A few people didn't take Hyundai seriously when it announced the performance N division. Yes, it was in world rallying and other forms of motorsport, but there was a feeling that Hyundai should leave mass-market performance cars to Ford or Volkswagen. Then the i30 N blew everyone's minds. The i20 N followed closely behind and now we have the Kona N. The Kona, let us not forget, is a compact crossover, also sold in electric format. It's not a car to chuck around a go-kart track, is it?
In the metal
The Hyundai Kona is a crossover that's roughly the size of a C-segment hatchback such as the Hyundai i30, but with more ground clearance. However, this is the N model, so you don't get as much ride height as in other Konas, but that's fine, because you get performance instead and the looks to match.
The front of the Kona N has a really dynamic look about it, that clichéd, hunkered down thing. There are 19-inch forged alloy wheels with red brake callipers and a range of special colours, including Sonic Blue. The rear might be a bit fussy for some with a double-wing spoiler, a third brake light inspired by racing, a massive diffuser, big exhausts and lots of little bits of trim, but it's all very much in character.
It looks very sporty; park it next to a normal Kona and the unfortunate thing is going to feel rather intimidated. Even the Kona Electric might feel just a little less smug than usual.
Inside, it's all great materials with a feel of quality. Some of the plastics on the door are a bit of a let-down and the bolsters in the seat did seem to be pushing into my insides a little, but there's plenty of adjustment in the seats to get comfortable.
The N steering wheel feels good and there are nice blue accents in the stitching that add to the overall sporty feel.
Lots of room in the back seats and good boot space complete the practical side of things, but you're not here to read about its practicality, are you?
The Kona N has been through a rigorous testing and development programme. That means hours, days, weeks even pounding round the Nürburgring circuit to spot flaws and fix them. Then the car was given to some journos last year who said things didn't feel quite right. Hyundai took the comments on board and re-tuned the dampers, adjusted the software for the electronic damper control system and reduced the tyre pressures. Then they gave it to us.
What we found is a crossover that is as much fun as a hot hatch, in some cases even more so. Granted it's higher off the ground and can't match a hatch for dynamics, but it's remarkably close. In some instances it's better than some bigger, more expensive performance SUVs. Attack a twisty point-and-shoot kind of a road, or say, a go-kart track, and it's more fun than a Porsche Cayenne Turbo GT. Granted we haven't put the Turbo GT on a go-kart track so we're making an assumption there, but let's call it an educated guess.
That education included taking the Kona N to a karting track where it proved to be incredibly agile with fantastic grip. There were a few undulations in the track that unsettled it slightly, but it just gathered itself up and off it went. Switching to paddles provided a more involved drive and while it is very capable of managing the gears on its own, going into manual made the track driving was even more fun. It's remarkably grippy and hit a button to put it into N-mode and it delivers fantastic acceleration with the suspension tightening up so you can get on with attacking the next corner.
Be sure to switch it off before you go on to normal roads though, because the suspension in Sport and N-mode really is very firm indeed, even with it having been dialled back a bit from the prototypes. Eco and Normal are fine and reasonably comfortable. Whichever it is in, the systems struggle to control the 280hp without giving you a bit of torque steer, which obviously can become a lot of torque steer in maximum attack mode.
There's quite a lot of tyre noise, particularly when you turn it down into Eco and Normal and you can't hear the exhaust so much. Fortunately, the audio system is decent enough so you can just pump up the volume a bit, or go into the many menus and switch on the active exhaust, whichever you prefer.
Talking of menus, there are lots to choose from, including one for all the settings that allows you to change everything from steering to engine response. Plus you get an N screen that shows you all the essential data like percentage acceleration and g-forces. You also get a circuit icon, which, when we pressed it, tried to route us to the Nürburgring. We didn't follow it but once there it would then guide you round the track. Yes, some of this might be a bit gimmicky, but who cares, it's fun.
What's also gimmicky but fun is the N-Grin mode. Push the NGS button on the steering wheel and you can push the revs up to 6,800rpm, you get full power, the exhaust goes all rumbly and you have twenty seconds of full-on rocket blast to enjoy.
Should you feel the need to relax a bit and cruise along the motorway or the country lanes, then the Kona N will oblige. It can cater for your maturity level when you need it to but the rest of the time it's going to make you a grin like the Joker.
What you get for your money
There's only one model and options are really all about colour choices. So what you get is a proper pocket rocket on stilts that's capable of being both fun and surprisingly practical. It's fully equipped too with everything from safety features such as airbags and traction control to modern essentials like USB ports, Bluetooth music streaming and digital instrumentation. It has everything you need in a compact crossover and something you probably don't - performance, lots of performance. You even get launch control, in a Hyundai crossover for goodness' sake.
Irish pricing for the Kona N is not available at this stage, but we'd estimate it should cost about €49,000 going by the official price of the i30 N.
We expected the Hyundai Kona N to be a bit of a compromise, an SUV that tries to be a hot hatch and fails miserably. Granted the dynamics are still different from something sitting a little closer to the ground, but Hyundai's engineers have done an incredible job of faking it. The performance, grip and general fun factor are superb and we very much doubt anyone will be able to drive it without an enormous grin on their face, all of the time.