Allow me to take you on a trip in the Wayback Machine for a moment. The year was 2001, and a 23-year-old Bark (that’s me) had just gotten a job as a Kiosk Sales Representative for Verizon Wireless. My first month, my sales quota was 55 new phone activations — I ended up selling over 120. If you doubled your quota, you qualified for a 300 percent payout. The regular commission was $27 an activation, which meant that I earned $81 per activation on 120 or so sales. I literally didn’t know what to do with all of the money — my dad was still paying my rent, and I didn’t have a dime of debt. A lot of it ended up going to a lovely young professional dancer named “Skyy,” if I remember correctly.
The rest of it, I took to Hatfield Hyundai for a down payment on a 2001 Hyundai Santa Fe GLX. Hyundai Finance was kind to young buyers back then, and they allowed me to pay something like 5 percent APR over 60 months for the new-for-2001 SUV. My black and gray version had every box checked — leather, V6, and all-wheel-drive. My Santa Fe was the only one I had ever seen with chrome door handles, and I door-handle checked every other model I saw on the road just to confirm. I think the princely sum I paid was somewhere around $23k.
Yes, it’s true that Hyundai overstated the horsepower numbers, and the car had some minor issues along the way, but when I traded it in on my RX-8 in 2005, I had gotten about 100,000 worry free miles from Hyundai’s first SUV effort. Overall, I was incredibly pleased with the ownership experience — bland, perhaps, but reliable and competent.
Well, fast forward about eighteen years or so, and Hyundai has another small SUV on the market, and it’s roughly the same price that my Santa Fe was in 2001 (yes, I’m aware of inflation). But unlike that Santa Fe, this one is awful. It’s called the Kona, and what I’m about to tell you about it flies directly in the face of every other review you’ve read. Why? Read on.
You might remember that we last discussed the base model Hyundai Kona about a year or so ago on these very digital pixels. My complaint at that time was that Hyundai was only allowing journalists to review the Ultimate models, which was making up approximately six percent of the available inventory nationwide at the time. The top trim of the Hyundai “SUV” is equipped with a 1.6-liter turbo four and has a zero-to-sixty time in the mid six-second range. It also has leather seats, an 8-inch display, Infinity sound system, and a whole host of other features designed to make you forget how terrible the rest of the car is.
Well, the Kona SE, otherwise known as the Base AF model, has exactly none of that stuff, leaving me with plenty of time to focus on just how miserable I was when driving it through the gorgeous landscape of Vancouver Island last week. I was rewarded with an “upgrade” to a “small SUV” upon arrival at the Victoria International Airport. When the young man behind the National Car Rental counter said “Hyundai Kona,” I may have actually cackled like a Scooby Doo villain.
You see, Hyundai has unofficially continued their policy of not allowing journalists to test the 147 horsepower, naturally aspirated Kona. We’ve even specifically requested to test the SE and SEL models of the Kona here at TTAC, but Hyundai has thus far refused to send our testers one. (Hyundai barely speaks to me, mostly due to the fact that I once charged, er, a lot of alcohol to my room at a Hyundai press event.)
But the rental car gods had smiled upon me on this day, for I was handed the keys to a 2019 Hyundai Kona SE AWD. As equipped, this rental would have an MSRP of $22,560 USD on the window. My example was built for the Canadian market, so all of the gauges were in metric. However, using my handy Canuckistan-to-Freedom calculator app, I was able to determine that my rental had about 1,300 miles on the clock, and it had no visual flaws.
Of course, the moment I began driving it, several non-visual flaws reared their ugly heads. The Kona is easily the most depressing vehicle I’ve driven since, well, the old Veloster. Good job, Hyundai. Everything about this car screams, “We have more expensive trim levels available, sir — please step this way. It’s only $75 a month more!”
Steering is most comparable to trying to eat pasta after your dentist has numbed your mouth with Novocaine — rarely have I encountered a wheel that provides so little feedback to the driver. One can manipulate the wheel by several degrees in either direction with no discernible effect on the direction of the Kona. The wheel itself is made of the hardest possible plastic, as though it were built for a Power Wheels that’s expected to be abused by preschoolers. Seating is devoid of support, with industrial-grade fabric covering the surfaces. Just look at those HVAC controls. Look at them. Will you just look at them?
The brakes squealed like a B-movie horror actress with the slightest application of pressure. The six-speed automatic transmission reacted to any degree of incline with guttural howls and gasps. The available 132 pound feet of torque generated by the two-liter was remarkably insufficient for even the mildest aggression off the line. Car and Driver somehow managed to get the Kona SE from zero-to-sixty in less than ten seconds (9.2), but I suspect heavy tailwinds and a steep decline were involved. (They also named the Kona to their Top Ten list, so I recommend canceling your subscription.) I don’t like to use the phrase “dangerously slow,” as I once owned a Jetta III, but the Kona SE is close.
Switching the car from “Normal” mode to “Sport” made the transmission act even more exasperated, but the improved throttle response at least gave the impression of attempted acceleration. I think that if I were cursed with a Kona SE as my daily, I’d have to put it in Sport mode and leave it there permanently. However, driving in said Sport mode cripples the fuel economy badly. I averaged around 34 MPG in regular mode, but only 26 MPG in Sport.
I can’t excuse the road noise that the Kona dumps into the cabin, either. At highway speeds, it’s genuinely loud inside. I wish I’d had the Infinity sound system from the Limited and Premium, but I didn’t, so I just got the devil’s combo of wind noise and low-fidelity stereo on my jaunts around the island.
The suspension does appear to have received some improvements for 2019, as it wasn’t nearly as harsh as the 2018 example I drove a year ago. Canadian roads are typically a lot better than what’s found in urban Miami, though, so I can’t give Hyundai all the credit on this one.
And let’s dismiss any sense or notion that the Kona is an SUV, or even a CUV. It’s a hatchback, a barely lifted Kia Rio. It’s smaller inside than my Ford Focus RS, and I think the roofline is lower. Nobody except the smallest of children could sit in the backseat for any length of time, but they’d have to also be big enough to not require a car seat, because there isn’t enough room for one of those, either.
Storage is a joke. Pictured here is a 20-inch carry on and a laptop bag. God forbid more than one person is making the airport run. A trip to the grocery store for a family of four would exceed the capacity of the Kona’s hatch by quite a bit, so in addition to being squashed painfully behind their parents, your kids will also have to hold the bread and eggs in their laps.
Let’s see…what are some positives? Visibility is pretty decent. Apple CarPlay works well enough. It’s among the cheaper options on the market if you absolutely must have AWD for some reason. That’s all I’ve got.
I can’t think of a single reason to buy the Hyundai Kona SE. Not one. It’s small, slow, uncomfortable, and ugly. Anybody visiting the local Hyundai dealer would be much better served by looking at an Elantra. I have to believe that the only reason this trim exists is so that Hyundai can advertise the Kona for under $20K in FWD configuration, and maybe for fleet sales.
No wonder they won’t let anybody review this car. It’s trash.
[Images: Mark “Bark M” Baruth/TTAC]