2020 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD Review
By Jakob Hansen, 7/9/2021
Hyundai’s compact SUV is competing in a tough class, have they made a hero, or a zero?
The Hyundai Kona brings to life everything that the revamped Hyundai represents. The interior is solid, the drivetrain is engaging, and the styling catches your eye. Someone at Hyundai knows what they’re doing.
Hyundai has been fighting the “budget brand” image since they were first introduced into the US. First having to fight through customer’s uncertainty of a Korean manufacturer, a concept that hadn’t been proven in the US before, Hyundai rode on Honda and Toyota’s coattails in an attempt to prove their reliability and practicality.
Unfrotuetly, Hyundai faced an uphill battle against reliability concerns, unimaginative styling, and cut-rate interior materials. It wasn’t until the late 2000’s that Hyundai started to catch their stride.
Looking forward into the early 2010’s Hyundais mentality adapted to market needs and they started to carve out a niche for themselves in the market.
Today, Hyundai is barely recognizable from their 1980’s self and have elbowed their way into a strong market hold. They now have some of the highest-rated vehicles and the brand perfectly balances modern engine reliability with well-made interiors. They know how to balance their development dollars and where to spend the money. Hyundai clearly understands market needs and is capable of placing the right vehicle in the right class at the right time.
The 2020 Hyundai Kona perfectly represents this new mentality and shows how effective Hyundai is at identifying a market and capitalizing on it.
The first thing we need to cover is the exterior styling. The Hyundai Kona is polarizing, and that is GOOD! Manufacturers today are so afraid to step out of the comfort zone and make their cars look interesting (looking at you GM). SO many cars today., particularly SUVs, are simply boring! Blending in with every other blobfish SUV out there.
The Kona stands out. It looks different. It looks exciting, and it looks good.
The squinted headlights (which are actually the DRL’s) are slim and attractive. The real headlights are actually in the lower bumper and almost look like fog lights, a clever trick played by designers to get the modern look of slim headlights without having to use expensive high-output LED’s.
The slim DRL’s also help keep the government happy when it comes to pedestrian safety. Hyundai designers did an excellent job balancing the restrictive government regulations, drag reduction, and affordable materials while still making the front end attractive.
Moving to the side of the vehicle the Kona makes heavy use of black plastic cladding. Both the front and rear wheel arches and rocker panel are completely plastic, which visually makes the higher-riding appear lower and less slab-sided. The creases above the door handles and the flared fender arches make the side appear slimmer, lower, and sportier. A good look.
The rear is fairly normal, with nothing crazy to report. The standard rear-end makes for a complete package.
Lastly, the colors. Yes, Lime Twist. The shout in your face “I’m Green!” color. Personally, I love it. The color stands out in a sea of boring greys, blues, and blacks and isn’t so shouty that it is overwhelming. It also POPs in a parking lot, and as soon as you walk out of the store you can spot your car from 150 feet away.
Some may not love the loud green, but why live life so boring? The exciting color matches the styling well. The only other color I would get the Kona in is an equally vibrant purple, but Hyundai, unfortunately, doesn’t offer that option.
The interior of the Kona where it really shines. This is the best-made SUV in this class.
Now, that claim comes with caveats. That doesn’t mean it’s the nicest, or highest class, or uses the most up-scale materials. What it means is Hyundai uses the most appropriate material for every location in the car.
Photo: Jakob Hansen
The shifter is solid. And I mean solid. It feels like they benchmarked a 1920’s printing press lever for this thing. In gear, it does not move an inch, and it notches nicely while moving it through the PRNDL.
The buttons are all solid and heavily weighted, giving good tactile feedback. The steering wheel controls are solid as well and make for a satisfying flick whenever in use.
The dashboard uses affordable materials, and Hyundai makes it work. Instead of opting for materials that look upscale, but clearly are not, Hyundai embraces the price point of the Kona and uses materials that are clearly more affordable, but are far more attractive than hard plastics.
Photo: Jakob Hansen
I cannot emphasize enough how Hyundai chose the right material to use in every location of the interior. You do not feel short-changed or like Hyundai has taken short cuts.
The rest of the interior follows suit. Hyundai's infotainment system is best-in-class by far. The seats are comfortable enough, and there is ample room in the front seat.
Rear seats have slightly less space, but still offer ample room for adults on short trips. Cargo space is an ample 19.2 ft³ and 45.8 ft³ with rear seats folded.
Green accents are scattered throughout the interior as well bringing some of the exciting colors from the exterior into the cabin. Tastefully done, the green trim around the vents, start button, shifter, and stitching and piping on the seats, Hyundai has created a more fun space from an interior that’s otherwise relatively bland.
Photo: Jakob Hansen
Driving is another strong point of the Kona. The drivetrain is well-put-together and makes for a positive driving experience. Like the interior, its obvious that Hyundai put the money where it needs to be for the drivetrain. The suspension is comfortable but sporty, sportier than the other SUVs in its class.
The Kona does a great job of balancing comfort and sportiness, though it’s clear it’s targeted towards a younger crowd with fewer back issues. When driving by myself, the ride felt fine, but once my wife jumped in the car and my driving had to take a softer approach, the ride felt a little too stiff for our liking.
The 1.6L Turbocharged GDI engine 175-horsepower 4-cylinder is more than powerful enough to boot the little Kona around, and actually is fairly fun when pushed. Fuel economy is decent as well. Rated by the EPA to 28 city / 32 highway, we were able to squeeze an average of around 24 mpg, including our performance testing.
We look forward to the potential Kona N Line. A slight boost in performance and tweeks to the suspension could make the Kona N/N Line a real genuine hot-hatch SUV, a segment not many brands have ventured into.
For some reason, our example’s 7-Speed EcoShift Dual Clutch Transmission felt slow. We have driven many other cars with Hyundai’s 7-Speed DCT and while it is nowhere near as quick to shift a higher-end DCT, this felt slow and cumbersome, particularly while launching and making a 1st to 2nd gear change.
As much as we love Hyundai’s DCT, it can use some fine-tuning and a bit more modularity for the driver. Less computer interaction and more driver control would make for a far more engaging drivetrain. Even in the N Line Hyundai models just barely miss the mark with it.
It’s almost the perfect and out-performs nearly every other transmission in the class by far, but with only some slight tweaks it could outperform even performance model transmissions and be the best on the market. We have faith in you Hyundai, you will make it happen.
Lane keep and adaptive cruise are fairly good as well. The adaptive cruise is smooth but does not operate under 5 mph. Lane keep assist was barely active, even on the highway. A disappointment as Hyundai’s lane keep system is on the higher end in the class.
Photo: Jakob Hansen
Compared to others in the class, such as the Chevrolet Trax, Ford Ecosport, Jeep Renegade, etc, the Kona far outshines the competition. Perfect for use as a small hatchback replacement with an awesome AWD system, the Kona is the perfect vehicle for those that need space, want to sit up high, and aren’t willing to compromise their driving experience.
We see this as a perfect vehicle for a young student or a first car if you can boot the payments for a 16-year-old.
Hyundai’s proven reliability, the fun nature of the car, and the abundant safety features place this vehicle perfectly as an excellent daily driver and a great alternative to the dying hatchback breed.