By Derek Price
One strange side effect of this year’s pandemic is its impact on used-car prices. If you haven’t looked lately, they’re through the roof.
That makes new cars like this — the small Hyundai Kona crossover that starts right around $20,000 — even more appealing.
The Kona is among a fast-growing class of vehicles that combines the best attributes of a seemingly incompatible pair: SUVs and compact cars.
With a choice of two four-cylinder engines obviously designed with fuel economy in mind, along with that close-to-used-car pricing, the Kona fills the need for basic transportation that once drove buyers into tiny sedans and coupes for commuter duty. But because of its SUV-style shape and fold-down seats, it looks and functions better for families.
In my week behind the wheel of the slightly changed 2020 Kona, I was pleasantly surprised at how nimble it feels. My tester was the Ultimate trim, which includes a tiny, 1.6-liter turbocharged engine and dual-clutch automatic transmission for snappier, quicker shifts. The base version comes with a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter engine and traditional six-speed automatic for a smoother sensation.
One nice addition for 2020 is adaptive cruise control on the Ultimate trim. It does a good job adjusting the car’s speed to the traffic in front of you. Hyundai also adds a bigger, 4.2-inch display and wireless charging to the SEL Plus and higher trim levels this year.
As I see it, though, the best thing about the Kona is how well-equipped the lower trim levels are. Even the base SE comes with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay for smartphone connectivity, plus sensors and intervention to avoid front collisions, lane keeping assist and a driver attention warning.
Visually, the Kona makes a big statement for a small vehicle. It looks larger than it actually is, both in photos and reality, with eye-catching creases, aggressively slanted accent lights and an oversized grille up front. Whether that’s attractive or not is up for debate, but it certainly fits the aesthetic of modern crossovers.
A low seating position combines with a fairly small back seat and cargo area to make it feel more like a compact car inside. Ample use of hard plastics shatters any illusions of grandeur, but the layout is impressively straightforward and easy to operate.
The same applies to its technology. Hyundai’s touchscreen interface is one of the simplest to use and fastest to respond to input, a weak point on many of its competitors.
Another thing I enjoyed about the Kona is harder to describe. It just feels spunky.
Whether it’s because of the refreshingly original and polarizing body, the snappy drivetrain on my tester or the taut suspension that was more enjoyable than the average crossover, something about the Kona makes me smile. It delivered a more emotional reaction than I was expecting — not in the way a sports car for driving enthusiasts would, but in a way that seems warm and happy. Good Volkswagens and Mazdas do the same thing, but it’s rare to experience that in a Korean car.
With front-wheel drive, pricing starts at $20,300 for the SE and ranges up to $27,750 for the Ultimate. All-wheel-drive versions start at $21,700 and peak at $29,350.
At A Glance
What was tested? 2020 Hyundai Kona Ultimate FWD ($27,750). Options: Carpeted floor mats ($135). Price as tested (including $1,095 destination charge): $28,980
Wheelbase: 102.4 in.
Length: 164 in.
Width: 70.9 in.
Height: 61.6 in.
Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged four cylinder (175 hp, 195 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Seven-speed dual clutch automatic
Fuel economy: 28 city, 32 highway
Why buy it?
With eye-catching looks, good fuel economy and a lot of content for the money, the Kona aims for the heart of value shoppers.