Late last year, I spent a week with a Hyundai Kona press loaner. It was weird, but in a good way — and I think it might actually, kinda, sorta qualify as a hot hatchback.
In a sea of subcompact crossovers like the Mazda CX-3, the Nissan Rogue Sport, the Honda HR-V and the Toyota CH-R, the Kona is certainly unique for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it offers an available turbocharged engine, which isn’t offered by any of the aforementioned competitors. The Kona’s 1.6-liter turbo four is no slouch, either, making 175 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque — around 30 hp and 50 lb-ft more than the majority of the competition.
The turbo gets the Kona from 0-to-60 mph in 6.6 seconds, which is far faster than anything else in the segment — save for its distant relative, the Kia Soul, which gets to 60 in 6.5 seconds. In fact, the Kona is faster than several performance-oriented vehicles on the market today, including the Honda Civic Si, the Fiat 500 Abarth, the Mini Cooper Countryman S All4 and the Audi Q3. I can say this with a clear conscience: Hyundai’s new subcompact crossover is actually an engaging drive.
Helping with the Kona’s fun factor is its transmission. In a segment dominated by humdrum CVTs that offer little driver feedback and tend to drone loudly under hard acceleration, the Kona stands out for offering not only a geared automatic, but a quick shifting dual-clutch unit similar in design to the transmission available in the GTI and R variants of the Volkswagen Golf. Hyundai’s dual-clutch transmission isn’t as refined as VW’s, though, and can be a bit jerky at low speeds. The Kona also lacks available paddle shifters, which would really serve to turn up the fun. Nonetheless, as dull CVTs become the norm throughout the industry, the Kona’s dual-clutch transmission further makes the case that this isn’t just your everyday economy car.
Finally, the Kona offers all-wheel drive. While this is pretty much standard fare for the segment (only the Toyota CH-R lack’s available 4-wheel traction), none of the competition offers AWD mated to a turbocharged engine and a dual-clutch transmission. Performance credentials aside, the only other compact hatch on the market to offer these features while still being in the same pricing stratosphere as the Kona is the Volkswagen Golf R. The Kona doesn’t even sniff the Golf R in terms of performance — nobody would dare cross-shop the two — and given the Kona’s wobbly highway manners, Hyundai still has a way to go before it can touch the driving dynamics of even the regular Volkswagen Golf. Nonetheless, in the sub-$30,000 realm, the Kona’s drivetrain layout is in a league of its own.
All this tech comes at a cost, though, and the turbocharged, dual-clutch, AWD equipped Kona starts at $24,700, while my fully loaded tester was just a few hundred dollars shy of $30,000. Is almost $30k too much for an everyday subcompact CUV? Yeah, it probably is. But we’ve concluded here that the Kona is more than your everyday subcompact. Now let’s just hope the buying public can recognize this. Adding a set of paddle shifters to the offering would help.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for awhile, helping Germans design cars for Americans. Follow him on Instagram: @MountainWestCarSpotter.