FIRST DRIVE | 2021 Hyundai Kona is a friendly car with a scary face
There are some amusing eccentricities about the Hyundai brand.
A seeming penchant for names inspired by exotic tourist destinations is one. No, Creta is not a variation of head lice species, but a derivative of Crete, the Greek island.
And then there's the distinctive and aggressive styling approach adopted of late.
Instead of trying to emulate the staid crispness of Volkswagen, or the crease-intensive, sporty-aspirational look of current Toyota models, it seems to have opted outright to design cars that scare children.
Even as someone old enough to remember Kideo's Mr Chinwag, I struggle to look at the grille of the 2021 Santa Fé and not feel uneasy. The new Kona, launched locally last week, has a face like something from a Monsters Inc film.
With slits for eyes and a hungry-looking maw, it’s something that might leave you with the heebie-jeebies as it fills your rearview mirror down the N1 at dusk. But don’t discount it because of that as the Kona is a rather neat piece of kit. Hyundai first launched the car towards the end of 2018. An outward character replete with urban-outdoorsy accoutrements, the brand hoped it would attract a more extroverted demographic, one who prioritised the perception of space and versatility less than a Creta or Tucson buyer.
With its two-wheel drive format, the Kona is road-biased, although its ground clearance of 170mm (178mm for the 1.6 TGDI) might be useful in encounters of the light gravel kind.
For reference, ground clearance of the Creta is 190mm and 172mm for the Tucson. Interestingly, it does have a bigger boot than the Creta (544l versus 433l). It pips the cargo area of the Tucson too with its 488l volume. And the name? That was derived from Kailua-Kona, a picturesque town on the west coast of Hawaii.
From a pricing perspective, it slots right between the Creta (from R377,900) and Tucson, which kicks off at R482,500. Pricing begins at R449,900 for the Executive grade. It packs a normally-aspirated 2.0-litre, four-cylinder version paired with a continuously-variable transmission (CVT).
Meanwhile, the sportier N-Line, with its boosted 1.6-litre (also with four cylinders) and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, costs R579,900. You can have this engine and gearbox combination without the N-Line regalia, in Executive trim, for R499,900. Oh, and the full-fat Kona N model (using the same running gear as the highly-praised i30 N) will be arriving later this year.
Fans of the thrumming 1.0-litre, three-cylinder (turbocharged) unit that was available at initial launch may be disappointed to learn it has been culled for 2021. We drove the standard 2.0-litre model and the 1.6-litre turbocharged derivative at launch. The latter roused us with its fizzy promises of forced-induction, but it was the former vehicle that proved to be an unexpected hit.
On paper, Hyundai quotes a 109.5kW and 179.5Nm output (don’t ask us why it includes the decimal point). These are acceptable numbers – although the concern was that the CVT would sap the zest from the engine, as is often the case with this nature of gearbox. But the system Hyundai uses is a little different.
They call it an Intelligent Variable Transmission (IVT). It has eight simulated “gears” and unlike other setups of this variety, it uses a chain, eliminating slippage and delivering a more predictable shift pattern instead of the usual band-like sensation, causing the engine to drone along. The 2.0-litre pulls strongly and complies with impressive responsiveness on kick-down. Fuel economy over our 80km route was superb too, indicating 6.6l/100km by the time we returned to Hyundai’s Bedfordview headquarters.
This is a tractable, zingy motor and the IVT complements it well. By contrast, the 1.6 TGDI exhibited noticeable lag at town speeds, snapping out of its haze when the turbocharger spooled, releasing the quoted 145.6kW and 265Nm and making a fair din in the process. Not a pleasant one, mind, but an industrial yawp. There are no novel pops or belches as its shunts through its gears and with a sprint time of 7.7 seconds, you will be easy fodder for a Volkswagen Polo GTI.
Although the interior employs good quality materials, it falls short on expectations set by the vibrant exterior. The N-Line is (slightly) enlivened by red accents. No gripes to be levelled at fit and finish. The springy action of the circular toggle for driving modes felt especially pleasant, as did the leatherette-clad, contoured steering wheel.
Hyundai has always been generous with the features and the Kona is no different. The baseline level of kit in the Executive is plentiful, with artificial leather seats, LED daytime-running lights, automatic climate control, an eight-inch infotainment system, reverse camera, park distance control and wireless smartphone charging.
The N-Line ups the ante with assistance features like lane departure warning, lane-follow assist, rear cross-traffic alert and driver fatigue warning. Shoppers scouring the market for a competent, edgy, generously-equipped and well-built crossover would do well to keep the Kona towards the top of mind.