2018 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD Packs a Hawaiian Punch

That would be a Pulse Red 2018 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD. Photos by Matt Coker

After years of bigger supposedly being better, sport utility vehicles seem to have found themselves in a race to get smaller in recent years, with the “crossover” being a reflection of that philosophy. 

New this year from Hyundai, the Kona not only fits the trend but establishes a new one by becoming an alternative to bigger SUVs and sedans. 

What stood out most during my test period with a “Pulse Red” 2018 Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD was how much the driving experience reminded me of being in a sports car as opposed to … well … just about anything else. 

That came courtesy of a 1.5-liter turbocharged, four-cylinder engine with GDI (gasoline direct injection) that generates 175 horsepower at 5,500 revolutions per minute and 195 pound-feet of torque at 1,500-4,500 RPM.

Notice how the automatic shifter evokes a manual’s stick shift. 

It’s a genuine trip hearing the rev of the engine as it goes through the upper gears of the seven-speed EcoShift Dual Clutch Transmission. Some times while putting the Kona through the paces, I grabbed the leather shift knob to pretend the automatic was a manual.  

A promise of performance is not what initially roped me in, however. Having lived for a summer in Hawaii’s Kona, I perked up when I heard from another room an announcer hawking a vehicle by that name on television. I walked in to catch the end of the ad as video flashed of one zipping along a roadway. “That little sucker looks so cool,” I thought to myself.

After I asked if there were any Konas available to test, and one promptly appeared in front of my house, at first glimpse the car did not bring to mind the Kona of Big Island fame. Where was the King Kam hotel? The black sand beach? The graffiti made from white coral placed against black lava out past the airport? 

Speaking of Kona’s airport, that’s where I worked as a lot boy at a car rental agency and oh my, the trouble my 20-year-old self would have gotten into speeding around the island’s two-lane highway to our sister agency on the Hilo side.

The back seats’ leather seating surfaces are inviting to back sides.

That’s the only road I can recall ever having driven that had posted minimum speed limit signs, because locals and tourists were never in any hurry to get anywhere given the scenic views of waterfalls, little grass shacks and Parker Ranch cattle. 

Teleporting my test ride back to those days ala Marty McFly’s DeLorean, I now know Hyundai’s Kona would have handled admirably around the curves, the slow pokes and the slow pokes seemingly stuck to curves.

And it would have done so comfortably. My test ride with black-on-black interior included as standard leather wrapping the steering wheel and seating surfaces, including the eight-way power driver seat with lumbar support and a built-in heater that never would have been deployed on the island, unless I was using it to dry a beach towel.

Other impressive features that come standard include roof side rails, spiffy 18-inch alloy wheels, a chrome-framed grille, keyless entry with push-button start and heated side mirrors with turn signal indicators.

Looking out the sunroof (left) and looking into the Kona outdoors from the same.

However, my favorite standard item is the power tilt-and-slide sunroof as I love being able to crack it up open to let in fresh air, fully open it to make it feel like I’m in a convertible or close it all up to hide what’s inside or negate a blazing sun.

Entertainment comes via 315-watt AM/FM/MP3/HD radio with eight speakers and Infinity Premium Audio system with Clari-Fi music restoration technology. Kona buyers get a 90-day SiriusXM subscription that, ironically, is not available in Hawaii (nor that other remote territory-turned-state, Alaska).

With or without the satellite radio, everything mentioned above is included, as is the 4.2-inch LCD multi-information display that controls the sounds, navigation and other electronic functions. It hooks up with the push of a button to Bluetooth, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and, if you are a subscriber, Hyundai’s Blue Link Connected Care Services. (Three years of the Blue Link remote start service is included.)

Also standard are an array of safety features, including parking distance warning reverse, rear cross traffic collision warning, lane keep assist with driver attention warning, blind spot collision warning with lane change assist and forward collision-avoidance assist with pedestrian detection. Front, front side and side curtain airbags include rollover sensors. 

The hatch opens to reveal a small cargo area that can be expanded by collapsing the 60/40 split rear seat.

My test vehicle had not been rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for crashes, but the Environmental Protection Agency does report that it gets 26 miles to the gallon in the city and 29 on the highway for combined 27 mpg.

The fuel economy and greenhouse gas rating is a six on a 1-10 scale (10 being best), while the Kona’s smog rating is a not-so impressive three. You’ll spend $1,350 annually on fuel, according to the gubment.

The base price for this particular 2018 Kona Ultimate AWD was $28,700, with the only added feature being the $125 carpeted floor mats which, along with a $980 inland freight and handling fee, pushed the sticker total to $29,805.

Hyundai backs it with a five-year or 60,000-mile (whichever comes first) new vehicle warranty, 10 years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain, seven years and unlimited miles anti-perforation and five years and unlimited miles for roadside assistance.

The little Kona looks, rides and drives like a lot of car for a not-so outrageous price. If only I could say the same about the cost of living in that other Kona. 

Welcome to Kona, Santa Ana.

Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.