When Hyundai first showed off the Kona subcompact crossover we looked at it with a wary eye. The model has funky headlights, interesting styling elsewhere, and what appeared to be tight cabin quarters. To say the least, we were a little skeptical the model would be very good.

Hyundai Kona
The front end is pretty busy, but the elements work well with the new grille.

Built to compete with Jeep’s Renegade, Subaru’s Crosstrek, Mazda CX-3, and Honda’s HR-V, the Kona is somewhat late to the party. Other automakers have been putting out vehicles of this size for a few years now, and we wondered if Hyundai released the Kona just to have something in this segment, or because it really had a good vehicle. We got our chance to find out at a recent Midwest Automotive Media Event at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. We took the Kona for a spin on the public roads around the racetrack.

Solid, Tight, and Actually Quite Sporty 

Hyundai Kona
The Kona was sportier than we expected it to be, and it's best-in-class for handling.

The first thing we noticed about the Kona was that it is not a soft, cushy crossover. It feels taut and sporty. The suspension is on the firmer side, and this helps make the model feel ready to take on a twisty road. The steering is reasonably precise but provides little feedback to the driver. The Kona is no performance crossover, but it does a good job of keeping the drive enjoyable.

Hyundai Kona
The 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder made the Kona feel pretty quick. 

The model we drove had the 175 hp 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder under the hood. That engine can filter power to either the front or all four wheels. Our tester had all-wheel drive. The engine is downright peppy, and it makes the little Kona move quickly. The driving characteristics actually pair well with the exterior’s funky and somewhat edgy styling.

Compact But Not Uncomfortable

Hyundai Kona front seats
There's more room inside the cabin of the Kona than it looks like from the outside. 

When we first looked at the Kona, we expected it to be cramped inside, but Hyundai has done an excellent job packaging the interior. While there’s only so much a car designer can do with a vehicle of this size, the Kona provides a surprising amount of space for the driver and all passengers. It would be tough to stuff three people in the back seat regularly, but occasionally fitting five in this crossover is doable.

The cargo area offers about 19 cubic feet with the rear seats in place and almost 46 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. That’s less than the Jeep Renegade, but more than the Mazda CX-3, placing the Kona near the middle of the pack.

Quality Technology, Functional Interior Design

Hyundai Kona infotainment
The infotainment system on the Kona is one of the better ones out there. 

Hyundai has some of the best technology out there. Its infotainment systems are easy to use, feature packed, and attractive. The Kona continues this theme. While its system isn’t as quite as well laid out as some of Hyundai’s other vehicles, it’s still good.

It features an 8-inch touchscreen and buttons to either side. The screen isn’t the highest resolution out there, but it is responsive, and the user interface is excellent. Features include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, navigation, Bluetooth connectivity, and Hyundai’s Blue Link connected car system. There’s even a little HUD unit on top of the dash. Hyundai took a page out of Mazda’s playbook and used a silly little plastic screen, though, instead of projecting the HUD on the windshield.

Hyundai Kona
We could do without all of the lime green accents, but it's a youthful look.

In terms of interior design, we found the Kona’s traditional interior styling didn't match with its somewhat outlandish exterior. Everything is very functional and rational, and the contrast between the exterior and interior makes the funky exterior styling stick out all that much more. Hyundai tried to liven things up inside by adding bright lime green accents to the dash, seats, and center console, but it feels like its trying too hard to be unique with what's otherwise a normal interior. Good thing you mostly forget about that once you actually drive the vehicle.

A True Contender

Hyundai Kona
The Kona is a good first entrant into the compact crossover segment for the Korean brand.

After spending some time with the Kona, it’s clear that this model is no joke. It’s a true contender in the segment, and it will give the front-runners, like the Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade, and Subaru Crosstrek a run for their money. Hyundai has a crossover that provides an engaging drive, modern technology, and quality cabin at a competitive price point.

Hyundai Kona grille

The biggest hurdle we see the model having is its polarizing styling. We see it as a love it or hate it kind of thing. The funky headlights are similar to the ones that used to be on the Jeep Cherokee. Jeep switched back to a more conventional headlight configuration, and we wonder if that’s a sign that this kind of styling doesn’t widely appeal to consumers. It will be interesting to see how many Konas Hyundai sells in its first year, and how the model evolves over time.

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