With the prevalence of affordable cars for avid enthusiasts with each passing day, the 2022 Hyundai Kona N is a welcome break from the world of SUVs and crossovers… even if it’s still a crossover itself.
The Kona N is the latest iteration of Hyundai’s N division, led by the former masterminds of BMW’s M division. We’ve seen extraordinary results from the Elantra N and Veloster N, and the Kona N is no different. in one way or another, the geniuses at N have managed to build a crossover – yes, a crossover – that works like a hot hatch, pushes you into your seat when you accelerate, and still fits everything you need in the back.
I spent a long weekend with the Kona N to find out if this unconventional vehicle could be the best one-car solution for the budget enthusiast.
Specifications Hyundai Kona N 2022:
- Base price: $35,495
- Drivetrain: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine | 8-speed DCT | front wheel drive
- Horsepower: 276 @ 5,500 to 6,000 rpm
- Couple: 289 lb-ft @ 2,100 to 4,700 rpm
- Seating capacity: 5
- Curb weight: 3,340 pounds
- Cargo space: 19.2 cubic feet | 45.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded
- EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city | 27 highway | 23 combined
- Quick take: The Kona N is arguably the best entry-level (and practical) enthusiast car on the market.
- Score: 8/10
What is this thing?
Based on how it’s formed and what it can do, it’s a bit difficult to classify the Hyundai Kona N.
We live in a world of blob crossovers, but the Kona already has bizarre looks. Watching the N build on those with a laundry list of items sets him apart from the rest of the pack and worthy of his N badge is even better. Let’s face it, this thing is weird. A normal Kona has contrasting mudguards like a Subaru Crosstrek, while the Kona N has been modified in terms of paint. The N also has bigger brakes, 19-inch wheels wrapped in Pirelli P Zeros, a huge spoiler and most of the optional extras offered on a regular Kona. There are sharp corners in the front grille and the rear diffuser clashes with the blunt side profile. Mixed in with that are a Formula 1 inspired third brake light and large double tips.
In terms of classification, the Kona N is a subcompact crossover, but it walks a fine line between hatchback and crossover. The non-N Kona competes directly with the Honda HR-V, Crosstrek, Nissan Kicks and more. And while it’s four inches taller than a GTI, fits it in the boot and bigger in headroom – making it hard to see how this sub-compact crossover can compete with the VW – everything changes when you turn it on.
The Kona N comes with a 276 horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder mated to a snappy eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. This high-horsepower bundle can be a lot to handle, as all that boost is sent only through the front wheels, which have other important tasks, such as ‘steering the car’ or ‘gaining traction’. As a result, the torque control and wheel hop can be comical at times.
Inside, the Kona N is a carefully calculated mix between standard Kona and N division upgrades. All key driver-focused touch points have been upgraded so you feel like you’re driving something sporty. The handlebars are thick with reassuring grips and the paddles feel nice. The big red overboost button screams to be pressed and the Harmon Kardon stereo spins. The Kona N gets upgraded seats with Alcantara inserts, but it’s a shame it doesn’t get the same buckets as the ones in the Elantra N and Veloster N.
Beyond those performance upgrades, the rest of the interior is pulled straight from the regular Kona. Things are mostly plastic and beyond Hyundai’s standard safety technology, amenities are scarce. Some might say this is a sign against the Kona N, but I disagree. With a base price of $35,495, most of your money will go towards the driving experience. That’s what you wanted right?
How it drives
When I got behind the wheel, the seating position reinforced the Kona N’s existence between hatch and crossover. I’m used to sitting low, but here I was sitting high like in a crossover, and I suppose that’s only part of the equation. After all, this is the era of the ‘sports SUV’, so I better get used to it.
Driving around town, the Kona N was quite normal and drove like any “normal” car should: the steering was light and gave great feedback to the driver. The eight-speed DCT transmission was sharp but not overly violent, paired with brakes that were firm and confident. After all, this is a typical Kona underneath, so it should be able to handle these day-to-day activities with ease.
The Kona N also comes with a fun bag of party tricks. The surprisingly loud exhaust makes all the right pops and cracks when shifting. It can’t help but put a smile on your face, even in a shopping center parking lot. Switching between driving modes provides a fantastic animation on the all-digital instrument panel and the radio, as with other Hyundai products, is styled to look like Edison bulbs, an unexpectedly stylish touch.
The only thing that betrayed the car as a potential corner-cutting beast, other than being painted the brightest red known to man, was the stiff ride. While the Kona was a little more compliant than my friend’s Veloster NI I’d tried a while back, it was still too much of a ride. An evening trip to the center of town soon proved that suspension feedback was rather relentless about the treacherous potholes of northern New Jersey. That said, all complaints about driving stiffness were immediately removed when I took the Kona N on some local back roads.
The Kona N comes alive when you press the signature blue ‘N’ button on the steering wheel. This customizable driving mode is set by default to hone almost every aspect of the driving experience, including the suspension, throttle and steering feel. When I hit the throttle, I immediately felt an increase in torque from the surprisingly large turbo, reminiscent of an old-fashioned wastegate-building boost. At the top, the car pulls to the red line at nearly 7,000 rpm without falling off power. Let me repeat here, we are talking about a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces 16 psi. pushes from the factory.
The Kona N has all the right parts to make it a real driver’s car (apart from a manual transmission perhaps). Those wizards from Hyundai’s N division outfitted it with motor-driven power steering (as opposed to electric power steering like you see in many cars today), adjustable damping, sticky summer tires, a nice differential and oversized brakes.
When I dived into my first set of twisties, I was blown away by the way the Kona N turned. You’d expect that with ground clearance of nearly seven inches, the Kona N would tip over if asked to dance around hairpin turns. However, the electronic differential lock clawed the car into the top of the bend. Though the suspension was stiff, it handled mid-corner bumps and unexpected undulations like a champ. Coming out of a corner and getting back on the gas, the car steered straight through third gear and even broke the tires loose at the top of second.
While it can be tame in the city, switching to “N mode” left the Kona N wanting more the harder I rode it. While chasing hairpin bends that early Sunday morning, I forgot I was driving a Kona, and that must have been exactly what Hyundai’s engineers were looking for.
The Kona N in everyone’s eyes
This is what the Kona N is: a powerful and enthusiastic engine slid into a small package and bursting at the seams. But for the casual passerby, this may not even be enough to really grab their attention. On my first night driving the Kona N, I visited a friend. He glanced at it and said, “Aaron, I thought you were going to get something sporty, this is a crossover.” He clearly didn’t understand.
But those conversations continued. Over the course of my four days with the Kona N, I found myself constantly explaining to myself what it is and why it was cool. While I came to love it for its quirkiness, others were confused as to why Hyundai even made something sporty. In the spirit of these standards, Hyundai is still just a boring car company for the economy.
The fact is, a Kona N flies under the radar of those who are none the wiser. It certainly didn’t get the same amount of looks as the Lamborghini Urus I parked next to, even if it’s just as red.
I bet Hyundai looked at the crossover market for a long time and saw, as many of us do, that companies are sport back to SUV. The BMW X5M, Ford Explorer ST, Audi SQ5 and so many others have become very popular in their segment. Even Lamborghini and Ferrari see this potential goldmine of customers. The Kona N is the entry-level model in this segment – and it even looks a bit like that Urus.
Compared to its price range, the Kona N is in no man’s land, halfway between a crossover and a hot hatch. Both markets are incredibly competitive, but the Kona N fits neither.
Going down the long list of subcompact crossovers from the Chevy Trax to the Jeep Renegade and Kia Niro, none can even be considered a competitor to the turbocharged ball of fury that is the Kona N. Meanwhile, the GTI, Golf R and Toyota GR Corolla are strictly hot hatches, like the Veloster N. The taller Kona N can therefore freely define itself as a unique alternative.
The Kona N only comes one way: fully loaded. At $35,495, it’s fantastic value, considering its performance capabilities. A base spec GTI is a bit cheaper at $31,370, but add one of the performance options that come standard on the Kona N and the price jumps to nearly $40,000. In addition, the Kona N has become more practical.
The Hyundai Kona N checks the most boxes for any novice car enthusiast. I have a lot of friends who say they “love cars” but will never really make the leap to an enthusiast car because they feel they have to give up practicality.
The Kona N provides a compelling solution to these hollow excuses. It’s small enough to parallel park in New York City, practical enough for a shopping spree, and economical enough that I didn’t feel like I was breaking the bank, even when filling up with premium gas.
While the Kona N leaves something to be desired when it comes to luxury compared to the GTI, this XL-sized hot hatch — along with its N siblings — has been able to bring soul back to the entry-level for under $40,000. enthusiastic car without feeling like sacrificing fun for the price. That’s what really matters.
Aaron Segal works as Product Manager for: Returning, The ride’s parent company. Although he spends most of his time behind the scenes keeping the lights on, he has always been a seasoned car enthusiast and has been a contributor to The ride. Based in Boston, he drives a heavily modified Volvo V70 R and a supercharged Mazda Miata.
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