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First drives with Paula Sward

Hyundai has made the leap into the small-size SUV market for the first time with its all-new KONA.

With words like ‘rugged’, ‘armour’, ‘wide’ and ‘low’ being thrown around, I was a bit apprehensive. Would a vehicle that was pitched towards young males who like to be sophisticated in the city during the working day, then jump into the great outdoors at the weekend, appeal to me?

The short answer is ‘yes’. This SUV adaptation of the popular i30 platform looks fantastic on first approach. With a range of bright exterior colours and contrasting black roof options, sleek nose and shortened rear, the KONA is less masculine and more sporty than I expected.

Inside, the layout is comfortable, with everything in easy reach. Even in the Active base spec the trims are sleek and streamlined, with the added luxury of leather steering wheel and gear shift knob. Take it up a couple of notches and in the top-spec Highlander you can choose to match your seatbelts, front dash accents and stitching on the seats, steering wheel, front armrest and gearshift boot to the red or acid yellow exterior colour. You also get heated and cooled leather seats in the front, along with power adjustable driver and front passenger seats, heated steering wheel, head-up display, front park assist and a handy wireless charging pad for your smartphone. While I’m on technology, all specs come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, as well as Bluetooth connectivity and a 7” multimedia display. However, there is no in-built navigation in any of the range, with Hyundai believing its target market is more likely to stick with their smartphone mapping and navigation technology. I tend to agree, especially when some systems match your calendar to the navigation, automatically providing directions to your next booked destination – a very handy little tool.

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As with most models in the small-size SUV market rear passenger space is a bit squeezy, with rear seat legroom 880mm, but they’re not really designed for carrying people in the back. The focus is on singles and couples who like to have tight city-savvy performance combined with the comfort and stability for longer-range and loose surface driving. To that end, boot space is decent for this class at 361L, and can be extended slightly by removing the rear cargo tray. However, even with the seats folded down I doubt there would be room for a mountain bike in there, with enthusiasts having to add on rear or roof racks to transport their precious adventure cargo.

The KONA has been designed on a long wheel base (2600mm) but with shorter nose and rear overhang, making it more compact in overall length (4165mm). However, it is wider than many in its class (1800mm), giving it more sideways internal space.

The Australian market for small and medium SUVs had experienced phenomenal growth during the past six years. While Hyundai has come a little later to the small-size SUV party, they say it has allowed them to watch what their competitors have refined from first to new model and ensure they don’t make the same mistakes.

There are three trim levels – Active, Elite and Highlander – each with two drivetrain options – a 2.0L naturally aspirated engine with six-speed auto and front-wheel drive producing 110kW at 6200rpm and 180 Nm at 4500rpm; or a 1.6L turbo charged engine matched with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive, with a power output of 130kW at 5500rpm and 265Nm of torque starting at 1500rpm and sticking with it through to 4500rpm. Fuel consumption is quoted as 7.2L/100km for the 2.0L, and 6.7L/100km for the 1.6L.

However, with all of this choice, there is no diesel, and no plans to introduce one in the near future. With most competitors having diesel options, I wonder how much more pressure must come on the household budget before this is explored by the Hyundai development team.

Driving both engine types across the same road loop, you could certainly feel the difference in performance. The 2.0L performed well on urban bitumen, although a little sluggish when accelerating, while the 1.6L came into its own on rural roads. Taking it on gravel was not an issue for my more experienced motoring writer colleagues, but the on-demand AWD was a little slow to kick in for my liking. The suspension and steering were tuned in Australia specifically for local driving conditions, with no fewer than 78 variations tested. The steering was comfortable and tight in urban and rural bitumen conditions, but they may have to go back and further refine the suspension to remove a bit of the additional bounce.

Both engine and transmission types also feature Drive Mode Select, where you can choose ‘Comfort’ (for day-to-day driving), Eco (for the fuel consumption conscious) and ‘Sport’, for a more dynamic drive.

In the end the choice of engine will come down to personal preference – do you want an agile car that has good fuel economy and enough power to get out and about comfortably? Or are you willing to sacrifice a few litres per 100km for something with a bit more grunt, all-wheel drive on demand and better performance on the open road?

And while we’re on choice, the base-spec Active is also available with an optional safety pack, which not only adds a range of safety features but also power folding and heated exterior mirrors. No wonder we were getting confused about which one we were driving!

At the time of writing Hyundai was still waiting to get the results of its ANCAP crash testing, but I imagine it will easily achieve the 5 stars the brand always strives for. The base spec Active gets downhill brake control, hill-start assist control, auto dusk sensing headlights, electronic stability control and rear park assist and rear view camera. Adding the safety pack brings in Hyundai’s SmartSense technology, including blind spot collision warning, rear cross-traffic collision warning, lane keep assist, forward collision warning and avoidance assist and driver attention warning. In my mind it’s well worth the $1500 added to the purchase price.

While I’m on costs, the Kona also comes with a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty, with the first five services capped, at a total of $1395 for the 2.0L engine and $1405 for the turbocharged option.

Priced from $27,000 drive away, the new Kona is a neat little addition to the Hyundai range.