Isaac Bober’s 2018 Hyundai Kona Highlander Review with pricing, specs, performance, ride and handling, safety, verdict and score.

In a nutshell: The Kona Highlander sits at the top of the family tree boasting a lusty turbocharged engine, all-wheel drive and suspension and steering tuned in Australia.

2018 Hyundai Kona Highlander

Pricing $36,000+ORC Warranty 5 years, unlimited kilometres Safety Not tested yet Engine 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol Power 130kW at 5500rpm Torque 265Nm from 1500-4500rpm Transmission seven-speed DCT Drive on-demand all-wheel drive Dimensions 4165mm (L); 1800mm (W); 1550-1565mm (H); 2600mm (WB) Ground Clearance 170mm Angles 17-degrees (A); 29-degrees (D); 16-degrees (RO) Turning Circle 10.6m Boot Space 361L/1143L Spare Temporary space saver Weight 1414kg Fuel Tank 50 litres Thirst 6.7L/100km

THE COMPACT SUV segment is hotting up and Hyundai’s new Kona arrives as the vehicle most potential buyers are interested in in the brand’s history. Indeed, more than 40,000 visitors to Hyundai’s website asked to be kept informed about the wee thing.

Now, we all know those interested in the thing won’t all translate across to buyers, but it’s a good indicator of just how far Hyundai has come in such a short period of time. The vehicle we’re testing is the top-spec Kona Highlander with 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine and all-wheel drive. Hyundai is expecting early interest will be in this model before settling into a wider purchasing mix.

But, so you know, supply will be initially limited to around 1000 vehicles per month and, after our launch drive impression and our recent week-long test, we expect Hyundai to sell every single vehicle it can lay its hands on.

What is the Hyundai Kona Highlander?

The Kona is Hyundai’s new compact SUV and completes its SUV line-up. Like the Subaru Impreza and XV, the Kona shares its platform with the i30, a vehicle which you’ll all know we’re very fond of, although it’s a little shorter, taller, obviously, and offers more boot space and all-wheel drive.

Despite this being the top-spec model, it misses out on certain things the equivalent i30 Premium models get (because they weren’t made available for the Kona), like rear air vents (in the Kona you only get under-seat vents) and a panoramic glass roof as well as a full-size spare. More than this, the quality of the plastics in the cabin isn’t on the same level as the i30 Premium variants but this, I think, has been done to create a rough-and-tumble, hard wearing feel rather than any sort of penny pinching.

Indeed, Hyundai claims the Kona has been designed blend the look of the i30 from halfway up with rugged, armour-inspired cladding at the bottom… think of it like a mullet (the hairstyle) it’s party and business combined, if you get my meaning.

The Kona Highlander we’re testing lists from $36,000+ORC; you can also get a two-wheel drive Kona Highlander with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol from $33,000+ORC. The engine and all-wheel drive alone are worth the extra $3k ask over the 2WD variant.

If you look at the compact SUV segment, sales are dominated by two-wheel drive variants, which baffles me but, moving on, so it’s clever that Hyundai offers all variants with both engines and ‘drive’ set-ups. Our test car sits at the practical end of the segment along with the vehicle I believe to be the best in the segment, which is the Subaru XV and I say that because if you’re going to have a compact SUV it might as well be one with decent clearance and all-wheel drive rather than just be a slightly higher riding hatchback.

Now, the Kona falls short of the XV’s 220mm ground clearance and permanent all-wheel drive with its 170mm and on-demand system, but it fights back with a bigger boot, similar looks, a longer warranty, an AWD system that can be locked to distribute drive 50:50 in slippery conditions and below certain speeds, hill descent control and a complete active safety suite as well as a suspension and steering set-up tuned for Australia; the XV also had Aussie input into its ride and handling.

Beyond the XV, the obvious rivals are the Mazda CX-3, the Nissan Qashqai, a new one of which is launching here this month, the new VW T-Roc, Peugeot 3008, and Honda HR-V to name just a few. Pricing is line-ball against its competitors.

What’s the interior like?

Hyundai is fast becoming known for the quality of its interiors, both in terms of their simple, practical designs through to the materials used. That said, the Kona, even in Highlander spec, doesn’t feel quite as premium as the equivalent i30 and the handbrake feels cheap in the hands. In other areas of the cabin the hard, scratchy plastics make more sense and seem to have been used because of the rough and tumble nature of the vehicle.

The Kona follows the design path of the i30 but there are key differences separating the two, like the shape of the side air vents; the Kona gets circular vents while the i30 gets a trapezoidal shaped vent and, on the Konda, the centre air vents are oval and not on the i30. The i30 gets a lidded storage bin at the base of the centre stack while the Kona doesn’t; it just has a cubby hole.

The Kona also gets a conventional handbrake while the i30 gets an electric handbrake; this means you get slightly less storage space in the Kona but there’s still more than enough room for takeaway coffee cups (two cup holders) or 500ml water bottles and a narrower centre console thanks to the handbrake.

2017 Hyundai Kona

Like the i30, the Kona gets a tablet-esque infotainment screen that juts out from the top of the dashboard. It’s well positioned and can be both used and seen easily by the driver on the fly. There was some debate after our launch drive about the lack of native sat-nav; Hyundai’s clearly aiming the Kona at a younger demographic that is used to using its phone, but Hyundai is monitoring feedback and will potentially make an updated Kona available with both native sat-nav and smartphone connectivity. I did ask, at the launch, about whether installing native sat-nav was a simple plug and play sort of upgrade but was told it wasn’t, that the whole infotainment unit needed to be swapped out. Moving on.

2017 Hyundai Kona Review by Practical Motoring

The Kona Highlander’s front seats are the same as those in the i30 and are both comfortable and shaped to suit a variety of driver shapes and sizes. They’re powered seats for the driver and there’s good movement forwards and backwards and more of a tilt of the seat base than an actual seat raise. There’s good adjustment on the steering wheel too.

Vision right around from the driver’s seat is good, so too is the amount of storage. There’s a standard reversing camera with dynamic guidelines and a good field of view; the close-up performance of the camera is good but it blows out in low light.

2017 Hyundai Kona Review by Practical Motoring

The Kona Highlander gets a head-up display screen which can be stowed in the dash; I used it a couple of times and it works well with the speed displayed right where you want it in a way that doesn’t distract. But, it’s more a novelty than an essential in the Kona.

Climb into the back and there’s decent head, shoulder and legroom for someone my height; I set the front seat to suit me and then climbed in behind the front seat and had a good inch or more of knee room and wriggle room under the front seat for my feet. If you get out your tape measure, you’ll see front seat legroom measures 1054mm and rear seat legroom is 880mm.

2017 Hyundai Kona Review by Practical Motoring

The rear seat has a 60:40 split-fold feature and there are ISOFIX mounts for the two outboard seats. Thanks to a high hip point and light doors, climbing in and out of the back seat is easy and kids shouldn’t have a problem clambering into the back of the thing; mine certainly didn’t. There’s no rear air vent, regardless of the variant you choose, but there is ducting under the front seats that blows warm or cold air into the back and relative to the force of the fan speed in the front.

Besides leaning in and grabbing the toggle on the top of the rear seat shoulders, there’s no way of dropping the rear seats from the boot. But, it’s not a huge boot and so reaching in won’t be too much of a stretch for taller owners.

2017 Hyundai Kona

The boot floor can be set at two heights and hides a space saver spare only; there’s no full-size spare available, unlike the i30 and Hyundai Australia says it’s unlikely a full-size spare will be made available at all, although it is something that, again, it will monitor and communicate with head office about. How do you feel about the lack of a full-size spare in the Kona? Given that this will live 95% of the time in towns and cities, is it really that big a deal?

The boot shape is nice and square and, as I’ve noted before the standard supply net for keeping groceries or bags from sliding around the boot is a nice feature that every car maker should provide. The fit and finish in the boot space is good and carpet used should stand up well to family use; although if you’re going to be stuffing bikes into the back, or transporting the family pooch, you might want to consider some sort of rubber matting and cut it to fit; Clark Rubber usually has thin gauge matting that you can cut and fit to the back of your vehicle – be warned the smell while it acclimatises can be strong, especially in warmer weather. But, the smell is easier to deal with than vacuuming dog hair out of automotive carpet… might be a story in that.

What’s it like to drive?

The Kona Highlander we’re testing gets on-demand all-wheel drive which can be manually locked to send drive 50:50 front to rear but this only works up to 30km/h and will then disengage. The idea is that locking drive front and rear will help with traction on slippery surfaces like ice, mud or wet grass. Once the system has disengaged the car’s computer will take over and determine when and how much torque to send to the back wheels.

This means, the Kona all-wheel drive is predominantly running in front-drive only sending drive the rear when the system detects slip. In normal driving conditions, you’ll never notice it cut in or out and, that’s because it probably isn’t. There’s decent grip on offer via the front end even on wet roads; I intentionally provoked the car on a slippery dirt road and the system worked well cutting in before the front end scrabbled and understeered. And then I drove it across a deep washout intentionally getting into a cross axle situation where diagonally opposite wheels were light for traction… there was a moment’s hesitation as the wheels went light and turned slightly and then you could feel the drive at both ends of the vehicle with neither of the light wheels spinning uselessly.

2017 Hyundai Kona Review by Practical Motoring

The Kona isn’t an off-roader but knowing that it’s capable of handling ruts like the one I drove across would give me confidence to take it down a rough track. On this dirt road, there’s a section of wicked moguls that will see a vehicle rock violently from side to side… I walked the Kona up this hill carefully and it did it easily.

So, if you’re looking for a compact SUV that can go further than a dirt car park then the Kona should be on your list. What about on the bitumen?

Our Kona Highlander, as mentioned earlier, gets a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol which is mated to a seven-speed DCT (dual-clutch transmission) and is the same engine and transmission as the i30 SR. This package makes 130kW and 265Nm of torque and this makes for a zippy on-road package.

Like its i30 SR sibling, the Kona Highlander AWD gets a multi-link rear end and was tuned for ride, handling and steering in Australia. According to Hyundai, its local chassis development team tested “three sets of front and two sets of rear springs, 13 different front and 23 different rear shock absorbers for the all-wheel-drive variants and 13 front and 29 rear shock absorber combinations for the front-wheel-drive cars. Two different stabiliser bars were also tested before the final combinations were decided”.

2017 Hyundai Kona Review by Practical Motoring

Across my test loop which is the same road that Hyundai Australia uses for its local tuning, the Kona felt very good. This loop, as I’ve explained before, is a great loop for pulling a chassis apart and allows you to explore both high and low-speed body control, transmission and braking.

Hyundai reckons there’s more inherent sportiness tuned into this variant than in the i30 SR and they might well be right, but I don’t think the tune feels as versatile as it does in the i30 at different speeds. My seat of the pants impression is that this is a suspension set-up that’s incredible at walking pace or higher speeds and good enough at around-town speeds.

Mid-corner bumps are dealt with well and there’s very little body roll, the steering feels meaty and direct in its action with good on-centre feel. The throttle response is immediate in all but Eco mode where you’ve got to give it more of a shove to motivate the thing, but that’s the nature of this kind of fuel-saving driving mode. To be honest, most people will never use any other mode except for Normal… there are no steering mounted paddles and that’s a good thing because paddles on a compact SUV like the Kona is like a certain pair of dangly bits on a bull. Useless.

2017 Hyundai Kona Review by Practical Motoring

That’s not to suggest the Kona isn’t fun to drive because it is. Indeed, after a week with the thing, I’d suggest that this and the Subaru XV are level pegging at the top of the all-paw compact SUV segment in terms of driving thrills and ability. There’s a depth and maturity, and quietness, to the Kona’s handling that you don’t get in some of its much-lauded competitors, like the CX-3.

We haven’t touched on the transmission… and while some people read the words DCT and curl up into a ball, they shouldn’t. The Hyundai unit is built in-house and while like other dual-clutch transmissions can be a bit lurchy at low speeds (think about what you’d be like crawling along in a manual car and then cut the DCT some slack), it’s excellent when the speed increases, holding the gear when you want it to, dropping down gears quickly and running to top gear quickly too when you’re on the highway and cruising. The transmission responds well to the throttle and you can manually control it via the stick shifter if you so choose.

What about safety features?

The Kona doesn’t carry either an ANCAP or Euro NCAP rating yet as it’s so new, but offers six airbags as standard, reversing camera and rear parking sensors (the Highlander adds front parking sensors). In addition, Hyundai offers its Smart Sense active safety system as standard on Elite and Highlander variants and as a cost-option on entry-level Active, it includes: autonomous emergency braking covering pedestrians between 8-64km/h and cars up to 160km/h, blind spot monitoring which operates above 30km/h, rear cross traffic alert, lane keeping assist which operates on two levels, one reactive and one proactive, both work above 60km/h only. There’s also driver attention warning and high beam assist.

So, what do we think of the Kona Highlander?

The Kona Highlander AWD sits alongside the Subaru XV at the top of the compact SUV segment when it comes to rough road capable SUVs. Its ride and handling, comfort and NVH mark it out as a front runner. And its five-year warranty and capped price servicing are icing on the cake. Sure, the looks won’t suit everyone, but trust me when I say that it looks much better in the metal than it does in pictures; and those slim-look headlights are actually pretty cool.

2017 Hyundai Kona Review by Practical Motoring


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  1. Even though the Kona has much better performance, I am still leaning towards the Subaru XV
    as my number one choice.

  2. Some people want the practicality of the higher riding SUV style vehicle but not the fuel/weight/servicing/reliability long term of a cumbersome unnecessary driveline.
    For most thinking people, FWD and reasonable ground clearance is perfectly adequate criteria for their real world needs.
    Get a Wrangler.

  3. When Toyota Corollas come with DSG type transmission I’ll accept their reliability for the second owner and beyond.
    Be well off financially.

  4. Hyundai if you are interested in feedback, I delayed buying a small SUV as I am a huge fan of Hyundai and waited 3 months for the Kona release, Kona is a huge letdown lets start the only Kona I was interested in was $41000 1.6T AWD highlander I did not realise until release had NO SUNROOF????????? seriously Hyundai what are you thinking and a very basic cheap looking interior on a $410000 car, also wanted an AWD like the Subaru set up not an on demand, what is the point?? which is why I bought a top of the range Subaru XV a fantastic car all round ticked all the boxes sorry Hyundai you are asking way to much $$ for a Kona Highlander.

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