I’ve been trying very hard not to fall into the same automotive review literary tropes as my forefathers. Y’know, describing all under the same shade of Jeremy Clarkson Top-Gear-esque “Brilliant,” or reaching in our idiom arsenal to describe a new generation of a car as “grown-up”. I mean, it’s a car, not a person. It’s not like the Kona hit a growth spurt over the summer and now they’re in the 7th grade fighting a losing battle against the concepts of body odor and deodorant.
Yet, while driving the 2024 Hyundai Kona through Baltimore, the kind of tired “grown-up” idiom was all I could think of that accurately described the experience. The Kona had grown physically and got a little more sophisticated, and the car is now what anyone familiar with automotive writing would call “more mature.” But, to jazz it up, let’s interpret the idiom a bit more literally. Sure, the Kona grew up, but not all grown-ups change for the better with age and maturity. For the most part, the Kona did change for the better, but there are a few caveats with the new car that might not be quite as much of a glow-up as they sound.
Obviously, the 2024 Hyundai Kona looks stylistically different from its predecessor. This redesign is equal parts revolutionary and evolutionary. Some of the themes of the old Kona, like its low-set taillight clusters and high-mounted running lights, have been expanded upon and pushed to their razor’s edge. Hyundai’s new monobrow front light signature sits proudly amongst sharply creased surfaces. Hyundai says the Kona EV was designed first, with the traditional gas-powered and not-US-bound hybrid models receiving alterations to the styling to accommodate the proper cooling and air intake needs for their respective powertrains.
The styling isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Trust me, I learned that from the oodles of Twitter commenters who went out of their way to tell me how ugly and stupid they thought the car looked. Personally, I’m more partial to the Limited trim; the color-contrasting cladding helps disguise the Kona’s height and shows off how complicated its side surfacing really is. It may not be for everyone, but it’s definitely a distinctive looking crossover.
The real story is the Kona’s new, increased size. The old Kona started to feel small for its class; nearly all of its direct competitors, like the Chevy Trax or Honda HR-V, grew sizably with their redesigns. This new Kona is a whopping 5.7 inches longer, with three of those nearly six extra inches of girth going directly to the rear seat.
And, it works. The Kona’s interior and extra legroom place it firmly out of the “toy car for your kids”, or “tiny hatchback masquerading as an SUV” category and into an aspirational, bonafide crossover model. The interior feels more sophisticated than the previous car. It’s gained luxury convenience features like a power liftgate, albeit, only on the top trim Limited model. The seats are comfortable and arguably more substantial than the car before, and all the plastics fit nicely, although they look more expensive than they feel. It’s not that they’re bad, just, some competitors might have a slight edge on the Hyundai. Hyundai’s shift-by-wire column shifter may look familiar to anyone who has driven the Ioniq 5 or Ioniq 6; it really frees up the lower dashboard and center console area. There’s an abundance of space for cupholders, phones, and all sorts of misshapen keepsakes and knickknacks you’d stash there whilst on an all-Saturday errand and shopping haul. It’s a workable, usable interior that no doubt will be handy for the young adults and budding families that will flock to this model.
Infotainment-wise, the Kona uses a familiar tandem-mounted twin-screen setup that’s pretty common in every modern Hyundai now. However, Hyundai’s given the interface a slight refresh – it doesn’t look quite the same as what you’d get in an Elantra or Palisade, yet it remains just as snappy and user-friendly as it’s always been. There’s no wireless Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, but Hyundai did say that would come very soon and via a dealer-installed update.
The platform may be new, but a lot of the Kona’s mechanical bits will feel familiar. Base SE and SEL cars will come with the same 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine producing 147 mated to a CVT as last year. Upgraded N-Line and Limited-trimmed cars will use the 190 horsepower, 1.6-liter turbocharged engine, mated to a traditional torque-converter eight-speed automatic. Since our cars were all either N-Line or Limited models, they all came with the 1.6-liter turbo, and in AWD form.
I suppose the Kona is quiet and competent enough, I mean, it’s hard to find a car that isn’t. But, it’s clear that the Kona may have lost a little bit of verve with its increased size and sophistication. It’s not like the old Kona was the paragon of driving excitement, no car is, but this new one is different.
It is interesting to see how the candor of the car has changed with the transmission. Last year’s car used a dry-clutch style DCT, and I gather that Hyundai opted for the 8-speed torque converter automatic, trading outright drivetrain efficiency and performance, for reliability and smoothness. The 8-speed is very smooth, way smoother than the sometimes clunky DCT of the old car, but as a penalty, the Kona’s powertrain feels less responsive. Downshifts are a little reluctant, and the Kona doesn’t really pull all that hard near the top of its rev range. Add in the increased weight over the old car, and the 1.6T doesn’t feel as sprightly as it once did.
Our AWD test cars have a class-leading 8.3 inches of ground clearance and multilink rear suspension. FWD models make do with just 6.9 inches of ground clearance, and a simpler semi-independent torsion beam holding up the rear wheels.
I got seat time with both the N-Line and the Limited; the N-Line package (not to be confused with the full-blown Kona N) is entirely cosmetic, and there are no dynamic differences between the two models. Still, the Kona’s ride and handling balance is generally good. The car is quiet and isolated, although I wish it was more settled under minor bumps. There’s a slight bounciness over some bumps that the Kona has, that its competitors don’t. Despite that, the car steers confidently and manages not to feel overgrown and misplaced on a curvy road despite the increased size and weight of the old model. I wouldn’t call it a sports car, but it feels confident and reasonably engaging considering that it’s a subcompact crossover with no sporting aspirations. Hyundai hasn’t confirmed or denied if this Kona will get a full-blown N model treatment.
Now, the Kona is clearly a solid, meritable offering in the entry-level subcompact crossover class. Its so-called “grown-up” features and general air of sophistication put distance between it and other competitors, and likely most pertinently, it and the smaller Hyundai Venue.
That’s not the entire story, though. Sure, I had some minor qualms with the driving experience, but let’s be real – most consumers won’t really care about how nitty gritty dynamic vehicle details they can wring out of a moderately priced crossover. They will care about other things, like value or fuel economy.
The new Kona takes a big hit in fuel economy, specifically with the 1.6-turbo. For 2024, the AWD N-line and Limited trims are rated for 24 city, 29 highway, 26 combined. That’s a sizable drop from the 27 city, 32 highway, and 29 combined of last year’s car. Pricing marches upward, too – the top-of-the-line Limited stickered for $34,485 with AWD, a lot of money to charge for a so-called entry-level car.
The somewhat high pricing and mediocre fuel economy are where the Hyundai Kona can appear less competitive than before. If you don’t need AWD, the Chevy Trax’s cool interior, dirt-cheap price, and better fuel economy make a strong case for itself. The Toyota Corolla Cross Hybrid might be a tad more expensive when comparably equipped, but there’s a nearly 10 MPG fuel economy delta between the two cars. The Honda HR-V is cheaper and rides better, although its sole 2.0L engine is pretty slow. The Kona’s direct rival will likely be the Subaru Crosstrek, which costs about the same, but the Crosstrek’s superior fuel economy trounces the Kona’s by 3 MPG.
Look, growing up isn’t a faultless process in which ugly ducklings transform into beautiful, perfect swans. Sometimes maturity doesn’t remove all the quirks a person has developed during adolescence. Sometimes, growing up may add new ones. That doesn’t mean you’re not grown up, but it does mean that maybe you’re a little weird. I think that’s the best way to describe the 2024 Hyundai Kona.