Hyundai Launches Latest N-Badged Models Onto the Track

2022-hyundai-elantra-n-fd-mkw-25 2022 Hyundai Elantra N | photo by Melissa Klauda

South Korean automaker Hyundai is on a serious roll. Model after new model is arriving in showrooms, and it seems that every one is a knockout with bold styling, top-notch technology, exceptional fuel economy, and seamless fit and finish. The automaker has been producing winners in nearly every category: Family cars? SUVs? Electric vehicles? Yep. But one area Hyundai wants to flesh out is its performance cred. Why? The company believes (rightly so) that driving enthusiasts are a key part of any full-line automaker’s customer base because such passionate customers often become invaluable brand ambassadors. Make something that just looks sporty, and you’ll attract customers who want to look sporty. Make something that actually is sporty, and you’ll get folks who then go out and sing your praises on social media, at car gatherings, at shows and cruise nights, and soon this can impact your whole image.

Related: Hyundai’s Kona Gets Racier With 2022 Kona N

That’s the general idea behind Hyundai’s nascent N division. N stands for a few things: Namyang, South Korea, for one, where Hyundai has a development center; Nurburgring, in Germany, the legendary racetrack and development course where Hyundai tests its performance cars; also, the letter itself looks like a racecourse chicane, according to the company. All in all, it’s meant to represent a legitimate performance vehicle — one that you can commute in daily but also drive directly to a racetrack on the weekend, do hot lap after hot lap, and then drive home without issue. Think of it as Hyundai’s version of BMW’s M division or Mercedes-Benz’s AMG group: a specialty skunkworks within the company whose mission is to turn out cars that driving enthusiasts will positively covet.

The Newest Arrivals

Which brings us to what we see here: the 2022 Hyundai Elantra N and 2022 Hyundai Kona N, two new additions to the North American market, joining the Veloster N that we’ve enjoyed on our shores for a couple of years now (so much so that one of our editors purchased one not too long ago). The Elantra N is an evolution of the i30 N that was sold overseas but not in the U.S. (but which I was lucky enough to get a week in on a trip to Belgium in 2020, thanks to Hyundai). The Kona N is completely new — a budget-friendly, track-ready SUV that stands out for having no real competitors like it and which, I admit, is something that I’m not sure people are clamoring for. But given that buyers are abandoning traditional sedans in favor of SUVs in ever-greater numbers, it would stand to reason that eventually there will be sporty versions of those for folks who like a little vim and vigor in their vehicles. They already exist in the luxury space, as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and half a dozen other brands have all come out with what they say are track-capable models. But the Kona N represents something of a budget approach to the idea, something that costs the same as a Volkswagen GTI but sits higher and has that SUV-like style. But again, the question remains: Just because you can make a track-capable SUV, should you? Is it any good? And how does it compare to the new Elantra N?

“N” Is for “Nuts”

First, let’s talk about the more conventional of the two offerings, the Elantra N. Based on the latest-generation Elantra sedan, it takes the absolutely bonkers styling of that compact sedan and gives it a bit of the Honda Civic Type R treatment: bold black plastic louvers, a big wing on the trunk lid, 19-inch wheels wearing wide summer tires and just enough extra styling zoot to let you know it’s something a bit more than the Elantra N Line trim level, which slots in just below it. Under the hood is a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine making a highly robust 276 horsepower (briefly boostable to 286 hp) and 289 pounds-feet of torque on premium gas. It puts its power to the front wheels via either a standard six-speed manual transmission or an optional eight-speed dual-clutch automatic, employing an electronic limited-slip differential with true (integrated, not just brake-based) torque vectoring.

The suspension is electronically adjustable, as are the exhaust note, steering effort, powertrain profile, traction control and many other aspects of the car, offering a level of adjustability not found on anything short of a BMW M4. It even offers two blue buttons on the steering wheel that allow you to set up two custom combination modes of mix-and-match settings to your preferences; you can switch between them and other preset modes instantly. That big red button also on the wheel marked “NGS?” That’s the N Grin Shift system — punch it and you get 20 seconds of maximum power and top transmission tune to tackle an autocross or fly down a straightaway.

All of this adjustability allows you to do exactly what Hyundai says you can do with an Elantra N: Drive it daily to work, school or the shops, then head to your local track on a Saturday, hot lap it and drive it home in comfort. The car was designed for such abuse right off the showroom floor, so there’s no need to even change the brake pads to something more aggressive; the stock ones can handle it. The ability to punch a button and turn your Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde when exiting a highway and entering your favorite two-lane country road is extraordinary, transforming the car from suburban commuter into track monster and back instantaneously.

And as that track monster, it is very, very good. The grip is phenomenal, and the DCT automatic transmission version that I sampled was tuned absolutely perfectly for the engine, always providing the right gear on exiting an apex and always downshifting just right when approaching a corner. The predictive learning software is fantastic, and while a manual transmission is available for purists who demand one, you totally don’t need it to wring the maximum enjoyment out of the Elantra N on a track. The only issue? Headroom. The DCT is bundled with a moonroof, which saps several inches of headroom from the Elantra N — headroom that is already in short supply when you’re 5 feet, 11 inches tall, have a heavily padded backside and are wearing a racing helmet. I had to contort myself into a driving position that I found wholly unpleasant, especially when contending with just a three-point, nonlocking seat belt to keep me in place. If you do plan on tracking your Elantra N, and you’re a taller driver, you’ll want to stick with the manual model with its extra headroom. It almost makes you wish Hyundai had popped this powertrain into a taller vehicle with more headroom … hey, wait a minute …

“N” Is for “Not So Sure About This”

It did! The Kona N features the same powertrain as the Elantra N: same turbo 2.0-liter, same eight-speed DCT (no manual available here), same front-wheel drive with an electronic limited-slip differential and torque vectoring, same adjustable suspension and all the rest of the go-fast goodies. It’s all wrapped up in a package that feels a bit older — seeing as how the Kona isn’t quite as fresh as the latest Elantra — and has an interior that’s a bit more last-generation Hyundai (which isn’t a bad thing at all, frankly). The Kona shares some of its underbits with the Veloster’s subcompact platform, meaning it has a smaller footprint than the compact-sized Elantra, which you would think might mean it would be an even better track star than the Elantra N … but sadly, try as it might, it just can’t overcome the laws of physics.

The specific one we’re talking about here is gravity, and more precisely, mass and the vehicle’s center of it. In a higher-riding, higher-seating SUV like the Kona, the center of gravity is higher than it is in the lower Elantra (or in any car versus just about any SUV, really). The lower the center of gravity is, the more planted and less top-heavy the vehicle will feel when changing direction. Hyundai engineers have done a fantastic job trying to disguise this disadvantage in the Kona N, and the result is a perky, peppy, little SUV that looks absolutely dynamite, goes like stink and is happy and eager to change directions, pegging the driver’s grin meter squarely to the right when driven aggressively. But driving it back to back with the Elantra N on the Atlanta Motorsports Park road course, it became obvious that there’s just no comparison to the Elantra N’s lower center-of-gravity advantage. The Kona N can shuffle around a track at truly impressive speeds, providing excellent feedback, control and sublime powertrain actions, but you still sit too high in it to feel like you’re in anything other than an SUV. Yes, you’ve got more headroom than in the Elantra N (but less rear legroom), but I have a hard time seeing a track-day enthusiast buying a Kona N over a comparably priced sedan like the Elantra N, VW GTI, Honda Civic Type R or Subaru WRX. The Kona N is good on a track — but those performance sedans are simply better suited to it.

Here’s a Better Idea

Skip the track if you like the Kona N. Instead, stick to your favorite coastal B-road, your perfect canyon byway, or maybe hit up a slick ridgeline connector. The Kona N feels more enjoyable and at home on the street, being tossed between corners through the countryside, than out on a track. That’s the province of the Elantra N (or frankly, the Veloster N, which I still think is better than either the Elantra N or the Kona N on a track or an autocross). All three of these cars are impressive in their own way, especially when one considers that they’re all around $35,000 and essentially come fully equipped. There are few other cars out there, especially at that price, that can offer up the level of adjustability and the amount of sheer motoring fun as any of these new Hyundai N cars can deliver. If Hyundai fails in its mission to build a generation of passionate, dedicated, loyal performance enthusiasts, it certainly won’t be because the product isn’t any good.

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