Just like Bradley Cooper briefly pretended to be a sort of hokey college frat boy in his early movie roles in Wedding Crashers and Failure to Launch – because that was the way to get work as a young white kid in Hollywood in 2005 – Hyundai has abandoned even the faintest sense that its new Kona crossover is an off-road-capable vehicle. I mean, who was to know after dropping this one-dimensional image that there was, in fact, a supreme talent, Oscar-nominated actor and director beneath it all? We’re talking about Cooper, not the Kona, of course. Although the high-riding hatch is also up for some awards, including the Auto Trader South African Car of the Year.
So, Kona, what’s with the name? Well, like a cultural convention ingrained in South Korea, they’re a nation that loves to name things after, almost in homage to freedoms espoused in the West. This speaks to the pragmatism and aspiration of the nation. In business, a Korean will actually assume a western name like David or John, purely for ease of communication with westerners. It’s the same with the firm’s products. Named after American cities; Tucson and Santa Fe roll of the tongue somewhat better than Ulsan or Seongnam, not so? The etymology of Kona is the same, named after a district in the idyllic American island of Hawaii as it. But before we breakout out the flower garlands and hula dancers, we need to put it to the test.
All the elements are present and correct for the Kona to be the coolest Korean export since K-pop. Penned by new design boss, Luc Donkerwolke; freshly poached from Lamborghini, Bentley and Audi, for an affordable crossover it certainly looks the edgy part. The wide trapezoidal grille and separation of the headlight main beam, LED daytime running lights and fog lights may seem at odds with traditional Korean design virtues, but spend time with it and you realise it works well. As does integration between the lights and the dark plastic body cladding around the wheel arches; even the additional slit below the bonnet line nails the design brief. Same deal at the rear end of the car, the i20 look is bolstered with body cladding and LED tail lamps, while the stylised C-pillars give the sense the car is sleeker than it really is. Integrated roof rails and 17-inch multi-spoke rims complete the package. It’s like a Nissan Juke that doesn’t make you loathe it the instant you clap eyes on it.
Stepping inside, one quickly realises this is a far better-built car than a lot of the Indian–sourced offerings clogging up today’s crossover carpark. The Ford EcoSport commands the lion’s share of B–crossover market share, a sizeable 33%, but it and another offering made in India, the Hyundai Creta, aren’t even in the same area code as the Korean–sourced Kona’s quality and refinement. There’s very good reason for this. Hyundai creates its own advanced, high-strength steel in Korea. It’s the same with Hyundai Robotics, the firm’s most cutting–edge automation takes place at the Ulsan plant. In fact, building cars is just one arm beneath the Hyundai Corporation’s umbrella, which has 32 different business concerns all told: from logistics, to shipping, to engineering, to finance, to software and even hotels, everything it needs to build better cars. In business they call this ‘vertical integration’; in the real world it means better cars for the end user. In that respect a R379 900 Kona may be R30 000 more expensive than an equivalent Creta from the subcontinent, but the sophistication is tangible and there should be zero cannibalisation here. It’s Kona all the way in our book.
This superiority is largely thanks to the arrival of a new downsized, turbocharged petrol engine, the first of its kind for Hyundai in South Africa. The 1.0–litre turbo triple takes over the role of old four–pot 1.4 and 1.6 motors. Making 88 kW/172 Nm, delivered to the road via a sweet six-speed manual transmission and front–wheel drive, a naturally aspirated MPI 2.0–litre is available with a so–so automatic only, but the 1.0 TGDI is undoubtedly the pick. It’s smooth and torquey in just the right rev band and Hyundai SA is actually understating its fuel economy at 6.8 l/100 km. On our rigorous test regimen we achieved better than claimed, which is unheard of these days. 6.5 l/100 km or even a little better is entirely attainable in the real world. If the 1.0 TGDI could be equipped with stop/start technology it would dip closer to the 6.0 l/100 km threshold for really economical cars.
The three–cylinder din is somewhat muted in our Executive spec car, despite some spunky pulling power when you’re in the narrow torque band. At higher speeds it’s nicely geared and pulls along in top gear without having to stir the gearbox. Although that’s no hardship, mind you, as the shifts have a pleasant spring–loaded action through the gate and the clutch action from standstill is nice and easy. Be warned, however, anything below 1500 rpm and you’re going nowhere slowly, especially if there are steep hills in the vicinity. Weighing in at 1200 kg+ means it’s not exactly going to perform like a rocket ship and 0-100 km/h in 12 seconds, with a top speed of 181 km/h confirms that fact.
This contradicts the fact that for the amount of power available, it’s a real sweet handler. Even with its torsion beam rear suspension, and 170 mm of ground clearance – which would turn most crossovers into wallowy whatnots – the ride quality to swallow up potholes and speed bumps is excellent, while the steering is very accurate and the change of direction downright engaging. All the effort in delivering top–notch rigidity is felt with every turn of the wheel.
This all gets me thinking about pizza, weirdly. What is a pizza when you really think about it? Toppings arranged on a doughy base. But if you took a pizza apart and stacked the slices on top of one another instead, it wouldn’t be nearly as appealing as when they were organised in a circular pie, am I right? Likewise, if you decided to divide the individual toppings per slice, the end product would be nowhere near as satisfying as when they’re spread evenly across the entire pizza. Hyundai has hit the balance on the Kona just perfectly. A comfortable, roomy (360–litre boot capacity), economical, good value and easygoing crossover that doesn’t purport to be any sort of faux 4×4. As an overall package it works beautifully, as a style exercise it’s totally covetable and, crucially, as an end product it brings forth the full might of the Hyundai Corporation.
In a nutshell
Hyundai Kona 1.0 TGDI Executive
In a nutshell
K-pop cool, sweet dynamics
Engine: 998 cc, 3-cylinder turbo petrol
Power: 88 kW @ 6 000 rpm, 172 Nm @ 1500 – 4 000 rpm
Performance tested: 0-100 km/h 12 sec, top speed 181 km/h
Tyres: 215/55 R17
Economy: 6.8 l/100 km (claimed)
Transmission: 6-speed manual
CO2 emissions: 138 g/km
Price: R 379 900