The Hyundai Kona was named the 2019 North American Utility Vehicle of the Year (NAUVOY), sharing this accolade with its EV version which we had a positive impression of during its launch event. During a recent week running between media and off-road events in the Pacific Northwest, Hyundai loaned us one of the five gasoline-powered trims, the almost top-spec Ultimate trim. What trumps Ultimate you might ask? The Iron Man edition – as in Tony Stark not triathlons – which we’re down with at AE given Tony is an engineer.
Each of the five FWD Kona gas trims are also available with AWD, which our press vehicle sported. Checking the AWD option box ($1,400 across all trims) also nets you a fully independent multi-link rear suspension versus the standard torsion-beam setup on FWD trims. In lieu of the standard 2.0-liter naturally aspirated, 147-hp/132-lb-ft 4-cylinder engine (110 kW/179 Nm), our AWD Ultimate trim also benefitted from the higher spec 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that is rated at 175 hp/195 lb-ft (130 kW/264 Nm), ample thrust for a 3,200-pound ute.
The lower two Kona trims provide a standard 6-speed automatic, with the top three trims including our Ultimate loaner netting the 7-speed EcoShift automated dual-clutch transmission. The dual-clutch tranny remained impressively transparent, deftly mimicking the sensation of a typical torque-converter automatic. The dual-clutch box’s only stumble appeared when slowing to creep over the brow of very steep driveways, where it tended to momentarily hunt and hesitate between first and second gear. The all-wheel drive system improved traction when the little turbo engine started to boost, and the AWD Kona Ultimate provides an AWD locking function for truly slippery surfaces as well as a hill-descent-control feature.
For anyone used to driving a larger SUV or pickup, piloting the 5-door, 5-passenger Kona hatchback makes you feel like you just shed 100 pounds on a fad diet. A tight turning circle and truly compact dimensions make inner-city U-turns a breeze, and open up a whole new subset of parking spots. Once acclimated to the Kona’s blunt and tuckable measurements, I reveled in the bounty of street-side parking options that are the norm in Seattle.
The flip-side to the refreshingly compact form-factor is a back seat best inflicted only on good friends or small bags. Cargo space behind the rear seats is 19.2 ft2, which climbs to 45.8 ft2 with the rear seats folded, though much of that is above the beltline. In daily use, however, the SUV form factor is entirely practical, easily swallowing cargo from grocery and Home Deport runs. If you’re not in the kid carpool, the Kona is an eminently useful daily runabout.
I’ll admit I had some skepticism about the NAUVOY award, but that faded after a week behind the wheel. The Kona is a genuinely fun and practical little runabout, particularly in the sporty AWD Ultimate trim. The turbo engine is willing and efficient when combined with the 7-speed transmission, and the fully independent suspension encourages you to take advantage of the Kona’s able transient response. You find yourself chucking it into on-ramps, then cackling as the anticipated turbo boost earnestly yanks the little ute up to west-coast freeway speeds.
From a features standpoint, the Kona is such a competitive value proposition – with most modern conveniences on hand (including heated/powered front seats, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay, head-up display and an 8-inch touchscreen nav/tech suite) – I found myself wondering where the adaptive cruise was until I remembered the Kona’s B-class price segment (“No chilled cupholders?!!...”). The Kona is a plucky and genuinely fun to drive cute-ute with real foul-weather chops in Ultimate AWD trim. It’s a compelling all-climate choice for young professionals, down-sizing empty nesters or anyone who doesn’t require significant passenger- or cargo-space accommodation.
2019 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD
Base price: $28,900
As tested: $28,900
Highs: Perky, cute, fun to drive, compact
Verdict: A fine suburban runabout for those that don’t need the extra space