REVIEW: The $29,000 Hyundai Kona crossover offers a quirky take on a conventional segment

  • The 2020 Kona is Hyundai's compact SUV, slotting in between the subcompact Venue and the Tuscon in Hyundai's crossover and SUV lineup.
  • The Kona comes in five trims, with the 2021 model featuring a $20,400 base trim and a $28,050 top trim.
  • This 2020 review loaner had a Lime Twist exterior, a 175-horsepower turbocharged engine, and a $28,980 MSRP.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The 2020 Hyundai Kona has a lot going on. Its busy front end challenges you to put the pieces together — the thin front lights that would look aggressive if they weren't so cutesy, the studded grille, the abundance of plastic cladding — while its orange and lime-green paint options remind you that, yes, there are more choices in this world than just white, silver, or black. 

The quirkiness is surprising, given that the Kona is a response to Americans' current car craze: crossovers and SUVs, where carmakers can capitalize by simply producing vehicles with the necessary ride height and cargo room but without much personality. 

Hyundai could have played it safe, but instead went for a slight departure from the norm — the very norm to which the Kona was introduced to cater. It's bold, and it kind of works. 

The 2020 Hyundai Kona: Capitalizing on the crossover craze

Hyundai first introduced the US-market Kona in late 2017, marketing it as a practical crossover that could be fun and quirky, complete with a lime-green show car and what it called an "urban smart armor" exterior. Whatever that means.

As buyers flock toward bigger vehicles in the name of safety and more space, the Kona fills an important niche for Hyundai. It slots in right above the subcompact Venue crossover, the smallest entry in Hyundai's lineup of crossovers and SUVs.

The move paid off. Even without name recognition, the Kona shot up Hyundai's sales charts. In 2019, Hyundai Motor America sold more than 73,000 Konas — just 14,000 fewer models than its Sonata nameplate, which has been around for decades.

Details and safety ratings: watch the headlights

The Kona has five trims, and for 2021, the base SE trim starts at $20,400 while the top Ultimate trim starts at $28,050. Front-wheel drive is standard on every trim and all-wheel drive is $1,400 extra.

This 2020 review loaner was a Kona Ultimate with a "Lime Twist" exterior and without the optional AWD, coming to $28,980 with fees. The only added feature, in fact, was carpet on the floor mats for an extra $135. Everything else was standard for the top trim. 

Those standard features include, among other things: a turbocharged 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine making a claimed 175 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque; a seven-speed dual clutch transmission; 18-inch wheels; high-beam assist; rain-sensing windshield wipers; and safety features including forward-collision avoidance assist with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, blind-spot detection, automatic cruise control, and a parking warning while in reverse. 

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2020 Kona top crash ratings in every category, but watch out for the headlights.

The most expensive two trims on the Kona, the Limited and Ultimate, have LED headlights with the IIHS' top ratings. The bottom three have halogen lights, which got the IIHS' bottom of four safety ratings. The halogen low beams, the IIHS said, provided inadequate visibility in all of its tests. 

What stands out: green on green on green

Listen. Your argument about buying only black, white, or gray cars because of the "resale value" is tired. It's boring. Do you want to be tired and boring? No, you don't. Neither does this Hyundai Kona, which is why it's green.

It's not a safe, muted forest green or a green that's trying to pass for black, either — it's bright, in your face, look at me green, more fit for a Lamborghini than any crossover kind of green.

Boring? Maybe you are, but this Kona's color isn't.

The green bleeds into the interior of the car, accenting everything from the seats to the dashboard. Hyundai's had some interesting takes on the Kona — including an "Iron Man Edition" that a local Hyundai salesperson tried to sell me, of all people, once — but the bright green one is a winner.

Along with the green, a tiny honeycomb pattern runs the length of the Kona's dashboard. The material looks neither expensive nor cheap, which is a good compromise in a $29,000 car that could have just slapped some bland plastic panels on there and called it a day. 

Hyundai also carried this Kona's black interior onto its headliner, giving it a cohesive look on the inside. But that doesn't appear to be the case with every model from Hyundai's range-topping Ultimate trim, since some appear on Autotrader with black interiors and stark, light-gray headliners. 

Interior-matching headliners are always king.

The Kona emits a low, uncharacteristically aggressive snarl as it gets up to speed. Its pedals are sensitive — tap the gas just a bit and you're lurching out of your parking space; graze the brakes and prepare to get a gut check from your seat belt.

The steering is the opposite, numbly swaying from left to right as the car's turbo supplies a bit of boost to the engine without the characteristic whoooosh sound. Quieter cars are fancier, remember. 

The Kona has a sport mode, which can be told apart from its normal drive mode by the usual characteristics: Sport mode makes the car feel and sound slightly more growly without transforming your little crossover into anything more than a little crossover. Grr, though!

In the year 2020, it's also nice to come across a car whose interior isn't one large touchscreen from Hell. The Kona's infotainment screen is easy to navigate and allows the driver to use those all-familiar buttons, while also offering fun menu options like the one that shows how long you've spent idling versus driving on a trip. 

If there's any existential wisdom I want out of life, it's how many years I've lost while sitting in traffic. For that, Hyundai, I thank you.

The Kona's telescoping steering wheel also provides a third dimension of adjustment, allowing a driver to not only move it up and down, but toward and away from them as well. And before you say, "That sounds very basic; doesn't every car do that?" you should go outside and check your own. Every car does not do that. 

Every car doesn't come in an Iron Man theme either, I guess. 

What falls short: plastic, plastic, plastic

The Kona, in this spec, is a $29,000 car. That's mild compared to the average new-car price of nearly $40,000, but it's still $30,000, and $30,000 should buy some less plasticky materials inside. 

While the overall vibe of the interior — black with electric green accents — is charming, the details aren't. Cheap-looking materials line the infotainment screen, the shifter, the parking brake, the cup holders.

The door handles and steering wheel feature a nice, glossy piano black material, but that stuff only stays nice and glossy for about five minutes before grime piles on. Ask the 2021 Kia Seltos. 

There's also a catch with this lovely green: While it and an equally lovely orange were available on Konas in the past, neither option shows up in the build configurator for the 2021 car. A Hyundai spokesperson confirmed that they're not available for special order for 2021 or beyond, telling Business Insider that "trendy colors like that typically last a year or two." 

If you want to go green, you have to go pre-2021.

The Kona has all of the wind noise and road feel of a car in its price range: there, but ignorable. But don't touch the navigation controls if the car is in drive: You can select from popular locations — gas stations, restaurants — but you can't manually enter addresses.

Hop in the back of the 2020 Kona and you'll notice a few things: The roof feels low because of its gradual slope; legroom isn't anything to brag about; and there are no vents to be seen. Zero. Not one.

Were people meant to sit back there during the summer or winter? Perhaps as a form of punishment. 

How the Kona compares to its rivals: Close competition

Given that crossovers and SUVs are all that American buyers want right now, the categories are competitive. The Kona stacks up well against its competition, including the 2021 Kia Seltos, the 2020 Mazda CX-30, and the 2020 Subaru Crosstrek, and vice versa. 

Since Hyundai and Kia are sister companies, the Seltos and Kona are sister vehicles. They also offer longer warranty periods than their competitors do, with five years or 60,000 miles on the countdown clock compared to the industry standard of three years or 36,000 miles. 

And while the Seltos' all-wheel-drive $29,485 SX Turbo model was more enticing in both looks and use than the front-wheel-drive $28,980 Kona Ultimate during our testing, the Kona beats it in base price and headlight safety.

Buy the $20,300 base 2020 Kona, nothing added, and you'll come in about $1,700 under the $21,990 Seltos. It's not a lot in the scheme of a $20,000 car, but it's not nothing. 

But the Seltos really loses out in its headlights, receiving the IIHS' lowest rating of "poor" across the board. The Kona might not have good headlights on every trim, but they are an option. 

Our impressions: a quirky car in a conventional segment

The US circa 2020 will go down as a few things in automotive history: the time when people found out luxury EVs other than Teslas exist; when cars marketed for their "autonomy" weren't really autonomous; and when the age of the crossover really took hold. The Kona, like much of its competition, wants to take hold as well.

But unlike much of its competition, the Kona — at least in lime-green form — wants to remind you that being a crossover buyer doesn't mean assimilating with the masses of crossover buyers. Practicality doesn't mean you have to be a bore, the Kona says. You can buy your high-riding, cargo-carrying crossover, but you can give it lime-green interior accents too. What a concept. 

The Kona is a commuter vehicle for folks who want to spend less than the average American does on a new car, whether it's for the $20,000 base trim or the $28,000 top trim. It's not the fanciest car on the road, nor is it even the fanciest looking among its competitors. 

But it does have a personality, and sometimes that makes all the difference. 

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The 2020 Hyundai Kona.Alanis King

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