What is it?
The Hyundai Kona is the South Korean company’s second-smallest SUV, positioned above the diminutive Venue and below the slightly larger Tucson. Based on the i30 and first introduced in 2017, the model has been treated to a big refresh for the 2021 model year, with it now sporting a new look, updated drivetrains, and a revamped and less-confusing range.
On test here is one of the newly-added N Line versions, which is now the only way of getting a turbocharged all-wheel drive version of the Kona, which is priced from $36,300 for the standard version on test here, while an even more lavishly-equipped Premium version charges a steep $42,400.
Why are we testing it?
With SUVs all the rage across the global car market these days, and the Kona one of the best-selling models in its class here in Australia, we were keen to get to grips with this drastically facelifted model to see what changes have been made, along with how well this sporty N Line model fits into the range – especially with a full-fat N version on the horizon.
What’s different on the outside compared to the old model?
While at the back, the Kona remains largely the same as before save for a new set of clear, almost Altezza-style taillights, plus some twin-tip exhaust pipes on this N Line version, everywhere else you look there are changes to be seen externally.
All versions feature a drastically redesigned front end which, while still adopting the two-tiered lighting layout, features a smaller grille, and surprisingly so given the current trend of enlarging radiator grilles to the point of ridiculousness. Granted, it’s wider than before, but it’s narrower and looks far better as a result. The lower lip design of the N Line version and additional vents above the grille – which are fake here, but I imagine would be real on the Kona N – give it a nicely aggressive look. It won’t be for everyone, I’ll admit, but I think they’ve finally made this thing look the part.
Most variants feature new wheel designs, too, with the N Line’s 18-inchers the most aggressive of the lot and coming shod in some quality Continental rubber to boot. The most drastic change of all, though, is the N Line’s body-coloured wheel arches which put in the greatest effort towards making the Kona finally look rather smart and sophisticated. Lesser models in the range still feature huge black plastic arches though – pah!
What’s it like inside?
With the Kona being shorter and narrower than the i30 Hatch that it’s based on, one downside to its cabin has always been how tight and cramped it feels in comparison, and how much boot space you lose (374 litres compared to the i30’s 395 litres) as well, even if the flat loading floor is handy. This is not to say that it’s too tight a cabin though, as I’m certainly able to fit comfortably up front or in back at 6’2″, but it does seem counterintuitive to make an SUV that’s less practical than the hatch it’s based on.
Regardless, the interior is typical Hyundai for the most part, meaning that although there’s a mixed bag of materials inside – there a lot of patterned plastic, but it doesn’t feel overly cheap, and there’s plenty of perforated leather on things like the steering wheel, seats, and N-branded shift knob to make up for it – it does feel to be bolted together well, with no rattles or squeaks to be heard and no loose or flimsy bits of trim to be felt.
The N-branded seats and steering wheel do the most to bring it up a notch, with the red stitching and piping on them adding a nice dash of colour – the seats offer decent side support and the wheel’s nicely sized, it’s worth adding – as do the bits of red anodised trim around the air vents, while the black headliner and metal sports pedals certainly help it deliver a classier and sportier cabin feel as well.
Sitting atop the dashboard is a new 10.25-inch infotainment screen with integrated satellite navigation, digital radio, and wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s a slick system with a high-res display and plenty of real estate to allow for having multiple functions displayed side-by-side on it. Granted, lesser models which feature a smaller 8.0-inch touchscreen with different software feature wireless Apple CarPlay, but as I’ve found in the i30 and Kia Rio I’ve previously tested, it’s a terribly glitchy system, so you’re better off plugging your phone in here. If you’re only using the regular Bluetooth there is a handy wireless charging mat ahead of the shifter to keep your phone battery topped up, and it’s thoughtfully had some vents added to it to prevent your phone from getting too hot as well.
An eight-speaker Harman Kardon audio system is also fitted on all models from the Elite up, as is keyless entry, push-button start, and a remote start function on the key fob that’s handy for warming it up on cold mornings before you head out. Most crucially, all models from the Elite up gain the complete suite of active safety tech that’s on offer for the Kona, with blind-spot monitoring, rear-cross traffic alert, and a safe exit warning system now added on top of features such as autonomous emergency braking and Level 2 semi-autonomous driving capability. A shame it’s not all standard across the range, but at least the additional functions are available on the majority of models.
N Line Premium models do score a new digital instrument cluster nabbed from the i30 Sedan, but being a rectangular design inside an oval-shaped housing it looks like an awkward afterthought – thankfully, then, the regular N Line version sports round mechanical dials with a 4.2-inch colour display in the middle which looks far more fitting.
Although there’s only single-zone climate control in the standard N Line, it does feature three automatic settings along with a clever automatic defogger function that works a treat on cold days. Sadly, though, there are no rear air vents like there are in the i30. At least there’s a centre armrest and a USB charging port with a slot for your phone to go next to it in the back, although the fact there’s only one USB port for each row (and no USB-C ports, either) is a tad disappointing, although there are two 12V sockets up front for sticking USB adapters into if you need more, at least.
On the whole, though, it’s a well-made and well-presented interior that only I only have a few minor gripes with. The amount of standard equipment it’s packing is definitely not one of them, though.
What’s it like to drive?
Two drivetrains are on offer in the 2021 Kona, both of which have been updated for the facelifted model. In base, Active, Elite, and Highlander models, there’s a new 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine backed by a CVT automatic and front-wheel drive that’s been lifted from the Kia Seltos, and although the new engine only makes an identical 110kW and 180Nm, it’s far more fuel efficient than before, sipping 6.2L/100km rather than the 7.2L/100km of before.
The drivetrain you really want is the one that’s reserved for the N Line, however, which pairs a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine making 146kW at 6000rpm (up from 130kW) and 265Nm from 1600-4500rpm with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and all-wheel drive. Importantly, N Line models also gain a sports suspension tune and multi-link independent rear suspension, while all front-drive variants use a cheaper torsion bar in the back. Larger 305mm front brakes (up from 280mm) give the turbo versions some added brake pedal confidence, too.
Utilised in a number of Hyundai and Kia models, the turbo engine at the heart of this drivetrain is a real peach – it’s very smooth and incredibly quiet, and packs plenty of low-end torque to help it feel gutsy enough off the line. Admittedly, it’s not at its most powerful here – the versions of it used in the i30 N Line, recently discontinued Veloster Turbo, and Kia Cerato GT make 150kW, and the i20 N will see it boast an extra 10Nm – but it makes the right amount of power for a vehicle like this. Plus, if you need more power than that, the 206kW Kona N will be here by the end of the year.
Personally, I think the DCT fitted to this N Line model is a good gearbox for the car and for the engine it’s paired to as well. A seven-speed dry clutch unit, it’s geared well and shifts pretty promptly and smoothly, especially when you utilise its tiptronic function, although it’s a crying shame that there isn’t a set of paddles behind the wheel given how responsive this gearbox is to manual commands. Admittedly, the ‘box can be caught off-guard in particularly choppy start-stop traffic, showing a little hesitance if it wants to shift up into second but you need to slow down again, but for the majority of driving you’ll be doing it’s pretty well on the money.
As you’d expect from Hyundai, given the company’s focus on locally-tuned Australian suspension setups, it delivers a ride that, while certainly on the ‘sportier’ side, has decent rebound and keeps it relatively balanced through the bends, and the all-wheel drive system – a front-biased setup, although it can be locked to a 50:50 split at the push of a button – helps it feel nice and tractable when you’re giving it some welly. The steering is pretty weighty, too, which lends itself well to the N Line’s sporting pretensions.
It’s a nice blend of a smooth and subtle daily driver with a decently punchy and grippy performer that brings some sporty looks with it to boot, and although it has some small weaknesses in both regards, on the whole it’s surprisingly impressive and feels to be a solid improvement over the pre-facelift model from behind the wheel.
How do the numbers stack up?
Personally, I think the $36,300 price point of the N Line represents impressive value given the performance, the fact it has standard all-wheel drive, and list of standard features that even includes some properly advanced stuff like Level 2 semi-autonomous driving. I don’t think you’ll really get the benefit of stepping up to the N Line Premium given how much it costs, and if you’re performance-minded as I am, the lesser 2.0-litre front-drive versions won’t tickle your fancy so much, so I personally reckon this is the sweet spot of the range.
Against its rivals, the Kona N Line manages to offer far more in the way of performance than most, including the Nissan Juke and Mazda CX-3 which both offer a number of comparable trim levels both marginally more or less expensive, along with the Suzuki Vitara Turbo and Skoda Kamiq 110TSI that both undercut it on price. On standard equipment, it matches the majority, if not bettering some with things like wireless phone charging, a brand-name audio system, and remote engine start that not all others feature. It offers more power than the turbocharged versions of the Kia Seltos that utilise the same platform, too, with them only managing to undercut the Kona N Line and N Line Premium by a few hundred dollars, so against its rivals it looks like an incredibly promising proposition.
Factor in a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty, as is to be expected in Australia these days, along with lifetime capped price servicing – which will cost just $319 for the first five services while it’s in warranty, although the cost per visit does rise beyond that – and it should be a good thing to own in the long run, too. Don’t fret about it having a dual-clutch transmission either if you’re used to the horror stories others have had with other manufacturers – Hyundai’s dry clutch units have proven themselves to be far more dependable than most over time.
So, what’s the verdict?
With this mid-life update, the Kona has been given a real boost of confidence, and this turbocharged N Line version that finally nails the look, delivers more power and a more taut feel behind the wheel, offers a great range of standard features, and does well on price against its rivals looks to be the pick of the bunch, although those not needing turbo power and after a softer ride will probably be best-served by the Elite specification.
The looks admittedly won’t be for everyone, and the fact it’s less practical inside while also more expensive than the hatch it’s based on is quite a drawback given the price tag, but beyond these minor gripes there’s an awful lot to like about the Kona – when you get the right spec.
I mightn’t have been the biggest fan of the Kona before now, but you can consider me very pleasantly surprised after my week with this one.
2021 Hyundai Kona N Line 1.6T DCT AWD List Price: $36,300
Pros: Smooth and quiet drivetrain with plenty of potency, solid list of standard features, looks far better than the pre-facelift model thanks to the body-coloured arches and smaller grille, best value buy in the facelifted range
Cons: Smaller than the i30 on which it’s based, no paddle shifters, no rear air vents, occasional DCT hesitancy in stop-start traffic
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Hyundai Motor Company Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel.