Introducing its first ever compact crossover, Hyundai’s N division - itself a recent creation - says all the rights things. It’s not billing the Kona N as a softened, taller, more practical take on the i30 N (though of course that's what it is) but rather a new and totally credible driver’s machine simply occupying a different class. Without pausing to put its tongue in its cheek, it says the car is as fit for track as the hatch it shares most of its hardware with, while offering its owners the increased usability they'd expect from a 280hp SUV.
Hyundai’s director for high performance vehicle development, Klaus Koster, told PH in a video interview that he'd never even driven Ford’s alternative, the Puma ST, during the Kona’s development, which you might think odd given the eye level compeition. But Hyundai’s SUV isn’t really comparable in Koster’s eyes; it’s not just a step up in outright power thanks to the turbocharged four-cylinder motor, but also in driver focus. It wasn’t just for fun that Koster’s team had prototypes hammering around the ‘ring throughout 2020 - they were there to fine tune chassis and steering, in a bid to create a crossover that’s more mechanically expressive than anything else in the class.
As the cladding and N-pattern camouflage wrap suggests, it's one of those workhorses we're testing here. As such, we obviously won't pass comment on the fit and finish – or, indeed, the details of the interior. Seats and driver touch surfaces aside, the cabin of this car is completely covered. Our early go in Hyundai’s first hot SUV is to consider the handling and performance that the firm keeps banging on about. The bits that really matter, in other words.
So let’s get straight to it. The Kona N develops 280hp and 289lb ft of torque from a redeveloped version of the T-GDi familiar from the i30. Those are 5hp and 29lb ft gains over the hatch. It comes exclusively with the eight-speed N DCT (optional on the hatch) and uses front-wheel drive rather than the Kona’s optional all-wheel drive, primarily to save weight, according to Koster. Power is supplied to the road via an electronically controlled, hydraulically operated mechanical limited slip differential, also from the i30. There are no performance stats yet, but given that Koster said the weight is near to that of the hatch (which is 1,429kg), let’s assume a 0-62mph time of something close to the 6.1 seconds of an i30 N. But certainly no better.
Climb aboard and the seating position is good in a modern crossover way, in that you’re sat low in the car itself, but elevated from the road surface below thanks to the platform. That said, the N sits lower than a standard Kona, although you’re aware of the more commanding position compared with the i30. The wheel can be brought close and the sports seats – which are each 1.1kg lighter than those in the i30 N – provide good support. There’s decent space elsewhere inside, although no more than the i30 in most areas. Instead, it’s probably going to be access height, or the more commanding view out or – perhaps most likely – the sporting SUV vogue that'll swing a buying decision. While the Kona N’s exterior design details are also shrouded, Hyundai looks to have the stance nailed with those swollen arches and 19-inch alloys.
Still, it's a surprise just how firm the Kona N is on the move. It’s fidgety over bumps and jiggles you around in the seat over urban surfaces. In comfort mode the damping does noticeably slacken off so bigger compressions and speed humps are dealt with okay, but the prototype couldn’t iron out the high frequency stuff at all on our test route. Things improve enough with speed that you can click into sport mode and feel the car begin to flow on a B-road. But don't expect FK8 Civic Type R-like suppleness. Not surprisingly, the N setting remains far too stiff for the road.
The payoff is the Kona N does a remarkable impression of a proper hot hatch when you’re really on it. It squats and loads up at pace through bends, and responds to steering inputs with real vigour. Not in an artificial way due to overly fast steering, either, but in a genuine, athletic manner thanks to excellent body control, decent steering feedback (which Koster’s team worked hard to achieve) and a balance that’s never anything less than neutral. Koster said his team fiddled with rear toe settings to increase agility, and a lifted throttle will certainly have the back rotating. Ultimately, the prototype’s ESP off button was inaccessible, but the sport setting is pleasingly liberal. The Kona N’s mechanical limits can be exploited on a B-road, no problem.
The engine's character and note are familiar, albeit with a slightly more linear delivery than the i30 N, so you’re never thumped in the back under full throttle. There are none of the kiddish pops and crackles of the i30 N hot hatch exhaust either, just a consistent building of power to 6,500rpm. The DCT is quick in both auto and manual modes, and the extended shift paddles really do shame the little fiddly ones fitted to VW Group stuff. We never once missed having a manual, although perhaps that’s because it’s hard to shake the feeling that anyone considering a crossover is unlikely to want three pedals in the first place.
Conceivably, those same buyers might decide they want the four-wheel drive offered by most of the car's rivals - but Hyundai is clearly intending to trade on a) the Kona N's superior agility, and b) its cheaper starting price. Expect the crossover to cost a fair chunk less than something like the T-Roc R; estimates point to around £30k. The manufacturer's insistence that its first SUV be a driver-centric, enthusiast-worthy entry into the segment is admirable, too. The prototype suggests it's mission accomplished in that regard.
Whether or not this is the right choice for people with a crossover on the brain is another matter. There's obviously a risk here that Hyundai has gone above and beyond with its chassis honing and sacrificed too much comfort in the process. When you’re not fully on it, that ride might get tiresome quite quickly. Its maker is betting N buyers won't care: the Kona is built to bring the fun. It does. Only time will tell if that's enough.
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