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Matt Campbell
Reviewed & driven by
CarsGuide

16 Oct 2020

The Hyundai Kona is an eye-catching small SUV, and you probably notice plenty of them on the street when you're driving around. I certainly have since I collected this Kona Highlander 2WD model as my latest long-termer, which I'll have for three months.

Part 1: June 2020

My previous small SUV long-termer was the Honda HR-V RS, so stepping both up (in price) and down (in size) saw me take on the Hyundai Kona Highlander 2WD as my latest adopted automobile.

The Kona Highlander 2WD will join myself, my partner Gemma, and our two dogs Joey and Ziggy over the coming three months, with the intention of us getting to know the Kona better, seeing how it fits into our lifestyle, and making the most of its many features. As one of the most popular small SUVs on the market, we figured we should see what it's like to live with.

It is indeed feature-packed - the Highlander grade is the top-spec Kona model, with this 2WD version costing $36,660 plus on-road costs. That's a lot of money for a little car like this, and if you want to spend even more you can opt for the all-wheel drive model with a punchier turbo-petrol engine - for an additional $3540.

  • The Hyundai Kona is an eye-catching small SUV. (image: Matt Campbell) The Hyundai Kona is an eye-catching small SUV. (image: Matt Campbell)
  • You probably notice plenty of them on the street when you're driving around. (image: Matt Campbell) You probably notice plenty of them on the street when you're driving around. (image: Matt Campbell)
  • I certainly have since I collected this Kona Highlander 2WD model as my latest long-termer, which I'll have for three months. (image: Matt Campbell) I certainly have since I collected this Kona Highlander 2WD model as my latest long-termer, which I'll have for three months. (image: Matt Campbell)

The Kona Highlander grade does justify its price with a lengthy equipment list, though. Standard on this car is 18-inch alloy wheels (with a space-saver spare), LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, halogen fog-lights, leather interior trim, heated and cooled electrically adjustable front seats, a sunroof, and a heated steering wheel (sooooo good on cold winter mornings).

The media system is an 8.0-inch unit with the smartphone mirroring tech you'd expect - Apple CarPlay and Android Auto - but there's only one USB port. There is, however, a Qi wireless phone charging pad, and there's built in sat nav if you prefer to do things the old fashioned way - plus the pop-up head-up display (HUD) tells you your speed, sat nav directions, and even has blind-spot monitoring alerts for both sides, so if you're in the middle lane of a freeway you don't need to be rubberneckin' to see what's around you.

I'll dwell more on how simple the media system is to use in the next update, and that's one of the key things with the Kona - everything is really well thought out, with the ergonomics of the cabin offering ease of use, and lots of adjustment for drivers who are taller (myself - 182cm/6'0") or shorter. I plan to get my 148cm (4'11") mum into the Kona for a drive at some stage, as it's on her potential new car shopping list.

  • Everything is really well thought out, with the ergonomics of the cabin offering ease of use, and lots of adjustment for drivers who are taller (myself - 182cm/6’0”) or shorter. (image: Matt Campbell) Everything is really well thought out, with the ergonomics of the cabin offering ease of use, and lots of adjustment for drivers who are taller (myself - 182cm/6’0”) or shorter. (image: Matt Campbell)
  • The seat heating, steering wheel warmer and multimedia simplicity were all worthy of big ticks. (image: Matt Campbell) The seat heating, steering wheel warmer and multimedia simplicity were all worthy of big ticks. (image: Matt Campbell)
  • You need to do something to stand out from the crowd in this ever-growing segment. (image: Matt Campbell) You need to do something to stand out from the crowd in this ever-growing segment. (image: Matt Campbell)
  • The Kona Highlander 2WD will join myself, my partner Gemma, and our two dogs Joey and Ziggy over the coming three months. (image: Matt Campbell) The Kona Highlander 2WD will join myself, my partner Gemma, and our two dogs Joey and Ziggy over the coming three months. (image: Matt Campbell)

There's something to that. Mum is looking to get a small SUV that is slightly more spacious than her current car (a Citroen DS3 D Sport - yes, my mum is pretty cool), and there are just so many small SUVs on the market that she literally texts me every week asking about another different one she's seen recently.

That's the thing - you need to do something to stand out from the crowd in this ever-growing segment. And we know there's an update coming for the Kona in 2021 which will not only improve the interior tech and safety equipment, but will also see the addition of the first ever Hyundai Kona N performance SUV. Maybe mum will want to wait for that one...

I mentioned safety tech, and the Highlander is well specced in that regard. It comes standard with auto emergency braking (AEB) and pedestrian detection, as well as lane keeping assistance (among the best this journo has ever experienced), lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and a reversing camera. I know it's only a small vehicle, but newer offerings have 360 degree surround view camera systems, and that would actually be handy in the Kona because it has some rear blind spots when you're parking it.

The powertrain could be better. Maybe the extra money for the turbo version really is worth it. (image: Matt Campbell) The powertrain could be better. Maybe the extra money for the turbo version really is worth it. (image: Matt Campbell)

Our first month with the Kona consisted of a trip from collection in Sydney over the Blue Mountains to Cowra. Then back to Sydney. Then to Cronulla, then back to the Blue Mountains. And after 1072km in the first month, the Kona has been a pretty decent companion.

Gemma drove it for one of those long stints, and she had a few positive findings - the seat heating, steering wheel warmer and multimedia simplicity were all worthy of big ticks for her. But she found the engine and transmission could rob you of momentum up hills - it hangs on to high gears before eventually downshifting and revving pretty hard - and the cruise control for her also had some tendency to misbehave, over/undershooting the set speed by as much as 10 per cent either way.

I noticed the same thing with the cruise control - and yeah, it's adaptive cruise, so I expected better. Plus I have to agree, the powertrain could be better. Maybe the extra money for the turbo version really is worth it. I would love to compare a turbo-DCT Kona the 2.0L 2WD model, and maybe that's something I will investigate further in coming updates.

  • The Kona Highlander comes with a sunroof as standard. (image: Matt Campbell) The Kona Highlander comes with a sunroof as standard. (image: Matt Campbell)
  • It comes with LED headlights and LED daytime running lights. (image: Matt Campbell) It comes with LED headlights and LED daytime running lights. (image: Matt Campbell)
  • The media system is an 8.0-inch unit with the smartphone mirroring tech you’d expect. (image: Matt Campbell) The media system is an 8.0-inch unit with the smartphone mirroring tech you’d expect. (image: Matt Campbell)
  • It comes with a space-saver spare. (image: Matt Campbell) It comes with a space-saver spare. (image: Matt Campbell)

You can also expect to see this exact car going up against a new small SUV rival soon. Stay tuned for that. And in the next update I'll tell you a bit about Hyundai Auto Link Premium, which is fitted to this model and basically allows you to use your smartphone as a remote control for some aspects of the car. More on that next month.

Oh, and if you're wondering how the Kona Active 2WD model (which is considerably more affordable) fared in our comparison test against the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3, you can check out our test here, and the video here.

You can also expect to see this exact car going up against a new small SUV rival soon. (image: Matt Campbell) You can also expect to see this exact car going up against a new small SUV rival soon. (image: Matt Campbell)

Acquired: June 2020

Distance travelled this month: 1072km

Odometer: 8244km

Average fuel consumption for July: 7.3L/100km (measured at the pump)

Part 2: August 2020

I’d love to tell you that the past month has been full of adventures and exploring, but in truth just a few hours of the last five weeks really lives up to that.

That was the weekend snow blanketed the Blue Mountains and beyond, and I decided that at 6am on a Sunday morning, I should go for a drive in the Kona to see it. I couldn’t rouse my partner to come for a road trip, and my dogs looked at me from their beds as if to say, “don’t you know it’s Sunday morning, mate?” but I decided to go anyway.

First thing was to scrape the frost off the windscreen, start the car, turn on the seat heater (to maximum - that’s 3/3 on the scale) and also the steering wheel heater. Temperature? 26 degrees C to start with. 

But after just a few kays the temp was dropped to 22, as it was already warm by the time I got to Warrimoo. (I live in Glenbrook at the base of the Blue Mountains). 

I continued past Springwood, Leura and Katoomba, all the while keeping pace with other intrepid explorers out early to get some glimpses of the snow. Once I got to Medlow Bath, I had to stop for a shot at the Hydro Majestic, where you could see white dusting the distant ranges. But there was no snow where I was.

Coxs River Road is a great little stretch of tarmac that can be slippery. Coxs River Road is a great little stretch of tarmac that can be slippery.

I had to keep in mind that my Kona long-termer is the front-wheel drive model, so it was never part of the plan to go ploughing the stuff myself. I just wanted to see it, grab some photos, and get a bit more time in the Kona.

So I passed Blackheath (no snow), then Mount Victoria (no snow), and continued down to Coxs River Road, a great little stretch of tarmac that can be slippery, and has a few blind corners and crests you need to be aware of. I was getting closer. I could see the snow-capped hills inching towards me through the windscreen, and so I drove up Lowther Siding Road to Duckmaloi Road, en route to Jenolan Caves and Oberon. 

I didn’t make it all the way there. The outside temperature was below zero according to the Kona’s info screen, and with sections of ice on the road, I decided not to add a blue Kona to the scenery, and turned around before it got too dicy. 

The little Hyundai SUV dealt with the road conditions really well. The little Hyundai SUV dealt with the road conditions really well.

On my way back towards Lithgow the traffic heading towards Oberon was dense, and little did I know that I’d bypassed a road block, as the authorities had clearly figured out that drivers were heading to see the snow from all directions… except Coxs River Road.

After a hearty (disgusting) snack at one of the local drive-thrus in Lithgow, I went towards Bells Line of Road to see if there was more snow around. 

I had driven my own car - the amazing 2007 Suzuki Jimny, now with nearly dead gearbox - to Zig Zag Railway the day before to play in the snow, and I expected there to be a bit of stuff left there. There was, but I didn’t dare to get myself bogged in the Kona with no phone service.

I had driven my Suzuki Jimny to Zig Zag Railway to play in the snow. (image credit: Glen Sullivan) I had driven my Suzuki Jimny to Zig Zag Railway to play in the snow. (image credit: Glen Sullivan)

It was amazing to see the snow, and the little Hyundai SUV dealt with the road conditions really well. I still feel that the 2.0-litre engine is a bit gutless at times, robbed of power by the transmission. And the adaptive cruise control can be really laggy at times, too - set it at 90km/h, and you could drop as low as 82, and overshoot the set speed by a similar margin, too. 

But the grip, handling and comfort are all standing up to any test I’ve thrown at it. Including at least four trips to the shops for food supplies over the previous month. Has anyone else noticed how much more cooking at home is happening in the Covid period?

My time with the Kona has consisted of at least four trips to the shops for food supplies. My time with the Kona has consisted of at least four trips to the shops for food supplies.

I also took the Kona to Bunnings and managed to fit a six-foot ladder in (seats folded down to fit it!) and it made a few other trips around the area, too.

I took the Kona to Bunnings and managed to fit a six-foot ladder inside. I took the Kona to Bunnings and managed to fit a six-foot ladder inside.

Oh, you no doubt saw our comparison test, too, where we put this Kona Highlander 2WD up against the new Nissan Juke Ti 2WD to see how it fared. And yes, the Kona stood up very well… aside from those aforementioned quibbles.

I said in my first update that I planned to show my mum the Kona, but timing might not work out. She has, however, just tested out one of the Kona’s smaller SUV rivals, the VW T-Cross, which she loved apart from the steering wheel (it’s chonky) and the seats (they’re quite long in the squab). She loved everything else about the T-Cross, including its shorter length and turbo engine.

The Kona will be right for a lot of customers out there. The Kona will be right for a lot of customers out there.

So she’s effectively ruled out the Kona because it’s not quite right for her. And I guess that’s just a part of the story when it comes to small SUVs - there are so many of them available (more than 30 across the light and small SUV categories, not including luxury variants) that there’s an option for almost everyone. It’s just a matter of finding which is right for you.

The Kona, though, will be right for a lot of customers out there. I look forward to sharing my final thoughts on it with you in the next instalment - including some opinions on the smartphone app-controlled Hyundai Auto Link system.

Acquired: June 2020

Distance travelled this month: 556km

Odometer: 8800km

Average fuel consumption for August: 7.8L/100km (measured at the pump)

Part 3: September 2020

Oftentimes it’s hard to say goodbye to a car. You form a bond with your vehicle - you go for adventures together, you go through good and bad times… and when it’s time to part, you feel a bit lost for words.

That was pretty much the situation with my long-term Hyundai Kona Highlander 2WD, which I actually took back several weeks ago. Work and life got in the way of me being able to finish this series of stories, but now I’ve had some time to reflect, I am missing it a bit more than I thought.

What am I missing about it? The convenience, mainly. Not just of having an extra set of wheels, but the size, the ease of operation, the driveability, and - in the recent spell of hotter days - the cooled front seats.

Oftentimes it’s hard to say goodbye to a car. Oftentimes it’s hard to say goodbye to a car.

In recent weeks I’ve been spending heaps of time in $60K dual cab 4WD utes, which I love doing, but I realise just how much more suitable a small SUV can be for those errands where you just don’t want to fight tight parking spaces, or don’t need to have a huge tub at the back. A quick snip down to the post office? I’d take the Kona. Run to the shops for milk? The Kona was the go.

And I think that’s where the small SUV is filling its requirement for a lot of buyers out there. These models, which are largely the equivalent of a hatchback but with a more rugged look, are just adept at being a good size for most people’s needs.

Sure, if you have a family of five you won’t want a Kona. Get a Santa Fe. But if you’re like me - in a couple, with two small dogs, then the Kona is about all the car you need.

These models, which are largely the equivalent of a hatchback but with a more rugged look, are just adept at being a good size for most people’s needs. These models, which are largely the equivalent of a hatchback but with a more rugged look, are just adept at being a good size for most people’s needs.

I did, however, marvel at the new-look Hyundai Kona small SUV that was revealed in my final weeks of ‘ownership’. I think the revised styling really is more resolved and the interior looks to have taken a step up, too. Let’s just hope there’s some action under the bonnet for the non-turbo models, because the 2.0L, til the very end of my time with it, was a bit too dull for my tastes.

I mentioned in my last update that I’d share some of the intel from the Hyundai Auto Link app, and you’ll see below a couple of the details that were sent to me as part of my September driving report. Each month, the data collated would be put into an easy to digest webpage that I could check over and see how I went.

The onboard diagnostics system updates your driving data and statistics, and gives you an overview of crucial components such as the engine and transmission, cruise control, steering, parking, suspension, lane keeping, tyre pressure and braking systems. There were zero faults across the three months I had the car.

The revised styling for the 2021 model is more resolved and the interior looks to have taken a step up, too. The revised styling for the 2021 model is more resolved and the interior looks to have taken a step up, too.

Beyond that I could also see what my fuel consumption was like over a given period of time. But weirdly, the measurement units are km/L instead of the locally preferred L/100km. So, my Sept average, according to the app, was 13.43km/L, which equates to 7.44L/100km. That number is indeed just a little lower than I averaged over my loan in the Kona, which evened out at 7.7L/100km at the pump. 

But I also thought it was neat to see my time spent driving. According to the app I drove for 12 hours in September for a total of 648km, where in August it was 9 hours and 406km, and July was 13 hours for 639km.

It’s a great way to keep an eye on just how much of your life you waste in traffic. Hmmm. Sorry for that. That’s a bit of a downer.

  • Each month, the data collated would be put into an easy to digest webpage that I could check over and see how I went. Each month, the data collated would be put into an easy to digest webpage that I could check over and see how I went.
  • The onboard diagnostics system updates your driving data and statistics, and gives you an overview of crucial components. The onboard diagnostics system updates your driving data and statistics, and gives you an overview of crucial components.
  • According to the app I drove for 12 hours in September for a total of 648km. According to the app I drove for 12 hours in September for a total of 648km.
  • There are other things that are interesting about the app, but one thing that’s not as good as it should be is the actual app itself. There are other things that are interesting about the app, but one thing that’s not as good as it should be is the actual app itself.

Anyway, there are other things that are interesting about the app, but one thing that’s not as good as it should be is the actual app itself. Hyundai needs to implement face or fingerprint recognition ASAP, because logging in using an email and password is so 2015. In fact, it acted as a deterrent to me. I can log in to my bank account using FaceID, why not my car?

That’s where the future is, really. People want the convenience of being able to log in to see their driving data, but also - as more and more EVs and plug-in hybrids hit the market - they want to be able to see their charge status at a glimpse, monitor their usage, start their car and warm the seats and interior up or alternately cool it down on hotter days. And that is where the shortfalls of the system come up. Yes, you can remotely start the car or turn on the lights or hazard lights, but you can’t set the temperature of the climate control, hit the seat or steering wheel heater… It needs to be better in that regard. Maybe the updated Kona will address some of those concerns. 

But then again, there are a whole bunch of people who will never even use this app system. And if I owned the car, I wouldn’t either, in all likelihood. That shouldn’t detract from the fact the 2020 Hyundai Kona Highlander 2WD was a pretty likeable small SUV to have at home for three months - and there are certainly bits about it that I will miss. 

That said, I actively didn't take the Kona for a week away down the coast... not because I didn't want to drive it, but more because I wanted to drive my recently purchased Audi TT quattro. Yes, the Kona would have been more practical to fit a week's worth of food, clothes, stuff, two adults, two dogs and their beds in - we've done it before in the Hyundai and it was a doddle - but it was too easy to say "let's just take it" in that situation. My partner Gemma wasn't impressed, and nor were the dogs. But for my week off I really wanted to have a car that made me feel a bit of excitement - which is the one thing the Kona has never really delivered over my time with it.

Acquired: June 2020

Distance travelled this month: 663km

Odometer: 9463km

Average fuel consumption for September: 7.7L/100km (measured at the pump)

Verdict

The Hyundai Kona Highlander 2WD is a great option for those want lots equipment but aren't that fussed about how the engine and transmission perform. I am not one of those people, and the powertrain was its biggest letdown during my three months with the car. That isn't to say it won't be perfectly fine for some buyers, but if you like a bit of grunt, be sure to test drive the turbocharged AWD variant - if your budget permits.

Score: 7.4/10



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