As I think about the electrification of vehicles being a reality, it’s hard to say goodbye to vehicles like the one I get to play with this week – a performance-oriented variation of the Hyundai Kona, the Kona N. Even though the Kona N isn’t exactly exotic-car-fast, it is a rather fun and exciting vehicle showcasing what manufactures can easily do with small, turbocharged engines wrapped up in a compact lightweight package.
The Hyundai Kona has been a welcomed subcompact crossover since its introduction in 2018 and over the past couple of years, it has received additional trims for a sportier appeal, and recently a new Kona N model that injects the brand’s “N” performance attributes. In getting to experience the Kona N this week I can attest to those performance attributes applying to most of the vehicle, including the interior, handling, looks, and power with a unique smile-inducing feature – more on that later.
Performance and Driving Character
It’s hard to place the new Hyundai Kona N as it touts the same subcompact form of the other Kona trims but has a rather potent engine for its class to the tune of 276 horsepower and 289 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine powering the front wheels only. The engine gets mated to an 8-speed DCT (dual-clutch transmission) that fires off snappy shifts and can be rather aggressive utilizing the proper drive setting. With such a powertrain, the Kona N gets placed in a small basket to compete with vehicles like the Mercedes-AMG GLA35, Mini Countryman John Cooper Works All4, or BMW X2 M35i. Outside of those smallish crossovers, the competition could technically expand to vehicles like the Honda Civic Type R, Volkswagen Golf GTI or even the VW Golf R if you forget the SUV-ness of the Kona N.
The performance characteristics of the Kona N are quite unique in that there are multiple methods of configuring the vehicle. There’s an interesting and dedicated N mode that opens up two customization modes outside of a preset N drive mode accessed through one of two steering wheel N buttons. The default N mode seems to set up the vehicle to extract the most out of the powertrain without disabling stability and traction control. The two Custom N modes allow you to dial-up individual aspects of how the adaptive dampers are set, steering wheel effort, engine response, transmission aggressiveness and shift patterns, electronic limited-slip differential setting, stability/traction control setting, and exhaust sound setting. It’s rather surprising to see Hyundai layout so many customization options for the Kona N, which is somewhat thought of as a taller Veloster N using a similar powertrain setup.
Dialing up the N modes, which are separate from the traditional Sport drive mode enacted by a turn knob next to the shifter, is a whole new experience and further defines the multiple personalities of the Kona N. Think of it as a Jekyll and Hyde experience that changes its demeanor at the press of a button. To take things to the stratosphere, the Kona N has another trick up its drive-mode sleeve with the unique N Grin Shift (NGS) mode that’s enacted by pressing a red button on the steering wheel. Yes, that’s really the name of it! The NGS mode is good for about 20 seconds where it enables an over-boost function to add 10 horsepower (total of 286 HP) and aggressively shifts the DCT 8-speed transmission at the highest possible RPM of the engine. Here the Kona N feels like you have a DRS (Drag Reduction System) mode but after utilizing the full 20 seconds of “grinning” you must wait a while for the engine to recover before trying it again. There’s also a launch mode that does a neat slipping of the automated wet friction clutch to limit front wheel spin but does well to get the Kona N up to 60 mph in about 4.9 seconds.
The Kona N feels like it’s on rails – pushing the limits of a tall-statured little crossover. The brakes are strong with larger 14.2-inch rotors up front and 12.4-inch rears over other Kona trims both clamped down by single-piston calipers.
I found myself often giggling a bit at the Kona N from its teeth-shattering stiff suspension when set in any mode apart from the softest setting (which isn’t very soft to begin with), to the exhaust burbles and pops, and even the sound of the turbocharger and intake manifold sounding like a fancy Dyson vacuum. Hyundai engineers surely had to laugh a little when they packed in the many features of the Kona N. However, it’s good to experience such a vehicle in knowing a brand still can have a little fun and humor in their vehicles possibly as a last hurrah for gas-burning engines.
Overall, the Kona N feels like a pocket rocket but often doesn’t deliver consistent power, which I somewhat attribute to the 100-degree heat here in Florida during my time with the pocket rocket. The Kona N is more of a fun machine for those who may have wanted the Veloster N but needed the extra space out back accessible by real doors and a taller cargo hatch. It’s a real hoot to drive, trust me!
Exterior and Interior
To set the Kona N apart from the rest of the Kona line there’s a lot to digest outside of the performance aspects. For one, the Kona N sports 19-inch wheels with summer performance tires, large dual exhaust tips, unique body cladding, red exterior accents, and red brake calipers. Inside, there are a couple of items that set it apart mostly surrounding the highly bolstered front heated seats that have leather trim and suede inserts to help grip your body.
The Kona N comes nicely packed with features reaching the level of the Kona Limited trim, which includes the highlights of a 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen, single-zone automatic climate control, power driver’s seat with power lumbar support, 8-speaker Harmon Kardon audio system, wireless smartphone charger, and a 10.25-inch digital gauge cluster that features an additional N mode display bringing up a unique performance display of vehicle information.
The Kona N still gets decent fuel milage if you utilize the Eco drive mode and never use the Grin-inducing N drive modes. The mileage is slightly down from the other Kona trims where you can muster out the EPA estimates in the real world of 20 mpg city, 27 mpg highway, and 23 mpg combined.
Just like the Hyundai Kona Limited, the Kona N gets the full array of active safety features (forward collision avoidance assist w/warning, lane-keeping assist, lane following assist, driver attention warning, blind-spot monitors/collision avoidance assist, rear cross-traffic collision avoidance assist, safe exit warning) but can be fully disabled on the fly by bringing up Customized N drive modes.
Where Hyundai really nails it, apart from having a rather unique small crossover in the Kona N, is the price where there are no options to add on – everything is included. At the end of the day, you can have all this “grinning” fun for $35,495, which is a bargain for something that’s as fun as this distinctive subcompact crossover pocket rocket.