DETROIT, Mich — For all the SUVs and crossovers on sale, there’s a distinct lack of affordable, non-luxury performance options. You’ll find no shortage of them in the luxury space with prices above and beyond $75,000, but what about the person who wants some extra zest with more practicality on a budget? Say hello to the 2023 Hyundai Kona N.
And before you head to the comments, yes, calling the Kona “practical” is certainly a stretch, perhaps even the N’s undoing. The actual usability of its cargo space and rear seat is about on par with what a VW GTI offers. However, it does have the higher seating position and greater ground clearance that American SUV buyers enjoy. Plus, it serves a practical purpose in Hyundai’s N division lineup. With the Veloster N dying, the Kona N takes over as the only N model with a liftgate. The Elantra N may have a spacious backseat, but there’s no denying the added usefulness of a hatch with foldable rear seats to create a big, airy dumping spot for all your stuff when you’re not hotfooting it on your favorite roads.
Slam the throttle down from a stop in the Kona N, and the front tires light up as soon as boost builds, sending you into a minor skirmish with the steering wheel. Yeah, there’s torque steer on tap here. While the Veloster N and Elantra N do exhibit a small amount of torque steer, the Kona N seems to do a little less to quell it. If you can get into the humor of a tiny crossover having so much power that it can yank you around under acceleration, then you may find it charming. Nobody is (well, maybe nobody) trying to set fast lap times with the Kona N, so consider it added character.
Of course, I’m sure there are many — including others on staff — who would rather see the Kona N with an all-wheel drive system that’d completely eliminate torque steer and enhance performance. A torque-vectoring rear differential à la Golf R would be the icing on the cake of said AWD system, too. There’s no doubt the Kona N would be a more controllable and competent vehicle with power to both axles, but it would come at the expense of added cost and weight. As is, the Kona N costs $36,285 and weighs 3,340 pounds. I’d rather not see either of those numbers increase.
You’re getting an absolute hoot of an SUV for the money. Hyundai’s 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 276 horsepower and 289 pound-feet of torque is on hand, and just like in other N models, the Kona N’s exhaust is utterly hilarious. You can drive around in a custom drive mode that keeps the valves open and the outrageous bang-and-backfire soundtrack on at all times, or you can shut it all up for quieter, albeit still loud, cruising. Expect plenty of double takes with the Kona N in its extroverted mode, as few expect these noises from a tiny Hyundai SUV.
Beyond the theater of sound, the Kona N has fun enthusiast-oriented features like the “N Grin Shift” mode that gives you 20 seconds of extra performance via an overboost function (with 10 extra horsepower). It’s activated via a button on the steering wheel, just like Porsche’s “Sport Response” button, that’ll instantly ready the car for maximum performance. With N Grin Shift activated, Hyundai says the 0-62 mph sprint takes 6.4 seconds. You get there via the quick-shifting eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Said transmission is happy to be subjected to plenty of launch control starts, where the Kona N jumps off the line adeptly for a front-drive car. Just keep a tight hold on the wheel under acceleration to keep it pointed straight.
When you’d rather go left or right, the Kona N is happy to oblige. It has an electronically-controlled adjustable suspension with varying levels of stiffness. They range from “stiff” to “wow, my back is starting to hurt” levels of firmness. The Kona’s short wheelbase inherently means a choppier ride, and adding the handling capability expected from an N model means even more compromise to daily driving comfort. On Michigan’s broken roads, the Kona N can become grating to even those with a tolerance for stiff-riding cars.
Much can be forgiven when you find a twisty bit of pavement, though. The Kona N turns in accurately and with the level of sharpness and feel expected from the N badge on the back. There’s very little body roll, and consecutive corners are easy to string together. It’s not quite the featherweight that the Veloster N was on the road, but the Kona N comports itself leagues better than any standard Kona does when pushed. Hyundai’s eLSD does its job by effectively pulling you through corners without understeer under throttle. There’s still some twitchiness in the form of torque steer wanting to throw you off track, but it’s mild compared to launches from zero.
Grip from the 235-section-width Pirelli P Zero summer tires is more than sufficient, and the upgraded N brakes yank this tall hatchback to a stop quickly with a stiff pedal that can handle a beating without fade. Calling it a tall, hot hatchback is really the best way to sum up how the Kona N drives. As someone who prefers the lower seating position that a car offers, the Kona N can be a little off-putting, but driving it hard makes it difficult to dislike. Tapping up and down the gears of this super-quick transmission, listening to the exhaust blat out its angry voice before ricocheting off tunnels on the overrun, even just looking at the comically aggressive exterior bodywork … all of those characteristics make this a highly-desirable enthusiast vehicle.
What might turn you against the Kona N is the interior. Just like the Veloster N’s back-to-basics cabin, the Kona N is generally barren and boring inside. It’s the drab dash, blank doors and lack of any intriguing trim that leave this interior feeling cheap. Black plastic is the theme here, and the lack of flair surely helps attribute to the low price tag.
The few N-specific items Hyundai tosses in are at least welcome improvements. Its high-bolstered seats with suede inserts do a swell job of holding a body in place. The leather steering wheel with blue accents, sizable paddles, blue drive mode buttons and the red “NGS” button add some character. Plus, the digital cluster has unique display modes (giant tach in the center etc.) to amp up the feeling that you’re in a hot car. Perhaps the best of all the N-specific changes for the Kona is the presence of a manual handbrake. The standard Kona features an electronic emergency brake, but that’s no good for kicking the rear end out on a slick surface. It seems the Hyundai engineers behind this car are just like the rest of us who enjoy a quick slide when the snow starts falling, and they made sure the car would be up for the task.
How the Kona N compares to its contemporaries is where things get a little weird, mostly because the Kona N has no direct comparisons. The vehicles folks are likely to cross-shop it against are all hot hatches, since an array of affordable hot crossovers simply doesn’t exist. A GTI can be had for a similar price. If you want AWD, the price of entry escalates quickly as the Toyota GR Corolla, Mini JCWs and VW Golf R come into play. The problem here, that you may already be seeing, is that most enthusiasts would likely just opt for a performance car, not a crossover, when presented with a price point. Hyundai does a bang-up job of making the Kona N so fun that it can reasonably be compared to these cars, but it’s still going to be inherently compromised in all-out performance by virtue of its taller stature. Not to mention, the Kona N does not allow enthusiasts to spec a manual transmission.
Luxury performance SUVs — which are seemingly everywhere these days — typically don’t share the same compromises, as they’re almost always the highest performing and the most luxurious versions of themselves. If you’ve got the cash, why shouldn’t you buy the Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 over the standard-stroke GLE 450? It’s faster, has showy (but still classy) AMG badges all over it, and the only real compromise is a slightly higher monthly payment that your bank account might not even care about. Meanwhile, the Kona N is hellbent at appealing to someone who loves the hardcore Veloster N, has a strict budget and doesn’t care about things like ride quality, interior accoutrements or subtlety. It’s made for people like me who absolutely adore driving it, but at the end of the day, I’ll walk two cars down and drive off in an Elantra N every single time.
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