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Hyundai Kona 2019 off-road review: Highlander 2WD

Compact SUVs are marketed as fresh, fun and capable of a few cheeky off-the-bitumen adventures – but are they really able to get you to your campsite? Especially the 2WD variants?

Hyundai's Kona is at the forefront of a continuing wave of compact SUVs. We took a 2WD top-spec Highlander out bush to see how much we could actually do without bogging it or breaking it. Did we suffer one or both of those predicaments? Read on.

Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?

The Highlander is the Kona line-up's top-shelf model, priced from $35,500. It's available with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine – 110kW@6200rpm and 180Nm@4500rpm and six-speed automatic transmission as a two-wheel drive variant, or you can buy a 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine – 130kW@5500rpm and 265Nm@1500-4500rpm – with a seven-speed automatic transmission, and all-wheel drive, priced from $39,000.

  • Inside is a real premium space from the colour-coded stitching and accents through to the soft-touch surfaces, it's all very nice and impressive. Inside is a real premium space from the colour-coded stitching and accents through to the soft-touch surfaces, it's all very nice and impressive.
  • Inside is a real premium space from the colour-coded stitching and accents through to the soft-touch surfaces, it's all very nice and impressive. Inside is a real premium space from the colour-coded stitching and accents through to the soft-touch surfaces, it's all very nice and impressive.

The Highlander has a bunch of standard features including a floating tablet-style 8.0-inch touchscreen (with Apple Carplay and Android Auto), head-up display (which I'm a big fan of), Qi wireless charging pad (which I could never get working on my phone*), a power sunroof, heated front seats, blind-spot collision warning and tyre-pressure monitoring system and more. (* Because, I've since found out, my smartphone is not Qi enabled.)

Exterior colours range from the acid yellow of our test vehicle through to dark knight, pulse red and tangerine comet. Paint is $595.

The Highlander's fit and finish look and feel right up there with its rivals at this price-point. The Highlander's fit and finish look and feel right up there with its rivals at this price-point.

Is there anything interesting about its design?

In a bustling compact SUV market a vehicle needs a distinctive point of difference – and the Kona Highlander certainly is eye-catching. The last time I was gawked at so much while driving, I was in the new Jimny.

From the split-design headlights, to the cascading grille (whatever that means), and alloy wheels, the Kona is designed to generate admiring glances. I reckon that acid yellow paint job helps out a fair bit too.

  • The Kona Highlander certainly is eye-catching. The Kona Highlander certainly is eye-catching.
  • The Kona is designed to generate admiring glances. I reckon that acid yellow paint job helps out a fair bit too. The Kona is designed to generate admiring glances. I reckon that acid yellow paint job helps out a fair bit too.
  • The Highlander is the Kona line-up's top-shelf model, priced from $35,500. The Highlander is the Kona line-up's top-shelf model, priced from $35,500.

What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?

The Nu 2.0 MPi (multi-point injection) petrol engine and six-speed auto seem a pretty good fit for a vehicle this light (between 1290kg (lightest) and 1383kg (heaviest) kerb weight), but the AWD variant's 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine – on paper and in the real world – is the better powerplant.

The Nu 2.0 MPi (multi-point injection) petrol engine and six-speed auto seem a pretty good fit for a vehicle this light. The Nu 2.0 MPi (multi-point injection) petrol engine and six-speed auto seem a pretty good fit for a vehicle this light.

How practical is the space inside?

Inside is a real premium space: from the colour-coded stitching and accents through to leather steering wheel and shifter to the soft-touch surfaces, it's all very nice and impressive. Some hard plastics creep in here and there around the cabin space but that fact is not a deal-breaker.

Overall, the Highlander's fit and finish look and feel right up there with its rivals at this price-point.

As for room inside, this is a compact SUV so, by its very nature, its interior is not exactly the most spacious around.

This is a compact SUV so, by its very nature, its interior is not exactly the most spacious around. This is a compact SUV so, by its very nature, its interior is not exactly the most spacious around.

Driver and front passenger have well-cushioned seats and enough room if neither has a nickname like "Stretch" or "Tall Timber".

Room in the back seat is okay for an adult – it's adequate not ample – but it's immediately obvious that it's a space better suited to young kids than grown-ups.

If you're expecting a cavernous boot space then you're looking at the wrong vehicle. There's 361 litres with the seats up – that's enough to fit two camp chairs and a bit of other stuff but modest packing room is not really a big deal, because you're not packing a Kona Highlander to cross the Simpson Desert in it, you'll be packing it for day trips to a national park or a weekend away.

Room in the back seat is okay for an adult – it's adequate not ample – but it's immediately obvious that it's a space better suited to young kids than grown-ups. Room in the back seat is okay for an adult – it's adequate not ample – but it's immediately obvious that it's a space better suited to young kids than grown-ups.

With the seats out of the way, cargo space expands to 1143 litres. The back row folds flat but we never had to bother.

There is underfloor storage space at the very rear but it is rather shallow.

  • There's 361 litres with the seats up – that's enough to fit two camp chairs and a bit of other stuff. There's 361 litres with the seats up – that's enough to fit two camp chairs and a bit of other stuff.
  • With the seats out of the way, cargo space expands to 1143 litres. With the seats out of the way, cargo space expands to 1143 litres.

What's it like as a daily driver?

Is it as fun to drive as Hyundai marketing makes it out to be? Well, it certainly is a zippy little number – like the hot hatch you buy when you don't buy a hot hatch.

At 4165mm long with a 2600mm wheelbase, it's a lively diminutive beast for around-town driving. It has a solid on-road stance – at 1800mm wide with a 1559mm (front) and 1568mm (rear) wheel track – and that 2.0-litre engine has plenty of urge about it, especially when prompted.

Steering is on point, throttle response is sharp, and because of its modest dimensions, the Kona is easy to manoeuvre. Turning circle is 10.6m.

Its small size, and that 2600mm wheelbase, make it an easy steerer along gravel roads and tight bush tracks. Its small size, and that 2600mm wheelbase, make it an easy steerer along gravel roads and tight bush tracks.

It has three driving modes – Comfort, Eco and Sport – and Sport is by far the most fun of the bunch. Push the button and everything tightens up, yielding a real point-and-shoot-type driving experience.

Suspension is generally a bit firm and the Kona tends to get skippy at speed on rougher sections and it does thump through some harsher potholes, but that's a small price to pay.

What's it like for touring?

Car-makers would have us all believe that if you climb into an SUV, any SUV, you can go anywhere. Obviously, that's not accurate – especially with regards to front-wheel drive/2WD vehicles with little ground clearance (170mm) compared to a real 4WD, but you can still have decent dirt-road adventures in something like the Kona.

We took the Kona far beyond what any owner will ever do, just to see if it could handle it: we drove up, down and along sharply angled dirt hills at the side of a dam, through and across deep ruts, through mud (dried and puddled), as well as coastal sand (some of it rather soft). Irresponsible behaviour in a 2WD with low-profile road-suited tyres, but we emerged unscathed and unbogged, though it took plenty of patience, concentration and experience to have done so.

Because of the nature of sensible driving on dirt tracks and gravel roads – low speeds, conservative steering – you do without some of the dynamic qualities that make the Kona so much fun on-road – quick off the mark, plenty of urge – but its small size, and that 2600mm wheelbase, make it an easy steerer along gravel roads and tight bush tracks.

We took the Kona far beyond what any owner will ever do, just to see if it could handle it. We took the Kona far beyond what any owner will ever do, just to see if it could handle it.

It has a 600kg unbraked towing capacity and 1300kg towing capacity (braked) – but, really, no one is going to use this as a tow vehicle.

The Kona has a space-saver tyre, which is not ideal for daily life, and certainly not good for touring.

The 2WD Highlander, best suited to a couple or a one-child family, is capable of its own unique kind of adventures.

How much fuel does it consume?

Fuel consumption is listed as 7.2L/100km (combined). We recorded 8.0L/100km on test and that included plenty of gravel-road driving and low-speed "adventuring" thrown into the mix.

The Kona Highlander has a 50-litre fuel tank.

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?

It has a five-star ANCAP rating as a result of testing in 2017. Safety wise, the Highlander has six airbags, two ISOFIX points, three top tether points, as well as a stack of driver-assist tech.

What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?

The Kona range has a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty.

If you're keen to give the adventure lifestyle a try, and you like 2WD compact SUVs, you could do worse than give a Kona Highlander a nudge. It will get you to your campsite as long as your campsite is at the end of a well-maintained dirt or gravel road and you're driving the route in dry weather. It is capable of doing more than that – with experience and judicious driving – but common sense and responsible ownership dictates that you don't.

It's fun to drive on-road and – bonus – there's a bunch of genuine outdoors-ready accessories available: nudge bar, roof racks, bike carrier, portable cooler and more.

If you're truly after a Kona that is a better fit for outdoor adventures, go for the 1.6-litre turbo version with the AWD system and centre diff lock.

$35,500

Based on new car retail price

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

Daily driver score

3.8/5

Adventure score

3.8/5

adventureguide rank

  • Light

    Dry weather gravel roads and formed trails with no obstacles, very shallow water crossings.

  • Medium

    Hard-packed sand, slight to medium hills with minor obstacles in all weather.

  • Heavy

    Larger obstacles, steeper climbs and deeper water crossings; plus tracks marked as '4WD only'