Hyundai Kona is a subcompact contender

Automakers have been trying, with mixed success, to build a subcompact sport-utility vehicle that people actually like to drive. It’s a tough challenge. The only models we’ve truly taken a shine to are the Buick Encore and Jeep Renegade, mostly because they have front-seat leg room sufficient for a 6-foot-tall driver. But in general, compact models like the Mazda CX-5 and Honda CR-V seem to strike a better balance in categories such as front-seat comfort, cargo room and good fuel economy.

Now that the Hyundai Kona has entered the competition, the list of subcompact SUVs we consider acceptable has grown by one. We might feel differently if we hadn’t been given a Kona in Ultimate trim, the highest level. The Ultimate comes with Hyundai’s 1.6-liter turbocharged inline Four, which produces 175 horsepower — a giant step up from the standard 147-horsepower, normally aspirated Four.

The Ultimate was, indeed, loaded with features. In addition to all-wheel drive, it had a full array of safety features, power sunroof, leather upholstery, heated front seats, head-up display, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, satellite radio, wireless device charging, navigation system and 8-inch color touchscreen. The addition of a single option — carpeted floor mats — nudged the sticker price over $30,000.

The base Kona SE starts at $19,990. Less powerful than the Limited and Ultimate versions, the front-wheel-rive Kona SE matches but doesn’t exceed the fuel economy achieved in the higher trim levels. With all-wheel drive, our Kona Ultimate test car was rated at 26 mpg city, 29 highway.

The Kona was fairly engaging to drive, with quick acceleration, crisp handling and good lines of sight to all corners. The split back seat folds down easily to yield about 46 cubic feet of cargo room — enough to accommodate three adult golf bags and two foldable hand carts, and a passenger. But we should note we subjected a Mazda3 hatchback to the same test and it passed, too.

2019 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD

Price: $30,005

Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged inline Four, 175 horsepower, 195 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic

Drive: all-wheel

Weight: 3,256 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear

Wheels: 18x7.5-in. alloy

Tires: P235/45R18 all-season

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 19.2 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 45.8 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons

Fuel economy: 26 mpg city, 29 mpg highway

Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline

If we had a qualm about the Kona, it was the car’s noise level at highway speeds. While the engine and dual-clutch automatic transmission didn’t raise much ruckus, the tires generated more than their share of road noise. The functionally similar Kia Soul we drove a few weeks before the Kona was significantly quieter.

Introduced last year, the Kona has enjoyed strong U.S. sales — 47,090 in 2018, and well ahead of that pace this year. Hyundai builds several SUVs of varying sizes, from the Kona to the compact Tucson, midsize Santa Fe and full-sized Palisade, a new model for this year. Major competitors include the Chevrolet Trax, the Encore, Nissan Kicks, Mazda CX-3, Ford EcoSport, Subaru CrossTrek, Toyota C-HR, Jeep Renegade and Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross.

Hyundai also offers an all-electric version of the Kona, priced at about $37,000. Its range is estimated at 258 miles, and the high price tag is softened by Connecticut and federal incentives totaling $9,500.

The Kona has been rated a Top Safety Pick Plus by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Steven Macoy ( is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel.