Who's this for? Lunatics. Lunatics rejoice!
Review of the Hyundai Kona N by Mitchell Weitzman for The Road Beat
What is it?
I don't think anybody saw this one coming, but Hyundai has made a bit of a knack of that in recent years. What the South Korean automaker has done here is take their cute little Kona micro-crossover and infused it with the blood of vengeance; If Batman had a commuter for picking up milk, this would make for a strong candidate. And yes, this is a full 'N' car, being a result of Namyang's sporting division headed by former BMW M czar Albert Biermann. The Veloster N has been a huge hit on merit, so expectations were high when they turned their attention to the cuddly little Kona.
Why you want one
It's fast - really fast. With 290 horsepower driving the front wheels via a snappy eight-speed dual-clutch automatic (there's no manual here), this little bat zips to and from hell, once you get the boost going that is. Yeah, there's lag, but once you're spooling the other non-Tesla driving parents leaving school won't know which way you went. 0-60 MPH happens in five seconds dead, and in the real world, the Kona N feels quicker than my own 370Z thanks to the tremendous midrange pounding it's capable of. Wow. Really, there's probably zero point in having a small crossover be this quick, but gosh darn is it fun.
If you want some extra controls, there are driver-selectable modes on the steering wheel (the blue buttons) to sharpen the throttle, make the exhaust cartoonishly loud and burbly, and to stiffen the suspension to wash-board levels (you don't want this). Thankfully, you can go into the central computer of the car and make your own preset, which I used to have the N button activate the sharper throttle and loud exhaust only. Also, there's an alluring red button marked 'NGS' that quite literally stands for 'N Grin Shift.' Dumb name aside, it instantly launches you into the full-bore performance mode and grants you extra torque and power via a temporary overboost function. However, I could not detect any difference in the real world. But it's fun to press a red button.
Handling? Yes, it handles. This isn't just all motor, but a genuinely fun and engaging car in the twisties that'll embarrass hot hatches. It isn't quite as fluid as a Golf GTI, as the Kona N goes about its business in a more brute force way - remember, I said this thing was vengeance - but, what you do get is a tacky front end glued down by Pirelli summer tires that resist understeer quite well, with a invitingly neutral overall balance. If you get too aggressive with the throttle on corner exits, mashing it like a baboon, you will induce understeer as it is limited fundamentally by being front-wheel drive. Torque steer? Oh boy does it torque steer, but it's mostly only noticeable under 40 MPH, where, from low speeds, it does feel like you're arm wrestling the Mountain from Game of Thrones. But hey, that's character and involvement! As long as you're patient with the throttle in corners, the Kona N provides near sports car levels of grip and balance, with definite similarities to the conquering Veloster N stablemate. What also helps with the grip and handling chops of the Kona N are wonderfully supportive seats that even remain comfortable on longer drives.
Compared to something like a Veloster, the Kona does offer more space in the second row seats, though not noticeably more so in the boot, however. Also, the Veloster N comes in a manual whereas the Kona N is a dual-clutch auto only. Either way, with four doors verse the prime 3 on a Veloster, it makes everyday living measurably easier given the extra access and more comfortable passengers behind you.
Why you don't
If you don't want a vehicle with true sporting intentions, then you should should skip the Kona N. Why? The things the Kona N does, and does rather brilliantly, are what you're paying for here. If you don't fancy the bodacious horsepower nor cornering performance that can piss off Porsche owners on b-roads, then don't bother - it's as simple as that. The ride quality, for example, isn't exactly what the Queen would consider as comfortable. Actually, nobody would. If you select the default sports 'N' mode, it becomes physically unbearable on public roads even. Furthermore, the exhaust is loud (annoying in other words) for casual motorists, and the torque steer will frighten you when you stab the throttle after you've misjudged the gap when leaving a stop sign and need to merge hastily.
Compared to a Kona Limited, the N is over $5,000 more expensive, too, so if you don't want extra performance, then you won't appreciate its abilities and therefore be wasting your money. And for its $35-grand asking price, the interior isn't nice, with hard plastics everywhere (but the seats rock at least); this ain't a luxury car nor is it pretending to be one. Oh, those three hood slits are fake by the way, to much chagrin.
Adding it up...
This is a heck of a car, no doubt, but it's not for everyone. The strengths of the Kona N might be weaknesses for others, as those capabilities bring compromises to everyday livability and a higher price. For those wanting a true hot hatch, but with extra space and comfort, the Kona N fits the bill basically perfectly. This is a tremendous offering that most board rooms wouldn't dare approve given its niche, but Hyundai's bold market plan has produced a compact crossover to terrorize the daily school-run. I'm glad it exists.
2022 Hyundai Kona N
As-tested price: $35,445
Pros: Crazy performance; somewhat practical
Cons: Not for everyone; big step in price over the sedated and user-friendly Kona Limited
Verdict: Vengeance, in the shape of a compact crossover. It rules.