Fast forward a year, and I was back behind the wheel of the most compelling Kona model aside from the one I can plug into my electrical outlet. The buzz around the new Kona Electric is certainly loud and sustained – especially now that the federal government’s new iZEV EV incentive program is in place, but one shouldn’t forget about the other two variants powered by 4-cylinder gas engines. The tester I got to play with was the 2019 Hyundai Kona 1.6T Ultimate, version sitting at the top of the non-EV Kona lineup.
The idea was to see if this version is still as convincing a choice in this segment. It’s worth noting, by the by, that the Kona is still the newest addition in this category, unless you count the fully overhauled 2020 Kia Soul, arriving in dealerships this summer (stay tuned for our road test).
Not a wrinkle!
While it no longer has the element of surprise playing in its favour, personally I find this small SUV as interesting a product as ever. Ultimately consumers will decide if they like it or not, but a quick look at the year-to-date sales figures for Canada shows that many of these consumers are deciding they like it just fine. It’s still the teacher’s pet, evidently… though we’ll see what happens when the brand-new 2020 Hyundai Venue makes its debut this coming fall!
The acid-yellow colour of my tester might not be for everyone, I’ll admit, but rest assured the Kona comes in a range of palatable colours. Other visual elements that have gotten a rave reception after a year on our roads? The grey plastic wheel arches, the three-part rear light cluster and the floating roof at the back, etc.
I should mention also the high quality of the exterior construction, because that’s not always a given in this budget-conscious segment.
The second choice… after the electric?
I mentioned earlier that this version of the Kona is the second most appealing one in the model lineup, after the Kona Electric. Why is this? Well, factor in the federal government’s new iZEV program, combined with the existing provincial programs in place in Quebec and British Columbia, and all of a sudden the Electric is much more accessible to many potential buyers.
In Quebec, for instance, the new $5,000 discount offered by Ottawa comes on top of the $8,000 discount offered by the provincial government, bringing the starting price of the entry-level Kona Electric to $36,000 – only marginally higher than the $34,000 price tag of the Kona Ultimate 1.6T (both prices include the transport/prep charges).
I should add that Hyundai also offers the turbo engine of this variant in the Trend trim, which sells for a shade over $29,000 (with the aforementioned charges).
All this is not the only reason I place the 1.6T version of the Kona behind the Electric. There’s also the matter of what’s produced by each powertrain. The Electric’s motor delivers the equivalent of 201 hp, which is 26 more than the gas-fed Kona. And the difference in torque is even more striking, with the Electric being propelled explosively by 291 lb-ft of it, while the 1.6T makes do with 195 lb-ft of torque.
On the other hand, the 1.6T Kona does have the considerable advantage of being equipped with all-wheel drive, which the Kona electric does not get - at least not this year!
An upgrade in driving pleasure
My initial drive in British Columbia last spring was a first date with a nimble, fun-to-drive little SUV with a turbo engine well-suited to the body it propelled. The base powertrain, centered on a 2.0L naturally aspirated 4-cylinder, was a rather clunky and unrefined affair compared to the 1.6L turbo. Can you tell I prefer the latter unit? Not only does it deliver more horses and torque, but it also comes with a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission that sportifies the Kona’s performance very nicely, thank you very much.
All in all, this second, longer date with the 1.6T – in Quebec this time - was somewhat less exhilarating than the first one in B.C. Still, I found the small Korean utility model as likeable this time as I did then. While not as surgical in its handling at the Mazda CX-3, the Kona comes pretty darn close. The stiff chassis, the firm-but-no-overly-so suspension and the fairly tight steering all help it get there. And the AWD is definitely a noteworthy additional asset. That dual-clutch transmission I mentioned is clearly a step up from what’s on offer in the base model, but it’s not quite as sporty in its execution as what you’ll find in most German models, for example.
A word about the interior
I really like the simplicity of the Kona’s dashboard, the appropriate placement of the climate control vents and the steering wheel, pleasant to grip. I even appreciated the acid yellow elements that manage to add light to the cabin, otherwise fairly dark due to the black and grey panels.
Driving position is excellent as well, as is the ergonomically sound shape of the steering wheel. The seating is a little hard, if only to remind you of the vehicle’s humble origins. Another element worth weighing is space, specifically in the second row. If you plan on ferrying people around, it is a little on the tight side in back. That said, you can find a lot worse in the segment. The trunk is not massive either, certainly not in the same league as what you get in the Honda HR-V, for example.
The verdict, redux
The Kona has sold like hotcakes in Canada in the year between my first and second encounters with it. Am I surprised? Absolutely not. Hyundai has managed to implant itself in a hugely popular segment because it delivers a quality product, and a trim line that appeals to many different customers. What’s more, the higher ground clearance and all-wheel drive increase the Kona’s versatility, a big plus in comparison with many cars.
The 2019 Hyundai Kona 1.6T is lots of fun to drive in the city and perfectly capable on the highway. Despite its small size, this SUV manages to mask the fact that it’s really a car on high legs.