2022 Hyundai Elantra N First Drive – Aiming for the Sweet Spot


The “hot compact” segment has its players, and they all seem to have a defined role.

This is especially true when we’re talking about compacts with more than two doors, especially if they offer a three-pedal option and are priced under $40K.

The Subaru WRX is the all-wheel-drive one. The Honda Civic Si is the bargain one. The Volkswagen GTI is the balanced hatchback one. The Hyundai Veloster N is the quirky three-door one. The Volkswagen Jetta GLI is the refined one.

Extending things out to compacts that are a bit pricier/higher-performing, the Honda Civic Type R is the track-focused one and the Volkswagen Golf R is the luxury one. The Subaru WRX STI would’ve been here as the “WRX on steroids” one, but alas, it is instead the dead one.

Into this mix comes the Hyundai Elantra N. Based on price and door count – no three-door madness like its Veloster N stablemate, but no hatchback version, either – it aims to be the sedan version of the GTI. Meaning it aims to be the best at balancing daily-driving needs with track-day fun.

Does it succeed? Read on.

(Full disclosure: Hyundai flew me to Atlanta and fed and housed me so that I could drive the Elantra N along with several other Hyundai models. Hyundai also offered a travel organizer, which I declined to take home.)

Hyundai structured this program in such a way that attending journalists got wheel time in not just the Elantra N but some of its N-Line vehicles. We also had time to drive the Ioniq5 and we got our hands on the Kona N and the Veloster N. I posted my first drive of the Ioniq5 recently, and since I’ve also already driven the Kona N and Veloster N, the focus here is on the new kid on the block.

The structure of our drive day meant we were assigned to modules, rotating to different events throughout the day. I started my morning on the track in the Elantra N, followed by some autocrossing, with an on-street drive later.

Backing up, the Elantra N is a hopped-up Elantra powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-four that makes 276 horsepower and 289 lb-ft of torque. Your transmission choices are a six-speed manual or an eight-speed wet dual-clutch automatic transmission with paddle shifters. All-wheel drive is not available.

Save the manuals fans, be happy: The only creature comfort you’ll sacrifice by not opting for the DCT is a sunroof. That’s it. If you want to row your own, you otherwise get all the same features as with the auto. This is a mild bummer – I, personally, am a sunroof fan – but the stick is so good that it’s not worth opting for the automatic just to get a little extra fresh air.

When Hyundai first turned me loose on the track at Atlanta Motorsports Park, I was slow. That’s not the car’s fault. It was wet, the track was new to me (and a bit tricky to learn), and it was my first time turning a wheel in anger since I had a very bad day at Road America last fall. I mention this not because you care about my track experience but in the spirit of transparency. Because I suspect the car has a lot of capability that I just wasn’t able to wring out of it on this particular day.

Example: My unfamiliarity with the track led me to occasionally leave the car in third when I should’ve been in second. On the other hand, the flat torque curve kept me from lugging the motor too much.

Once I got more comfortable and started pushing harder, I started to feel the N come alive. It’s not perfect – the steering was a bit artificial in feel, for example – but it’s damn good. It had enough power to flit down the straights with alacrity, the brakes seemed up to the task, body roll was close to non-existent, and the car just went where it was pointed with zero complaint.

The shifter in the manual was generally a joy to row, though I occasionally found fourth when looking for second. Overall, though, the car was a delight on the track, especially with N mode engaged.

I did get to try out a DCT on the track later in the day when the pavement had dried and I’d started to understand the proper line. Unsurprisingly, the car could shift better than I can, but the manual is more fun. Regardless, I was able to push harder than I had in the morning, and the car continued to be a great partner even as I built more speed and braked later. This is no mere badge job – the N is up to the task.

On-road, the N felt right at home on a rural two-lane with gentle sweepers. I toggled between N and Sport modes (more on the drive modes below), finding Normal to be a bit too genteel for aggressive driving. That said, the car is sedate enough in Normal mode that I suspect it will be the choice for rush-hour traffic or long freeway jaunts.

The Elantra N uses a MacPherson strut-type front set up along with a multilink independent rear suspension. Nineteen-inch wheels are shod with Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, and the car has an electronically controlled limited-slip differential.

Drivers can select from one of four drive modes: Eco (why bother on this car?), Normal, Sport, N, and Custom. The N mode is your best bet for track use, while Sport seems best suited to spirited street driving. That said, N was just as much fun to use on-road as it was on track.

Automatic-trans cars get an “N Grin Shift” button that can temporarily add 10 horsepower when pressed.

A fair amount of wind and tire noise at speed ruined the party a bit. I also must leave my evaluation of the ride as incomplete – I had no chance to drive the car on the freeway or over the kind of nasty tarmac I see on the daily here in the Upper Midwest.

The car does have a snap crackle pop exhaust burble from the variable exhaust when in N mode – and to an extent, in Sport mode – but putting the car in Normal quiets the fun. This is perhaps for the best on long commutes, or if you leave for work at 5 am and your neighbors are light sleepers.

Inside, the Elantra N has the now-typical sweeping dash that bleeds into the infotainment system, and the digital gauges change based on which drive mode you’re in. The infotainment system can also be set up to give you track data, including, in some cases, a track map. There are still knobs for key radio and climate functions, thankfully, and the climate controls, which sit below the infotainment screen, are easy to use.

It’s a nice, if relatively unremarkable, cabin. Not as refined as the GLI’s, not plagued by VW’s digital cockpit like the GLI and GTI, and a bit more upscale than that of the WRX, though not quite as sleek as the Honda’s.

Outside is a slightly different story – the Elantra N has weird lines and angles and a tacked-on rear spoiler to go along with N-specific front and rear fascias and side sills. The Elantra is already a bit of an odd-looking duck, and this version does it no favors, though it does show that it means business.

Styling is subjective, of course, but the Elantra N lacks the bland handsomeness of the Civic SI or Jetta GLI. Then again, it doesn’t have the questionable fender flares of the Subaru or the boy-racer styling of the Type R. Hyundai calls the car a “tweener”, and while that was meant to refer to price and power, it also works when it comes to looks.

Speaking of price, the Elantra N sets you back $31,900 before destination ($1,045) if you want to row your own, or $33,400 if you want the DCT. There are some port-installed options you can choose, and the Performance Blue and Ceramic White paint jobs add to the cost, but otherwise the options sheet is simple.

Features include LED lighting all around, the rear spoiler, leather-trimmed seats with microsuede inserts, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and starting, hands-free trunk release, digital key for Android users, Bluetooth, wireless cell-phone charging, dual USB ports, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, navigation, Bose audio, Blue Link connected-car services, and satellite radio.

Driver-aid tech includes forward-collision avoidance assist with pedestrian detection, blind-spot collision avoidance assist with rear cross-traffic avoidance assist, park-distance warning for reverse, lane-following assist with lane-keep assist, high-beam assist, and driver-attention warning.

Fuel economy is listed at 22/31/25 for the manual and 20/30/23 for the automatic.

Hyundai is trying to find the sweet spot in the performance compact-car market, and it comes really close. The price is right, the specs are right, and the car is up to the task. The flaws here come down to polarizing styling and a bit too much exterior noise intruding during sedate driving.

It’s not as refined as the GLI or well-balanced as the GTI, it’s not quite as wonderful on track as a Type R, and it doesn’t offer the Subie’s AWD. Nor is the MSRP as low as the Civic Si’s. On the other hand, it’s got a nice cabin than the WRX, it’s cheaper than the Type R, it has a more-traditional interior than the GTI/GLI and it has more guts than the Si.

So, yeah, it’s right in the middle of the market, and it also mostly attempts to beat the competition in the areas where those vehicles are flawed. Of course, aiming for the sweet spot of the market necessitates some compromise. Hyundai could’ve made the N another value performer, or a track-focused toy, or a sport sedan with a hint of luxury, but it instead tried to come up with a machine that will siphon customers away from the existing rides.

In that regard, Hyundai very much succeeded. If you want something mission-specific, other choices in the segment will suit you well. If you want cheaper, or more refined, you can also find the right car for you.

But if a blend of the best attributes of the competition is what you seek, you’ll be just fine with the N.

[Images © 2022 Tim Healey/TTAC, Hyundai]

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