Hyundai Kona 1.0 TGDI: In search of the feelgood factor

Hyundai Kona 1.0 TGDI: In search of the feelgood factor

Adventurous isn’t an adjective that has appeared in Hyundai’s lexicon up to now. However, the compact Kona crossover proudly breaks the mould, at least by the Korean brand’s usually conservative standards – and its appeal is more than skin deep.

Hyundai’s global success – mirrored in South Africa – has been based on pragmatic machinery with an emphasis on equally pragmatic virtues, such as affordability and value for money.

That said, aesthetics have become an increasingly prevalent ingredient of the Hyundai recipe, with former design chief Peter Schreyer playing a key role in creating a strong, European-inspired identity for the brand.

Even so, the Hyundai model arsenal hasn’t really been stocked with head turners. Yes, the unusual Veloster three-door hatchback probably qualifies, but arguably because it’s quirky rather than attractive.

The Kona compact crossover, however, attracts attention for all the right reasons. It manages to be individual while proudly underscoring its Hyundai identity. And while it’s certainly different, the Kona’s individuality doesn’t rely on any left-of-centre quirkiness.

Instead, it represents a fresh and – in the Hyundai context – adventurous take on the small crossover formula, without resorting to the self-conscious eccentricity of a Nissan Juke, or Toyota’s CH-R.

South Africans get to choose between two Kona flavours. As tested here, it’s propelled by a high-efficiency, three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, coupled to a six-speed manual gearbox.

If that sounds to meek and mild, there’s also a more powerful but normally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol, accompanied by a six-speed auto transmission. Both models are front-wheel driven, and share the identical specification inside and out.

Visually, the defining elements are the bright slashes of the daytime running lights, unusually separated from the main, recessed halogens, while the fog lamps are tucked into the front splitter.

That might sound unnecessarily complex when many manufacturers are able to incorporate all three elements into a single headlight cluster, but here it adds welcome character.

The lighting elements are arranged around a large, dominating grille that also showcases the Hyundai badge. Just as well, because you wouldn’t necessarily associate the fresh-faced crossover with Hyundai’s usually more reserved styling.

The Kona rides just a little higher than a normal hatchback in deference to its crossover status, and the wheel arches feature contrasting cladding to add a sense of almost rugged purpose.

The cladding extends to emphasise the sills and the rear apron, but one should be under no illusions about the Kona’s all-terrain talents: this is very much an urban warrior, and it’s not meant to venture any further off the beaten track than the occasional gravel road, ideally a smoothly graded one.

The 17-inch alloys and relatively low-profile tyres confirm this, but the visual effect is striking enough – and besides, the cladding’s protective properties might come in handy when it comes to dealing with those shopping mall trolley marks and scratches.

The cabin is arguably more conventional than the exterior, with bright colour accents and contrasting upholstery stitching adding some sparkle to an otherwise surprisingly sober interior execution.

Bolstered bucket seats feel as inviting and cosseting as they look, and the ergonomic layout makes for intuitive operation. As has become almost de rigeur in modern cars, the centre stack is dominated by a colour touchscreen that serves as the control interface for the Kona’s infotainment system.

The latter entails all the usual – Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming, an integrated tuner, USB and auxiliary inputs, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There’s no satnav, but CarPlay will allow the use of Google Maps, for instance.

There’s a manually operated, very effective aircon system, as well as a list of niceties that includes remote central locking with keyless start, electric windows and mirrors, a digital readout for the trip computer, auto headlights and rear park distance control with a reverse camera view, and cruise control.

The Kona also offers an extensive list of safety bells and whistles: six airbags, all-disc ABS anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, hill start assistance, blind spot warning, and Isofix child seat tethers, and child-proof rear safety locks.

Legroom on the split rear bench seat is okay, as long as you’re not too tall. The upside is a 361-lite boot – although it looks smaller in reality than that figure suggests. Remember, this is a small crossover.

As mentioned, our test steed was the 1.0 TGDI, featuring a compact, 998cc three-cylinder engine featuring turbocharging and direct fuel injection. It’s a feisty little motor, delivering its wares with a pleasantly gruff demeanour and plenty of pep.

The turbo means this Kona is immune to altitude-induced power losses while ensuring that maximum torque is already on tap from just 1,500rpm. Add a slick-shifting manual gearbox with decent action and nicely stacked ratios, and the result is a drivetrain that enjoys being exercised with gusto.

With just more than 1.2 tons to deal with, the engine delivers ample push and shove, with frisky dynamics the result. In real terms, the Kona isn’t particularly fast, but the drivetrain always feels eager, while low to midrange response is particularly satisfying.

There’s definitely enough pep to zip through lethargic traffic with cheerful ease. But the Kona enjoys the curves and corners of a country road even more.

The suspension is compliant enough to make easy work of bumps and dips, so that the ride remains smooth and settled. But there’s also a measure of tautness and control that allows corners to be tackled with confidence.

It’s the kind of benign, responsive handling that encourages spirited driving. The chassis communicates with clarity, so that pushing the limits never becomes a white-knuckled affair.

Most of all, caning the Kona through the corners is an engaging, grin-inducing affair that doesn’t require supersonic speeds or a hell-for-leather driving style. All the more’s the pity that the steering can’t muster a little more heft.

It’s a small flaw that is easily forgiven, especially since the Kona’s motoring mandate stretches much further than pleasing enthusiastic drivers. Around town, refinement and response are the key parameters here, and the Hyundai never feels out of sorts, even in stop/start traffic.

As for any off-road excursions, the 170mm ground clearance is a little more than a conventional hatchback, but not enough to tackle anything more than smooth gravel. And besides, the tyres are resolutely road-biased, which makes them vulnerable on rocky surfaces.

The three-cylinder is a gem, never running out of steam, and always heeding the loud pedal’s call with alacrity. That enthusiasm extends to generous low-down tractability, helped along by the slick, relatively short shifts on offer from the manual gearbox.

The Hyundai Kona 1.0 TGDI has a lot going for it: arresting looks, a cheerful interior, an extensive array of useful features, and a well-packaged cabin. But it’s the crossover’s animated personality that sets it apart from its rivals.

Because this is a car that you always look forward driving to, it’s likely to encourage its owners to seek out new roads, and discover different destinations. Not too many mainstream models in this category can harness the same feel-good factor. DM


Unexpectedly adventurous, this small crossover delivers a fun, engaging driving experience.


More urban warrior than a committed crossover.


Hyundai Kona 1.0 TGDI Manual
Engine In-line 3-cylinder, 998cc, turbo petrol
Power 88kW @ 6,000rpm
Torque 172Nm @ 1,500 – 4,000rpm
Power-to-weight ratio 71.37 kW/ton
Gearbox Six-speed manual, FWD
Wheels/tyres 17-inch alloy, 215/55 R17 tyres
0-100 km/h 12.0sec
Top speed 181km/h
Fuel tank capacity 50 litres
Consumption (claimed/tested) 6.8/7.8 litres/100km
Range (claimed/tested) 735/641 km
CO2 emissions 138 g/km
Retail price R379,900
Warranty 5-year/150,000km
Service/maintenance plan 5-year/90,000km service plan

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