It's not often the family crossover gets called up for track-day duty. Yet that's the exact goal of the Hyundai Kona N, proving its mettle on the blind turns and rollercoaster-like elevation changes of Atlanta Motorsports Park. Joining the Elantra N and Veloster N in the N brand's roster of high-performance everyday cars, Hyundai's racy crossover brings big thrills from behind the wheel.
Gallery: 2022 Hyundai Kona N First Drive Preview
Delivering The Grins
As with its siblings, the Hyundai Kona N benefits from a thorough re-work that aims for both track capability and everyday fun. The transformation starts with the same turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four engine as in the Elantra N, tuned to 276 horsepower and a meaty 289 pound-feet, the latter served up from just 2,100 rpm. Push the NGS — that's N Grin Shift — button on the steering wheel for 20 seconds of overboost to 286 horsepower.
With all that power channeled to the 19-inch front wheels through an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, the Kona N scurries off the line in a torrent of wheelspin and just a smidge of torque steer. Hyundai claims the run to 60 miles per hour takes just 5.2 seconds when using the launch control. It's a seriously quick car, with turbo boost that comes on smoothly and progressively in all gears. For all that low-end torque, the engine likes to rev, too, making its most fervent power from 5,500 to 6,000 rpm.
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On the track, the Kona N devours straight lines with ease and sounds pretty furious doing so. The latter is thanks primarily to the adjustable exhaust; with the car in its "N" driving mode, not only are the steering, throttle, suspension, and other settings cranked up for maximum fun, but the dual exhausts deliver a guttural snarl with dramatic crackles and pops.
Along with its acceleration, the Kona N impresses with approachable yet exciting handling and an abundance of grip. Compared to a standard Kona, it has a unique front axle design, bespoke springs, anti-roll bars, and adaptive dampers, plus some additional chassis welds for greater body stiffness. Pirelli P Zero rubber (versus Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires on the Elantra N) hangs on tight through sweeping bends and works with the 14.2-inch front brakes to provide plenty of stopping power.
The Kona N is reassuringly easy to drive quickly. It's highly adjustable through corners without being scary; a sharp lift or late-braking tightens the line without fuss. As you get up to speed, it's quite an accurate car – yet with just enough playfulness that the action feels fun, not scripted.
On the way out of the bend, you can put the power down early with an assist from the cheerfully named N Corner Carving Front Differential, an electronically controlled limited-slip. The diff pays even more noticeable dividends on a small autocross course; patience is still a virtue out of hairpins, but you can feel the tires digging in and gripping as the diff fights understeer.
On the track, the Kona N devours straight lines with ease and sounds pretty furious doing so.
If it all sounds too good to be true, the first moment for pause comes from the steering. Compared to the standard Kona's column-mounted setup, the N has its electric-assist motor mounted on the rack, designed to improve feel and feedback. While it's true the wheel will telegraph a moderate amount of info about the road surface, the overall weighting has a slightly artificial sensation that never quite satisfies. It doesn't dilute the track experience, but you never quite experience that delicate commune with the front tires offered by the best front-drive cars.
On the positive side, the N engineers have avoided diminishing the Kona's public-road demeanor in search of circuit glory. It's still an absolute riot on the types of streets we all actually drive, while being pleasant enough for the commute.
With the drive mode set to Eco or Normal, the Kona N drives very competently. Its dual-clutch transmission is a wet-clutch design, versus the standard car's dry-clutch, providing smoother step-off and subtler shifts in regular driving than the standard Konas we briefly drove for comparison. On the other hand, even with the adaptive dampers set to their softest, the suspension fidgets, and it remains to be seen how the aggressive wheel-and-tire package copes with potholed roads or freeway expansion joints. For now, first impressions on smooth roads suggest the Kona N's sporty ride is stiff but unpunishing.
The Kona N is still an absolute riot on the types of streets we all actually drive, while being pleasant enough for the commute.
Of course, it's hard to resist once again dialing up N mode and leaving other traffic in the dust.
Just as on track, the Kona N dives through curves, bombs along straights, and generally sets an uptempo pace down the road. No, the steering doesn't give the feel and confidence you'd like for narrow lanes and blind bends. Yet with right-now acceleration and abundant traction, it's still a blast. Use the paddle shifters for the most fun — the transmission won't automatically upshift at redline in manual mode, which is always appreciated in performance-minded cars, and there are handy audio and visual shift lights as you hustle through the gears.
The Details Matter
For cynics, a few questions immediately present themselves. For starters, where its Veloster and Elantra siblings offer a six-speed manual transmission, the Kona N only uses a two-pedal setup. But some preferr the dual-clutch version of the Veloster N anyway, plus the DCT versions of those cars are quicker. If you absolutely must have a stick-shift, well, Hyundai will sell you an Elantra N or Veloster N instead.
It's also a little surprising that a crossover like this lacks all-wheel drive, but the car puts its power down just fine with two driven wheels without the added cost and weight of a more complex driveline. "There's no technical reason [not to offer AWD], but it was a strategic decision for the N buyer," sasy Derek Joyce, senior manager for product and advanced powertrain public relations. "We have a good thing with this e-LSD, and we just wanted to build on that."
Potential buyers should also test-drive to evaluate the Kona's extremely upright seating position. It's perfectly appropriate for a crossover but, for enthusiastic driving, it always feels like you're sitting too high with knees bent too much. It's especially noticeable in back-to-back runs with the Elantra N, in which the driver's rump sits far closer to terra firma.
Dress To Impress
Having bulked up in the N Division gym, this version of the Hyundai Kona looks recognizably sporty but not excessively brash. Details include sportier fascias, an N-specific grille, a roof spoiler, and a pair of big exhaust tips. As on its N siblings, a red accent line stands out on the splitter, side skirts, and diffuser, while the rear spoiler boasts a touring car-like triangular third brake light.
Interior flair begins with an N-specific steering wheel, with shift paddles, a red NGS overboost button, and twin baby-blue paddles for electing the N or Custom drive modes. The cabin also gets blue stitching, metal pedal covers and door-sill plates, and N logos stitched into the front seats. While plenty supportive, the Kona's front chairs don't hold drivers in place during high-G corners as snugly as those in the Elantra N, and they lack the illuminated "N" logo of the Elantra and Veloster N models – which may be a demerit or a perk, depending on the buyer.
This version of the Hyundai Kona looks recognizably sporty but not excessively brash.
It's also worth noting that the Kona N offers above-average practicality among competing sporty small cars, with a tall-ish cargo area (with 60/40 folding rear seat and up to 45.8 cubic feet of space) and standard roof rails. So, as a car you'll use every day, it's already got a leg up on the Elantra N and certainly on the Veloster N.
Another Solid Choice
Starting at $35,445 including the $1,245 destination, the Kona N is the priciest of the N car trio, but it's extremely well-equipped and there are no options to choose: just pick from four colors and place your order. In addition to all the performance bits, the standard equipment list features niceties like heated front seats; a 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system with navigation, Android Auto, and Apple Carplay; wireless charging; and a healthy suite of active safety tech.
Regardless, that might feel like a lot for a fast Hyundai Kona. Then again, remember this is an era when sport-compact stalwarts like the Volkswagen GTI start at under 30 grand and a Subaru WRX is just over that figure — both of which offer less horsepower than the N. Getting into more-powerful competitors, like a Golf R, Honda Civic Type R, or any Mini John Cooper Works model, would cost you even more than Hyundai's hypercharged crossover.
The Kona N is an energetic car that thrills its driver, every time.
The good news is not just that the Hyundai Kona N is a great vehicle for an approachable price. It's that the enthusiastic engineers at Hyundai N have served up a trio of delightfully entertaining performance cars, so there's something for everyone. Certainly purist drivers might gravitate to the manual transmissions, skinnier weights, and lower seating positions of the Elantra N and Veloster N. But choosing the Kona N is not at all a sacrifice. It's an energetic car that thrills its driver, every time, while just happening to be bundled up inside a sensible package.
2022 Hyundai Kona N