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Fitted with Hyundai's punchy turbocharged 1.6-L 4-cyl., the Kona Ultimate can handle itself in fast traffic and backroad passing in a way that most subcompact crossovers can't. (Bill Visnic)

What we're driving: 2018 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD

"What we're driving" is Automotive Engineering's series of quick-strike vehicle reviews
I’ve been generally ambivalent about subcompact crossovers such as the Honda HR-V, Ford EcoSport and Mazda CX-3. They’re typically cramped and underpowered, leaving you feeling outgunned on the open road and urban freeways, yet strangely there’s scant payoff for those deficits at the gas pump, as most of them go to market with surprisingly piddly fuel-economy ratings.

Hyundai’s Kona is one of the newest of the bunch and while it’s still no overachiever on the EPA rollers (26 mpg city/29 mpg highway), the upper trim levels, such as the Ultimate AWD, come gunning with the firecracker engine of Hyundai’s small-car lineup, the turbocharged, direct-injected Gamma 1.6-L 4-cyl. that spits out an eager 175 hp and 195 lb·ft (264 N·m). The turbocharged Gamma easily moves the top-level Kona’s plumpish 3334 lb (1512 kg) in the cut-and-thrust of fast traffic and whips up satisfactory back-road passing muscle, abetted in all this by a 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual that’s happy to keep it all simmering and snapping. Provided you press the “sport” button, at least.

The Kona’s chassis is equally pleasing, gripping and clawing at broken surfaces and fast corners with a suppleness that’s rare in the subcompact-crossover class. It helps, I imagine, to select one of the AWD models (roughly a $1,400 upcharge) that bring independent rear suspension rather than the solid-axle setup of the front-drive Konas. The Kona’s electric power steering may be the out-of-fashion column-mounted variety, but it’s consistent with feedback and is keenly-geared at 2.5 turns lock-to-lock.

A somewhat generous 102.4-in (2601-mm) wheelbase almost exactly matches the Honda HR-V’s and endows the Kona with, like the HR-V, one of the segment’s least-confining cabins; Ford’s EcoSport is nearly 3 in shorter. Most of the cabin materials are adequate and durable-feeling and the Kona’s cargo area is usefully-sized and -shaped.

The Kona Ultimate AWD’s price gets us to another tiny-crossover bugaboo, though. As much as I enjoyed the dynamic attributes of this crossover and reckon it would be a clever little foul-weather weapon, I’m not sure I see “ultimate” value in nearly $30,000 for the Kona Ultimate AWD—even if this top-trim model is crammed with upscale electronics and ADAS gear. Kona Ultimate money gets you comfortably into the next-larger class, where mass-market goodness reigns in the form of Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V and even Hyundai’s own Tucson and Santa Fe.
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