The Hyundai Kona N Is the Crossover You Might Actually Drive on Track

Crossovers aren't track rats. But this one might make a case for itself.

kona
Hyundai

It is easy to see SUVs and crossovers as an amorphous mass taking over the car industry. But while sales show no signs of diminishing, it is inaccurate to view them as a single species; many of the smaller and softer ones are much more closely related to conventional hatchbacks and sedans than they are to the expedition-spec off-roaders that emerged from the automotive swamps. While indubitably a crossover, the new Hyundai Kona N is pretty much a sister to the Veloster N that won Performance Car of the Year in 2020. That’s promising, right?

The Kona N shares the Veloster’s powertrain, as do the European market i30N Performance the forthcoming Elantra N. That means a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine making 276hp and driving the front wheels through an electronically controlled limited slip differential and a standard eight-speed twin-clutch transmission. (Sadly the option of a six-speed manual has been dropped for the Kona.) The baby ‘ute is taller, longer and heavier than the Veloster – about 250 lbs more on Hyundai’s numbers – but 3340 lbs is still pretty svelte for a crossover.

kona
Hyundai

The car you see here is in European spec and was driven in the UK. Visual distinction from the regular mall rat Kona comes from a trio of extra intakes below the hood, bigger front air intakes, 19-inch alloys and – at the back – a strange pretend diffuser in the rear bumper, its non-functioning elements both shallow and near vertical. The N also loses the gray plastic sill cladding of the regular car for a body color finish which makes it look lumpier.

The cabin redresses the gray plastic shortfall with lots of dark, tough materials. Standard equipment is generous, including digital instruments, a 10.3-inch touchscreen and well-bolstered microfiber sports seats with both heating and cooling. Like the Veloster N, the Kona’s steering wheel features two ‘N’ buttons, plus a new one – red, with ‘NGS’ written on it: N Grin Shift. We’ll circle back to that.

kona
Hyundai

As with the Veloster, Hyundai is offering a myriad of dynamic settings. In truth, probably too many – you could spend your life chasing the ideal setup and never discover it. In addition to the regular Eco, Normal and Sport modes there is an ultra aggressive N setting intended for track use – selecting this gets an animated blaze of fire running around the perimeter of the rev counter to indicate its seriousness. Beyond this there are two programmable N custom configurations, with each allowing the choice of Normal, Sport and Sport Plus modes for engine, transmission, power steering, LSD, exhaust noise and active dampers. There’s also an ESC Sport mode plus full deactivation.

Yet regardless of the combination of settings chosen, the basics stay good. The engine is tractable and sounds gravelly low down, but revs willingly to its 6500 rpm limiter and makes increasingly rorty noises as it does so. The twin-clutch transmission shifts cleanly and quickly when working as an auto or under manual control, and gets impressively snappy in its more aggressive modes. The steering weight is a little heavy regardless of setting, and although front-axle reactions are keen and accurate there is little sensation of low-level feedback. But the biggest impression is the stiffness of the suspension, doubtless to keep the Kona’s higher center of gravity in check. Even with dampers in their softest setting it felt firm, selecting Sport made it feel harsh over the bumps that English backroads seem to be largely made up from. And choosing N mode on road seemed to fill the dampers with concrete, the Kona crashing over even minor imperfections.

kona
Hyundai

Traction is impressive given the Kona’s relative lack of driven wheels. The Pirelli P-Zero tires have to work hard to get the engine’s boosty output onto the ground, but only the combination of big throttle openings and lumpy surfaces created any of the dog-on-a-leash sense of torque steer. The clever limited slip differential works to maximize grip under acceleration, but fights hard to keep the Kona on a chosen line in a corner, especially in the more aggressive dynamic modes. Even at road speeds the chassis shows an impressive amount of throttle steerability, the car’s attitude tightening nicely when the accelerator is eased. Beyond the punishing ride, cruising refinement is actually pretty decent.

Hyundai even let me on a track so I could experience the Kona under higher loads, although not one really designed for the car. Or indeed any other. The Shenington Kart Circuit near Banbury is one of the oldest in Europe, opened in 1959 shortly after U.S. servicemen introduced karting to the UK. I got to drive the Kona on the track’s longest 0.75-mile configuration, where it proved both stable under braking and able to fight understeer in the (many) tight turns. Turning off the stability control proved the N could be persuaded to oversteer with aggressive mid-corner weight transfer – another Veloster trait. It also has a mechanical e-brake, one the official press kit boasts will “allow adventurous drivers to enjoy slides.” Given the encouragement it would have been remiss of me not to experience my first handbrake turn in a press car for several years.

kona
Hyundai

Shenington also seemed like the obvious place to experience the N Grin Shift function. This gives a 10hp overboost for 20 seconds – a dashboard timer counting down after it is pressed – although I couldn’t sense any increase in already forceful full-throttle acceleration. The transmission also switches down to its lowest possible ratio. The resulting noise and fury made me grimace rather than grin; it doesn’t seem to do anything beyond what the accelerator’s kickdown function would. Another active function puts the car into its N mode whenever a ‘bends ahead’ sign is detected; that one was also soon deactivated.

A car with hundreds of configurable dynamic settings might seem to be lacking in confidence, but the basics of the Kona N are strong enough that its plethora of functions can be regarded as toys. On the first experience of this Euro-spec version the abrasive ride quality is the only substantive criticism, something that may well be tweaked for the our side of the Atlantic. The Kona N is bigger and heavier than its Veloster sister, and some of that new mass is higher than it optimally should be. But there is no doubt that the two cars share the same rowdy spirit.

kona
Hyundai

Hyundai Kona N

Engine: 1998cc four-cylinder, turbocharged

Transmission: eight-speed twin-clutch, front-wheel drive

Power (hp): 276 @ 6000rpm

Torque (lb ft): 289 @ 2100 rpm

0-62mph: 5.5-sec (with launch control)

Top speed: 149mph

Weight: 3340lbs

Price:TBC

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