Just at the point where you might have thought the choice of compact SUVs had become more than wide enough to be getting on with, Hyundai has complicated matters further by introducing the Kona. Like its rivals, it’s what is known in the business as a B-SUV, which is to say a B-segment car (or supermini as you or I would call it) that’s tall enough to provide the high seating position so many customers crave, and to allow a certain amount of off-roading.
Uniquely in the class, at least for the moment, the Kona is based on a platform that hasn’t used before. This has allowed Hyundai UK’s President and CEO Tony Whitehorn to say that it’s the only compact SUV which can’t be described as “a B-segment car with a top hat”, though it seems inconceivable that the same platform won’t be used for another Hyundai in the near future.
The Kona looks quite distinctive from the front – about as adventurous as the recently introduced Citroen C3 Picasso, less so than the much older Nissan Juke – but apart from that a less than keen-eyed observer might have trouble telling it apart from other cars in the class. As with most of those, rear legroom is only moderate, which is fine if you don’t intend to transport four large adults on a regular basis, but it’s disappointing when you think how much more you get in several Far Eastern superminis.
With the rear seats up, there’s 361 litres of luggage space, which in itself isn’t enough to tempt anyone away from the Juke. Still amazingly popular seven years after its launch, the Nissan offers only six litres less.
Like every other ruddy car in the whole damned sector, this one has awful rear side visibility thanks to tiny triangular windows which are so useless they might as well be painted over. Jesus, car stylists, no matter who you work for, would you stop doing this? Enough is enough. Imagine you’re sitting in the car rather than admiring it from behind, forget all that ‘form over function’ nonsense, roll up your no doubt immaculate sleeves and start doing the job properly.
For the moment, the Kona comes with a choice of just two engines, both of them turbocharged and fuelled by petrol. One is a 118bhp one-litre three-cylinder, the other a 1.6-litre four-cylinder producing a maximum of 175bhp. A diesel will be introduced early next year, if anyone is still buying diesels then, and an electric version will arrive round about midsummer.
Which petrol engine to pick is a complicated matter. Personally I’d go for the 1.0 every time. The 1.6 provides far greater performance (a 50% improvement, more or less, in the 0-62mph time for example) but it’s noisy and whiny and I don’t like it. The 1.0 is quieter, sounds better when you can hear it at all and makes the Kona as quick as anyone needs it to be. It’s also much more economical.
However, a 1.0 Kona and a 1.6 one are very different in other ways. All the smaller-engine cars are front-wheel drive with manual transmission, and they’re available in trim levels from the most basic un-named one to one called Premium.
The 1.6 has a seven-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive and its own trim level called Premium GT, which includes things like LED lights, a “driver’s supervision instrument cluster” and autonomous emergency braking, none of them available as standard on one-litre models. Unless Hyundai decides to blur the lines between Konas with one engine or the other, the one you choose may therefore have very little to do with the pros and cons of the engine itself.
For several years now it has been common to complain that manufacturers base the set-up of their cars on German driving conditions, making them unsuitable for British ones. Hyundai, whose European operation is in Frankfurt, has turned this round. It sells more cars in the UK than in Germany, so it has developed the Kona and other recent models to work best here.
You might think this involved actually testing it here. Nope. That did happen with the i30 Tourer estate and the i30N hot hatch, but for the Kona Hyundai used roads in the region of the Nurburgring with what it calls “UK characteristics”. Closer to Frankfurt and therefore cheaper to get to, you see.
It seems an odd arrangement, but on the whole it has worked. The Kona can be a little jiggly over a series of small bumps, but it soaks up longer and gentler ones very well. It also handles splendidly – I had more fun driving a 1.0 SE over roads in Snowdonia than I ever believed I would.
This doesn’t apply across the whole range, though. The 1.0 SE has 17-inch wheels with 215/55 tyres which suit it very well. The more expensive Premium, Premium SE and Premium GT (the last of these being the 1.6-litre four-wheel drive car, if you remember) have wider and lower-profile 235/45 tyres on 18-inch wheels, and these make everything worse. Having already driven two Konas with this arrangement I really wasn’t impressed with the ride or handling until I got a chance to try the 1.0 SE.
The base model has 16-inch wheels and 205/60 tyres which may be even better, but Hyundai hasn’t yet made one of these available to the UK press so I can’t comment further.
Pricing starts at £16,195 for the entry-level car. The Premium SE is the most expensive one-litre at £21,195, while the 1.6 Premium GT costs £24,995. The 1.0 SE, the one I’ve enjoyed most so far and the one Hyundai believes will outsell all the others, can be yours for £17,495.