2020 Hyundai Kona Highlander 2.0-litre review

Nearly three years on, is an outgoing, top-spec Hyundai Kona Highlander still good buying?

Both the light and small SUV segments are advancing at a rate of knots in Australia. There’s always something happening in either of these segments, be it a new product finally making it here, spec refinements to an existing model, or even the introduction of new trim levels to pad out the portfolio.

This flourish of activity is aimed squarely at getting you into a showroom to part with your money. Given that there are 35 choices, and growing, between both of these SUV segments, this doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s a highly competitive battleground that’s also highly lucrative.

Hyundai’s Kona range has undergone some pricing and spec transformation throughout its initial three-year life in Australia. However, the end is nigh for this current generation, as the new facelifted model is expected to arrive in Australia early in 2021.

Does that mean the outgoing car makes for good buying? Let’s find out.

On test we have a top-grade 2020 Hyundai Kona Highlander. This trim level is offered with a choice of drivelines: a 2.0-litre Atkinson-cycle naturally aspirated four-cylinder, with a regular torque converter automatic gearbox and front-wheel drive, or a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder with a dual-clutch auto and all-wheel drive.

Hyundai Kona Highlander 2.0-litre
Engine configuration Atkinson-cycle in-line four cylinder
Displacement 2.0L
Power 110kW @ 6200rpm
Torque 180Nm @ 4500rpm
Drive Front-wheel drive
Transmission Six-speed torque converter automatic
Fuel consumption (claimed) 7.2L/100km
Fuel consumption (on test) 8.3L/100km
Fuel tank size 50L
Price (MSRP) $36,660

The 2.0-litre front-wheel-drive car is what we’re testing today. Naturally, it is the cheaper option of the two starting from $36,660 before on-roads. The only extra you have to pay for is premium paint at $595. Some colours in the range do have the option of a contrasting black roof (in place of the sunroof fitted to single-coloured cars) and red-accented interior trim, but both of these choices will add nothing to your total bill.

If you like the sound of all-wheel drive and turbo power, the step up in driveline will cost you $3540. However, as we’re about to find out, the 2.0-litre four will be the smarter choice for the majority of contemplators.

It produces 110kW of power at 6200rpm and 180Nm of torque from 4500rpm. Small figures parked aside, the engine never feels underpowered or that it’s ever battling. Testing was conducted on varying conditions and surfaces, including faster sections of sweeping country road give or take two hours out of Sydney.

In these conditions, you do have to task the engine with some RPM, but it takes it in its stride. It doesn’t come across as strained or uncomfortable, so I’d consider any notion relating to a lack of power a moot point. Sometimes engines act and feel different to what paper-based theory will lead you to believe, and this is just one of those cases.

Coupled with the fact the turbo option pushes this car into the $40K territory, it feels like the discerning choice is to actually live with the less powerful engine. It did deliver somewhat on the fuel-usage front, with the car’s trip computer stating fuel consumption over the period of the loan to have been 8.3 litres per every 100km travelled. The official claim is 7.2L/100km, so not a bad result there.

Maintenance-wise, it costs $1420 to maintain a 2.0-litre Kona over a five-year or 75,000km period, whichever comes first. Strangely, buying a fully transferable service plan, which you pay for in full upfront, nets you $0 worth of savings. Consider opting for one a potential resale booster only, in that case.

Again, as I felt with the Hyundai Venue, the Kona also comes across a bit cheeky on a back road. It’s a fun car to drive, even at pace. The ride has been fettled by Hyundai Australia’s local engineering department, and as always the result is decent. The Kona most certainly errs on the side of sportiness, with its firmness becoming initially noticeable. However, there is softness hiding beneath, as on long, more undulated surfaces, the car will bob and come across as bouncy at times.

Regardless, it’s the first point of firmness that’s most noticeable. It’s great out on the country roads, but you do pay for this trait around town. Its ride can become brittle depending on the road surface. Those really horrible sections of patchwork road, most often found in the inner city, can unsettle a Kona. Overall, it’s tolerable. As I’ve come to understand, we Australians do like our ride and handling on the firmer end of the spectrum.

The weighting of the electric steering system is just fine in regular mode, with the sport mode making it unnecessarily heavy, and even more vague, in the process. Stay away from that button, as it does no good for this car.

Further from the driver’s perspective, the cabin remains a funny one. It’s a mish-mash of high-tech and low-rent, with pieces of clever tech juxtaposing themselves remarkably against basic pieces of equipment and casual-feeling materials.

Heated and cooled seats, and even a heated steering wheel, but auto up/down only on the driver’s window? Bizarre.

An 8.0-inch touchscreen, four forms of device charging for the front row, including wireless charging, but no air vents or power outlet for the second row? Equally so.

You could suggest that this is the Kona showing some age, but that’s no excuse. The car has undergone specification tickles and upgrades over the years, with some of those additions being much more significant than the introduction of some air vents and a power outlet.

In fact, this very model was adorned with adaptive cruise control only just a year ago. Slipping in a solution to address at least one of my two gripes would’ve been a walk in the park, then.

Other fundamentals remain fair. The material selection is consistently black, and hard, but nonetheless simple. Infotainment connectivity is all there in the form of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, DAB radio, and native navigation. Instrumentation is again basic, with a set of dials, a small 4.2-inch centre display, and head-up display rounding out what the driver will interact with most on the day-to-day.

Things you hope not to interact with on the day-to-day, being active safety systems, are mostly all here. Blind-spot monitoring, high-speed autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear cross-traffic alert and adaptive cruise all come as standard fitment. It does miss out on any form of reverse automatic braking, which is something I sincerely hope they address with the facelift model.

My only other concern was with regard to visibility. The Kona features quite obtusely raked A-pillars, which are those metal borders around its front windscreen. These do obstruct visibility for taller folk, meaning you may have to lean forward at intersections to see past them. Again, this point depends on your overall height, but be sure to check this out if you go for a test drive. Sideward and rearward visibility are both not an issue.

Given the Kona’s dimensions, one does expect the second row to be petite. Head room is compromised by the standard inclusion of a sunroof on this Highlander variant. That means a 180cm occupant in the back will find their forehead just brushing against the deeply scalloped headlining, which houses the guts of the electric sunroof mechanism.

Knee room behind a driver of similar height is scarce, but fine for occasional use. What exacerbates the lack of room for your pointy parts is a pair of hard-shelled front seats, which are not comfortable to rest your knees against. Given the lack of space, taller people will ultimately be having to do this.

Another pastime they also have to look forward to is banging their knees against a hard surface when exiting or entering the vehicle. Adding softer, vinyl-backed seats, complete with some contouring, would’ve worked wonders to improve second-row habitability.

As for accepting a support seat, both a larger convertible child seat or baby capsule is easily doable – if you accept the fact that first-row passenger leg room may become compromised as a result.

With either a capsule or rearward-facing child seat, you’ll have to adjust the front passenger seat quite far forward to enable a satisfactory amount of clearance. With a forward-facing seat, the front passenger area becomes much more tolerable. If you’re expecting or already have young ones, don’t be afraid to take your seat with you into the showroom to trial things for yourself.

As I said, it’s fine for occasional use with adults. If you’re conducting daily school runs with taller than average kids, you may want to look elsewhere. Volkswagen’s T-Cross instantly comes to mind as a same-class alternative with better second-row dimensions, as does Kia’s Seltos, too.

Both of those different choices are priced in the same realm as the Kona, but opting for either will result in a decrease in specification. Food for thought.

Boot volume min/max 361L / 1143L
Towing capacity (braked/unbraked) 1300kg/600kg
Tare mass 1353kg
Wheels/tyres 235/45 R18

A total of 361L of cargo area is offered, which expands out to 1143L with its second-row 60/40 split seats folded. This is about average for the segment, and betters the cargo space offered by competitors like the Mazda CX-30, Toyota C-HR and Subaru XV.

A compact stroller will fit flat at the most rearward section of the boot, closest to the tailgate, where width dimensions are at their greatest. However, I found my stroller sitting somewhat diagonally when positioned up against the second-row seat backs, at the most rearward section of the boot, where it’ll likely spend most of its time. Underneath the standard-issue cargo net, and boot floor, is a space-saving spare wheel.

We need to recap on the Kona Highlander’s pricing in order to determine whether the outgoing model makes for good buying. At $36,660, it seems expensive given that sort of dosh nabs you a lot of small SUV these days.

If second-row space is up your alley, then consider either a Kia Seltos or a Volkswagen T-Cross. If you want the latest and greatest, both of Ford’s new offerings, the all-new Puma and soon to be released Escape, both have the makings of viable candidates. Stay tuned for those reviews in the coming weeks.

However, treading down either of those paths means you will sacrifice some luxuries along the way. What the Kona still continues to offer is a blend of convenient exterior dimensions with lashings of fanciness. None of those cars mentioned above will have Aussie-centric trinkets like ventilated leather seats or an opening sunroof for similar money.

If you’re selfishly focussed on catering to yourself as the driver, then the Hyundai Kona Highlander is a fair buy. You cannot avoid selflessness as the leader of a family, however, so be sure to weigh up the interior dimensions with a clear mind, and remain uncorrupted by dazzling thoughts of a sun-drenched cabin and an air-conditioned backside.

Given there’s a facelift around the corner, the chance of negotiating a solid discount is actually quite likely. Get out there and speak to your local dealer, as if its shortcomings are not relevant to you, then a cut-price 2.0-litre Kona Highlander will likely start to turn into good buying.