IAIN ROBERTSON 

The ‘kidology’ attached to motorcar marketing has lacked some free spirit of late, which Iain Robertson believes is partly responsible for a downturn in car sales during early-2018, although it is fair to suggest that nobody told the South Koreans.

While a number of UK-based carmakers and their representatives might suggest that ‘fings ain’t wot they used to be’ and that the first quarter ‘sales’ figures of 2018 are stilted somewhat by an immense number of manufacturer platings, it is fair to say that Hyundai (and its partner, Kia) has created an immunity to such pains. Personally, I feel that, if an air of indispensability is formulated that incorporates design integrity and brand desirability, which also includes value-for-money, its bucking of the odds becomes understandable.

The production of SUVs and crossovers has kept an apparent buoyancy in the new car market, although the tipping point is starting to hover perilously close. Yet, Hyundai, rather than pursuing a small, medium and large recipe for its models, is niche-filling with intriguing dexterity. What you see is not always what you get.

Were you to look Vinnie Jones square in the eyes, there is every chance that, after a time, you might come to grief. While anthropomorphising motorcars (turning them into human-like characters) is fairly typical practice, as we often refer to our most-loved vehicles as ‘he’, or ‘she’, a great many SUVs, or crossovers, can be likened to Vinnie Jones…or any one of a number of less cuddlable personalities. Take your pick.

Even the very marketing personnel that create the characteristics of more individualistic machinery will refer to them as ‘aggressive’, ‘progressive’ and ‘pugnacious’, the hard consonants factoring-in an edgy dynamism. The logic is eminently comprehensible, because the vast majority of the 4×4 look-alikes that patrol our highways and byways are actually as aggressive as puppies, or kittens, or Vinnie Jones, when he is not nose-to-lens with the media. They are par for the course.

Despite the promotional language projecting what Hyundai has to offer with its Kona model, I see something altogether softer and sweeter in the car, from its extended side-cladding, to its cosy interior. I prefer to refer to Kona as a ‘Teddy Bear’. In fact, I would go further and suggest that the Kona is the Steiff bear, complete with signature ear rivet, beloved by soft toy collectors, of the current motorcar crop.

Of course, it presents hints of ‘aggression’, hints of capability, with its chunky stance and suggestions of increased ride height (170mm clearance). The teasing has substance, as 4WD is an option on the punchier 174bhp, 1.6-litre turbo-petrol version that drives through a 7-speed twin-clutch automated-manual gearbox. However, the test car is the singularly more accessible 1.0-litre model, boasting a moderate 117bhp from its turbocharged three-cylinder engine (126lbs ft of torque), driving its front wheels alone through a six-speed manual transmission. It is the softer option.

It would be easy to ask the ‘WTF’ question, when first encountering the Kona. No other crossover looks remotely similar. Yet, its appearance is painlessly pleasing and not polarising. While the strident orange paintwork of the test car might curry favour in late-summer Seville (marmalade country), it adds a pertinent safety premise that the greys, blues and more subtle shades and hues cannot. Instead, it looks cheeky, perhaps cheery but certainly friendly and you do not need to turn it on its side to get a Teddy Bear grumble from its tummy.

The mild grumble emanates from its three-pot motor, complete with offbeat exhaust note and a charming level of zestiness. It is one of the better triple installations, as it seldom feels less than mature while driving, thanks to leggy 30mph per 1,000rpm top gearing, which means that a 60mph cruise demands a mere 2,000rpm on the rev-counter. Relaxed and surprisingly laid-back, the Kona is not exactly a slouch, as it can crack the 0-60mph benchmark in a reported 11.7s, although it actually feels swifter. Its maximum speed is given as 113mph and it emits 117g/km CO2 for the standard road tax levy, while managing 54.3mpg on the Official Combined fuel cycle. It is both sparky and tremendously cost-efficient.

Quite close to the bottom-rung of Hyundai’s trim ladder, the interior suffers slightly from a sea of grey and unyielding plasticity. In some respects, it carries this off, with the similar aplomb of the plastic-fantastic Suzuki Ignis. There are trim options that introduce colour highlights to air-vents and the centre console but, for bargain basement motoring, it is worth pointing out that this Kona is still very well equipped. Just as the Kona’s exterior lines are all coherent and pleasingly connected, the interior is purposeful and user-friendly, with dial clarity a clear bonus.

A mid-range, 7.0-inch, LCD touch-screen ‘floats’ above the centre console and provides both Bluetooth and android-mobile connectivity, while the rear-view camera and sat-nav support a dynamic lifestyle. Typical of modern cars that want to project a high convenience factor, the steering wheel cross-spokes have several rocker-switches, while various driver assist programs have their control buttons in a block-panel in the lower right of the dashboard. Buyers can opt for Head-Up Display, a wireless inductive charging pad for mobiles and both heated and chilled front seats from an impressive array of extra-cost accessories.

A small diameter, hide-wrapped steering wheel that is very comfortable to wield sits at the end of a tilt and reach adjustable column, while the driver’s chair is similarly adjustable to allow a wide range of driver statures to obtain maximum comfort. The fabric upholstered seats (leather optional) are very comfortable and supportive, both up front and in the rear compartment, where they split-fold 60:40 to increase the practical load space of 361-litres to a maximum of 1,143-litres. The boot floor lifts to reveal a compartmentalised section for personal possessions.

While a great many cars in this class suffer from suspension compromises, almost as though their designers and engineers are uncertain about the level of compromise that exists between comfort and multi-surface capability, the Kona manages to achieve a better balance than most. If anything, I would suggest that, while marvellously compliant and possessing high levels of bump and noise suppression, the ride quality is sportingly firm but not uncomfortably so. Fine damper control means that mid-corner road surface irregularities are dealt with, without bouncing the car off the chosen line and a series of transverse ridges can be addressed with fewer issues than for cars of twice the price.

Deliciously quick steering and a crisp turn-in are features more akin to a sportscar but they make the cuddly Kona feel as connected to its driver as any car has a right to do so. A taut build quality and a freedom from creaks and rattles suggests an overall integrity that is inspirational.

Conclusion:   Few cars create such a warmth of reception that the Hyundai Kona imbues. For a start, there is hardly a bad angle from which to view this interesting compact hatch and, while not ‘pretty’, it is properly purposeful and therein lies most of its appeal. List-priced from £16,450, it represents exceptional value for money and, like a brother-from-another-mother, it would make a great garage-mate to Suzuki’s much-loved, aforementioned tiddler.