An unfortunate pair of long scratches down the lower inner panel of the driver’s door was a blemish on one test car. It could be forgiven if it didn’t illustrate the risk of using a higher grade of plastic that looks better than the hard stuff but comes at the expense of durability.

Seats are sufficiently comfortable for an extended stay behind the wheel, and the interior feels spacious despite its diminutive dimensions. The HVAC system is refreshingly simple to operate and redundant steering wheel controls are intuitive and logically placed. An 8-in. (20-cm) floating touchscreen is standard on Ultimate models and easy to use. Limited SEL and SE trim levels receive a 7-in. (18-cm) touchscreen, but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard across the range.

Rear legroom is rather tight, owed to the fact the Kona is among the shortest entries in the segment, but clever powertrain and suspension packaging puts it among the leaders in rear cargo space. Second-row seats are a 60/40 split and fold relatively flat to slide adventure in and out. An array of bins under the cargo floor provides hidden space to stow smaller items.

Motivation for Limited and Unlimited Kona models comes via Hyundai’s turbocharged Gamma 1.6L inline 4-cyl. with gasoline direct injection, a unit making a peak 175 hp at 5,000 rpm and a grin-inducing 195 lb.-ft. (264 Nm) of torque from as little as 1,500 rpm through 4,500 revolutions.

Lower-grade models receive the automaker’s naturally aspirated Atkinson-cycle 2.0L inline 4-cyl., which puts out 147 hp at 6,200 rpm and 132 lb.-ft. (179 Nm) of torque at 3,500 rpm. It is mated to a 6-speed automatic.

The turbo Kona eagerly tackles ever-changing grades on the Big Island. Along a stretch of the Kohala Mountain Road, the Kona’s torquey little engine combined with its responsive 7-speed EcoShift dual-clutch transmission to impressively take down 19.3 miles (31.1 km) of switchbacks from sea level to 3,500 ft. (1,067 m). Confidence-inspiring all-wheel drive with brake-induced torque vectoring eases nerves on a rain-soaked drive down the other side.

There is some tire and wind noise but it’s not entirely overwhelming.

The sprint over the mountain also demonstrates the Kona’s buttoned-up chassis, with the MacPherson front design and dual-arm multi-link rear setup striking a balance between ride comfort and sure-footedness. The Hyundai Mobis-sourced electric-power steering system also shines. Its combination of responsiveness, weight and on-center feel ranks among the best Hyundai has fielded.

Models tested here included Drive Mode Select. In Sport mode the emphasis is on quicker acceleration and earlier downshifts during braking, while Normal mode puts an emphasis on fuel economy with a lower-rpm shift schedule.

Pricing starts at a thrifty $19,500, excluding a $950 delivery charge, for Kona SE Models. SEL-trim units begin at $21,150 and Limited models start at $24,700. The Kona Ultimate prices from $27,400.

The Hyundai Kona may join a long list of competitors in the small CUV segment, but its striking design and quality engineering allow it to stand out from the crowd.

jamend@wardsauto.com