The Hyundai Kona 2.0L AWD 2018

Just as designer coffee started without much fanfare and then, seemingly overnight, moved into the mainstream, so have subcompact crossovers. Little SUVs such as the Mazda CX-3, Jeep Renegade, Honda HR-V, Nissan Rogue Sport, and Chevrolet Trax are suddenly as ubiquitous as Starbucks. Which makes the all-new 2018 Kona, Hyundai’s first effort in this segment, very much of the moment—and not just because it has the same name as that famous strain of Hawaiian joe.

In our first instrumented test of a top-spec Kona Ultimate AWD, we found it to be a rich, flavorful blend with more than enough gusto to perk you up. But there are Konas and then there are Konas. For this review, we tested the one-up-from-base SEL trim, which has less power, a less ritzy interior, and less standard equipment than the Ultimate—and we found that, sometimes, less is less. The SEL is the Kona we first loved minus the caffeinated kick.

Not Enough Beans

That missing kick can be traced directly to what’s under the SEL’s hood—or more accurately, what’s not. The SE and SEL trims’ standard 147-hp 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four replaces the Ultimate’s 175-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter engine (which also is standard on the Limited), and torque drops precipitously from 195 lb-ft to 132. As a result, the Kona’s zero-to-60-mph time goes from a sprightly 6.6 seconds to a lethargic 9.2.

The naturally aspirated 2.0-liter’s one advantage over the turbocharged 1.6 is that it employs a conventional six-speed automatic with a torque converter rather than the turbo engine’s seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. In city driving, the six-speed is both more fluid at low speeds and sharper off the line, but the 2.0-liter’s paucity of punch is obvious before you’re across the first intersection. It strains to keep up with traffic and sounds labored whenever even modest acceleration is requested. Decaf indeed.

Smooth and Sweet, Never Bitter

Luckily, the SEL has enough other positive attributes and unexpected features to redeem it from small-SUV purgatory. Power deficit aside, it’s surprisingly enjoyable to drive, at least in part due to its relatively low ride height. The Kona has the proportions of an SUV, but it’s not nearly as tall as it initially appears. A Lincoln Navigator towers above it like an apartment building, standing about 15 inches taller. Kona drivers will even find themselves looking up at minivan pilots.

The Kona feels and drives much more like a car than an SUV—and far better than you’d expect of such a low-cost vehicle. (All-wheel drive adds $1300 to the bottom line across the Kona range; with only its optional $150 black roof and $125 carpeted floor mats, our SEL AWD rang in at $23,705.) You can wing it through switchbacks thanks to crisply progressive steering and a body that leans only moderately in corners. It sticks to the skidpad at an impressive 0.88 g, which is grippier than numerous sedans. Its brake response is reassuring, and the ride snuffs out bad pavement with sophisticated, well-controlled suppleness.

Stuffed with Stuff

Beyond its unexpectedly refined driving dynamics, the SEL’s most pleasant aspect is its long list of standard equipment. Going heavy on the features is a habit for Hyundai, and the SEL comes with handsome 17-inch aluminum wheels, roof rails, heated exterior side mirrors, proximity entry, and push-button start. There are even a couple of AWD-system features that may be superfluous in a vehicle intended to drive on nothing more rigorous than a dirt road: hill-descent control and a button-actuated override that locks the torque split at 50/50 front/rear for better slippery-surface launch traction.

And there’s plenty more. The Kona’s interior is acceptably roomy for four adults, and its design is handsome, although in the SEL it’s a sea of hard black plastic—not uncommon for SUVs at this price point. But the comfortable cloth seats are heated (the driver’s seat is equipped with manual height adjustment), the tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel is wrapped in leather, the rear seat has a fold-down center armrest with cupholders, the vanity mirrors are illuminated, the front windows have auto down/up capability, there’s a flip-down sunglasses case in the overhead console, and a good-looking 3.5-inch display broadcasts information between the analog speedometer and the tach.

The SEL’s infotainment system offers a 7.0-inch LCD touchscreen with clearly rendered graphics and intuitive screen controls. It comes with a decent-sounding audio system, Sirius XM radio, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability, and both a USB and an auxiliary port. Hyundai also throws in two active-safety features: blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.

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