2022 Hyundai Kona N First Drive Review: A New Type Of Hot Hatch

First Drive / Comments

The hot hatch is dead. Long live the hot hatch.

If you want a comfortable, well-equipped, and stylish crossover with a price tag from the lower end of the market, the Hyundai Kona is one of the better choices. But Hyundai also believes it can be something more, which is why the Korean brand is giving it the full N treatment.

There's method to the madness of creating a fearsome little SUV. The hot hatch never really took off in the US and has almost completely been relegated to the history books. The Golf GTI and R remain, as does the Honda Civic Type R, while Hyundai's own Veloster N is seemingly on borrowed time. But the subcompact crossover could be just the replacement for the hot hatch, especially when it has 280 horsepower, an electronic limited slip differential, and has been engineered by Albert Biermann, the man who built the best BMW M cars for 34 years.

While on the launch of the new Santa Cruz, Hyundai gave us a taste of what's to come on a California backroad. We were shoved behind the wheel of a late-stage development prototype and pointed to the nearest twisty road with the sound of a flatulent 2.0-liter turbo four-pot left in our wake.

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Exterior Design: Wearing Its Badge On Its Sleeve

The Kona is a divisive car when it comes to looks with its slitted eyes and grille that make it look taller than it is. The Kona N isn't going to change that, but extended body-colored fenders and N-specific 19-inch lightweight forged wheels help make for a more grown-up appearance. Added sophistication comes from a front lip spoiler and side skirts, wide lower front air intakes, and a double-wing roof spoiler. Hyundai has done well to resist going to the cartoonish route Honda took with the Civic Type R and go with a more Germanic route of subtle style akin to a Golf GTI.

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Performance: Shockingly Fierce

The advantage of being a cynic is paradoxical because you can also expect to enjoy being surprised a lot. Climbing in the Kona N and rolling onto a back road, then immediately giving the accelerator a hard jab, brought on one of the bigger surprises this reviewer has had in a while. On paper, 276 horsepower and 289 lb-ft of torque shouldn't make an experienced car reviewer toss out a shocked expletive from behind the wheel. However, it's a lot of power from a small car. It's delivered to the front wheels by an eight-speed wet dual-clutch transmission that has been reworked by the N department. The N-spec transmission has unique gear ratios and a recalibrated control unit that shifts those gears with a sharpness you don't expect in a car that like won't have a price tag of much more than $34,000. In the settings, you'll find three map settings for shifting gears, or you can control them yourself with the chunky paddles behind the wheel.

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Hyundai
Hyundai
Hyundai

Hyundai believes an N car should be about fun more than performance, which is why it makes no claims of 0 to 60 sprints, but we have no doubt this is a six-second car in that department.

The Kona N's drivetrain has another trick up its sleeve, though. On the steering wheel is a big red button marked "NGS." The "N Grin Shift" button adds 10 hp to the engine's output via an overboost function. It comes in hard for 20 seconds like KITT from Knight Rider's turbo boost, or for younger readers, like running over a star in Mario Kart, while a timer counts you down and the transmission keeps the revs high. It's hard to tell how much faster it pushes the Kona N on a tight road, but the G in the acronym is right. There's a lot of noise from the turbos and exhaust, and it feels like you've just totally unhinged the car.

Hyundai
Hyundai
Hyundai

Driving Impressions: Corner-Carving Perfection

The Kona N retains its front-wheel-drive-only dynamic in the spirit of an old-school, pure hot hatch experience. The idea of a hot hatch was originally to keep the cost down while delivering the biggest driving thrill possible when getting out of town. Modern technology has solved one of the big problems of putting well over 200 hp through just the front wheels - torque steer. Torque steer is fun up until the point it becomes unmanageable and more likely to put you headfirst in a ditch or wrap the front end around a tree. The Kona N squirms around under acceleration, but an electronic limited-slip differential and a thorough approach to suspension tuning keeps it to a minimum.

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Hyundai
Hyundai

The N suspension setup also helps the tires maximize their grip, and there's a ton of it available. We weren't prepared to test exactly where the Kona N would lose grip on a public road lined with redwood trees, however, we had no fear of the car shaking loose when tossing it around and enjoying the tight turn-in and composed rotation. In full N mode, it's not quite as serious as a BMW M car, but it's an absolute riot like a BMW M car of old. Think Golf GTI if it had an M badge. The suspension is hard in full N mode, the chassis is strengthened, the acceleration is fiercer than the numbers suggest, and it twists, turns, and grips like a hot hatch should. Except it has more ground clearance as the N division already has the Veloster N and wants the Kona N to retain the features people want from a small crossover, including the ride height.

Hyundai
Hyundai
Hyundai

Interior Design

Most of the interior is shared with the regular Kona, which is a good thing. It means good build quality and materials, a high level of standard tech, and thoughtful storage space. Differences for the N version include added color accents, sport bucket seats, customizable N buttons on the steering a-la M3, a special shift knob, and metal pedals. The 10-inch infotainment display and the digital gauge cluster will be standard. The latter has new dynamic displays for N or custom sport modes, putting up a tachometer in the center and changing colors. In N mode, the tachometer is surrounded by information like engine temperature, oil temperature, turbo pressure, and current torque being used. None of which anyone will pay attention to when cackling their way down a back road or giving much more expensive cars a shock at track days.

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Verdict: This Is No Joke

The Kona N is a lot of fun, but it's no joke. Once we had cursed in surprise, the smiles came and stayed for the duration of our drive. In N mode, it hits all the senses, complete with the kind of steering feedback we miss from BMW lately. It's frantic and fierce and reminded us of how good hot hatches can be. Our ride out in the Kona wasn't long, so we didn't get to play with it in more sedate modes. That will have to wait for a full test drive review, but we have little doubt it will settle down when instructed and become a slighter harder take on the regular Kona around town.

Make no mistake; the Kona N is a modern hot hatch that sits somewhere between a Golf GTI and a BMW M2. Hyundai is currently thinking more outside the box than automakers we expect this kind of thinking from that are instead playing it safe to the point of boredom with their lineups. And yes, we're looking at you, Honda, because Hyundai is currently reminding everyone that passenger vehicles and trucks can be a ton of fun in every category.

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