Smarter than it looks: 2021 Hyundai Kona subcompact crossover

2021 Hyundai Kona

What changes will make the 2021 Hyundai Kona different?

There’s an outside chance of new transmissions aimed at improving performance and fuel economy. If that doesn’t play out, the 2021 edition of this subcompact crossover would be a virtual rerun of the 2020 model – although it will be facing new competition within its own showroom.

Kitschy styling, solid build, spry performance, and efficient packaging will continue to define the ’21 Hyundai Kona. It’s been a winning formula. The Kona debuted for model-year 2018 as Hyundai’s smallest and least expensive crossover and the automotive press promptly named it 2019 North American Utility Vehicle of the Year.

The public likes it, too. Kona finished 2018 No. 5 in sales among 14 entries in the hotly contested subcompact-crossover class. Demand remained strong through the first half of 2019, as it climbed to No. 4 in the segment, behind the Subaru Crosstrek, Chevrolet Trax, and Honda HR-V and ahead of such rivals as the Jeep Renegade, Ford EcoSport, and Toyota C-HR. Kona sales were bolstered by the model-year 2019 introduction of a fully electric version, although it’s sold only in selected states.

Should I wait for the 2021 model or buy the 2020?

Wait for the 2021 to see if Hyundai upgrades the available transmissions — not that those in the ’20 Kona are bad. Updates, however, could potentially provide more responsive acceleration and higher mileage. See the “Any Mechanical Changes” section below for more on what Hyundai might have in store for the ’21 Kona.

Wait also to compare the Kona against the Venue, an even smaller crossover Hyundai introduced for model-year 2020. Priced from around $18,000, the Venue starts some $3,000 below the least expensive Kona. However, if you want the all-season security of all-wheel drive (AWD), the Kona is still your choice. Like a subset of small crossovers that includes the C-HR and the Nissan Kicks, the Hyundai Venue is front-wheel drive only.

Waiting for the ’21, though, would net you a Kona on the cusp of an expected model-year-2022 midcycle update. That refresh is likely to bring revised styling and possible feature and mechanical updates, although it won’t alter the crossover’s basic look, dimensions, or engineering.

Buy a 2020 Kona if you’re smitten by a personality-packed little crossover that doesn’t compromise road manners or design to achieve real individuality. It’s smarter than it looks. And it won’t feel dated quite as quickly as a 2021 model might.

The gas-powered ’21 Kona lineup will likely reprise five trim levels: base SE; better-equipped SEL, SEL Plus, and Limited; and top-line Ultimate. The SEL Plus was a model-year-2020 replacement for the SEL with Tech Package version. Hyundai also discontinued the Iron Man Edition, which was tied to the Marvel Comics superhero franchise. Every gas ‘21 Kona will continue with a choice of front-wheel drive or AWD.

The 2021 Kona Electric will almost certainly repeat with front-drive only and again offer a range of some 258 miles per charge. Look for the return of SEL, Limited, and Ultimate grades. Availability likely will remain limited to low-emissions-mandated California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Will the styling be different?

Very unlikely. Kona’s first notable appearance changes probably will coincide with a model-year-2022 midcycle refresh. How stylists will tinker with its already unorthodox look is anybody’s guess. When creating the 2018 original they managed to intermingle wildly disparate elements into a striking and somehow cohesive design. That’s not to say every eye finds the blend pleasing.

Gas-powered ’21 Konas will reprise Hyundai’s signature hexagonal grille flanked by narrow daytime running lights and flared nostrils housing the low- and high-beam headlights. Wavy body sides will again host a prominent cutline, with fender flares adding further definition. The flares should remain black plastic on all trim levels, even the Kona Electric. That helps emphasize the “crossover-SUV” part of Kona’s identity and provides contrast to some striking exterior colors, which for 2020 included “Pulse Red,” “Sunset Orange,” and “Lime Twist.” Don’t be surprised if Hyundai expands that palette for ’21.

The 2021 Kona Electric will continue to share the gas models’ overall profile but have a more subdued-looking front end with a closed-off grille. That’s evidence of the electric motor, which doesn’t require an air intake as a gas engine does. The nose will also continue to host the charge port, making it easier to replenish the battery at public charging stations.

On the outside, the ’21 Kona will again be among the smaller vehicles in the competitive set. For passenger space, however, it’ll remain anything but cramped. Front-seat headroom and legroom are very good and a couch-like rear bench seat will continue to provide comfortable positioning and airy outward visibility.

Devoting space for people means cargo volume should remain no better than average against direct competitors, at 19.2 cubic feet available behind the rear seatbacks and 45.8 with them folded. Fortunately, the ’21 Kona Electric should continue to match its gas-powered sibling for passenger and cargo volume thanks to a cleverly positioned battery pack.

Interior materials and functionality should remain solid. Dashboard and door-panel plastics would be pleasant to look at, but their unyielding surfaces won’t feel particularly special. That’s fine in lower-trim models but could disappoint buyers of the flagship Ultimate, which would carry a sticker price well north of $30,000.

Returning for all ’21 Konas would be a tablet-style infotainment screen. A 7-inch unit with support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto would return as standard on most models. Expect the Limited Electric and the gas Ultimate models to reprise an 8-inch display with imbedded GPS navigation, which doesn’t depend on a connected smartphone and a cellular data signal.

The Ultimate Electric was upgraded to a 10.3-inch widescreen display with imbedded navigation for model-year 2020. It’s possible Hyundai could extend that larger screen to the gas Ultimate for 2021. By the same token, we’d like to see the head-up instrument display that’s been standard on the gas Ultimate migrate to its EV cousin. It projects vehicle speed and other data onto a plastic panel atop the instrument cluster; you can retract the display if you don’t want to use it.

Any mechanical changes?

Yes, if Hyundai elects to revise transmission availability for gas models. Don’t expect the available engines to change, though. Look for the 2021 Kona SE, SEL, and SEL Plus to again use a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque.

For ’21, we could see these Kona models exchange a six-speed automatic transmission for a continuously variable transmission (CVT). This substitute for a conventional automatic made its Hyundai debut in the company’s the 2020 Accent and Elantra sedans. We tested this CVT in the Forte sedan from Hyundai’s corporate partner, Kia. Forte and Elantra share the 2.0-liter four-cylinder with the Kona. The CVT performed very well in the Forte, though how it might behave in a 100-300-pound-heavier Kona would remain to be seen. We would at the least expect it to contribute to a marginal improvement on the 2.0-liter Kona’s mediocre 9-second 0-60-mph acceleration time.

The gas 2021 Kona Limited and Ultimate will continue with a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder that’ll gain produce 175 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. These models do 0-60 in a lively 6.6 seconds and have plenty of muscle for merging and passing. The 2018-2020 versions used a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. It could return for ’21, or Hyundai could replace it with a conventional eight-speed automatic, which it pairs with this turbo engine in its Sonata midsize sedan.

We’ve had mixed experiences in test drives of turbo Konas, the dual-clutch transmission in one example performing without issue, in another suffering bogging and shuddering, especially in low-speed urban commuting. A conventional automatic could be expected to deliver more consistent shifts; it might even improve the turbo Konas’ already impressive 0-60 time.

The Electric Limited and Ultimate should remain the fastest 2021 Kona models. Expect their battery-powered electric motor to again generate 201 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque. Power gets to the front wheels via a single-speed transmission. With instantaneous delivery unencumbered by conventional transmission gearing, a ’21 Kona EV should again be capable of 0-60 mph in just 6.1 seconds.

Although the Kona Electric gets the bulk of its battery charge from plugging into a residential or commercial grid, it can replenish the battery on the go by capturing energy otherwise wasted during breaking and coasting. That potentially extends the driving range and is accomplished via a rather aggressive regenerative braking system. Lift your foot from the throttle, and the Kona Electric slows as if you’re lightly pressing the brake pedal. It’s a novel way of driving that soon becomes second nature.

Based on our tests of previous models, every 2021 Kona should handle with poise and confidence. AWD and Electric models will have near-sporty road manners thanks in large measure to the continued presence of an independent rear suspension. Front-drive gas models use a less sophisticated solid torsion beam rear axle.

AWD will also provide traction benefits on wet or snowy roads, especially since the ’21 Kona should remain one of the few vehicles in its class that lets its driver select a 50/50 front/rear torque split, a further traction assist that works up to 25 mph. Kona’s 6.9 inches of ground clearance will remain slightly above average for the class, but Hyundai cedes true off-road prowess to the Jeep Renegade and Subaru CrossTrek, (and possibly a model-year-’21 production version of Toyota’s rugged FT-4X concept).

Will fuel economy improve?

Yes, if Hyundai changes Kona’s transmissions for ’21.

Model-year 2020 Hyundai and Kia vehicles with the same 2.0-liter engine used in SE and SEL Konas saw EPA ratings increase 2-3 mpg after they exchanged their six-speed automatic transmission for a CVT. With the CVT, expect a 2021 Kona to rate around 29/35/32 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 27/32/29 with AWD.

Pairing the turbocharged 1.6-liter in the ’21 Kona Limited and Ultimate turbo with an eight-speed automatic instead of their seven-speed dual-clutch automatic could result in EPA-rating increases of 1-2 mpg. That would put them around 30/35/33 mpg with front-wheel drive and 28/32/30 with AWD. In our testing, an AWD Ultimate with the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission averaged 25.1 mpg. All gas-powered models would continue to be tuned for regular-grade 87-octane fuel.

Expect 2021 Kona Electric models to continue with an EPA-estimated range of 248 miles and gas-equivalent mileage of 132/108/120 mpg-e (miles per gallon equivalent). Hyundai says an 80-percent charge can be achieved in 54 minutes with a Level-III quick charge, while a Level-II charger, such as used for appliances like clothes driers, takes about nine-and-a-half hours. The charging port is located in the grille area for head-in parking ease when charging.

Will there be new features?

Perhaps. We’d urge Hyundai to continue to democratize safety features across its product range, including the 2021 Kona.

Expect every ’21 Kona to continue with a solid array of driver assists, including forward-collision warning and autonomous emergency braking designed to stop it automatically to mitigate a frontal collision with another vehicle or object. For 2021, we’d like to see Hyundai expand such features as pedestrian detection to the autonomous braking system, automatic high-beam headlights, and automatic steering correction to help keep you centered in your lane. These have been exclusive to the gas Kona Ultimate.

Similarly, Hyundai ought to extend to the 2021 Kona SE the blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection that’s standard on the other models. And it should consider making adaptive radar cruise control that can maintain a set follow distance from traffic ahead available on models beyond the Kona Electrics and the gas Ultimate, where it’s been standard.

Likely returning as standard on all gas-powered 2021 Konas are LED daytime running lights, two USB charging ports, remote entry, CarPlay, and Android Auto. The SEL would add blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert, keyless entry, pushbutton engine start, and heated front seats. The SEL Plus would include a power sunroof, power driver’s seat, fog lights, upgraded audio system, wireless smartphone charging, and Hyundai’s BlueLink telematics.

Stepping up to the Limited would net the 1.6-liter turbo engine, full LED headlights and taillights, leather upholstery, power driver’s seat, and automatic climate control. On top of its full suite of driver aids, the Ultimate would add imbedded GPS navigation with 8-inch touchscreen and head-up instrument panel.

Kona Electric models would largely mirror their gas-powered counterparts in terms of standard equipment, with the Ultimate version being unique for its larger navigation screen, a 10.3-inch display versus an 8-incher.

Will 2021 prices be different?

They’ll probably increase slightly. Hyundai has been simplifying vehicle pricing, and the ’21 Kona should continue with no packaged or standalone options available from the factory. Estimated 2021 Kona base prices here include the manufacturer’s destination fee, which was $1,095 on the 2020 model.

Among gas-powered models with front-wheel drive, estimated base prices are $21,500 for the SE, about $23,000 for the SEL, and $24,500 for the SEL Plus. Look for the 2021 Kona Limited front-drive to start around $27,000 and the Ultimate to be priced froom roughly $29,000.

On the gas models, AWD would return as a roughly $1,400 option. It would again add the ride-and-handling-enhancing independent rear suspension, but it would also substitute an inflation kit for the compact spare found on front-drive models.

Estimated base price for the 2021 Kona Electric is $38,500 for the SEL, $43,000 for the Limited, and $46,500 for the Ultimate. These models should retain eligibility for potential tax credits at the federal, state, local, and employer levels.

When does it come out?

The likely release date for the 2021 Hyundai Kona is some time in the summer of 2020.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, Hyundai Venue, Kia Seltos, Jeep Renegade, Mazda CX-3, Mini Countryman, Nissan Kicks and Rogue Sport, Toyota C-HR

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]