I was still rubbing sleep from my eyes when I checked my phone upon waking. I was scheduled to drive the Hyundai Santa Cruz, and here was a notification of an email saying something about driving the Hyundai Kona N instead. Was Hyundai short a truck or something?
Nope, they just had two Kona Ns around for media to drive at the lunch stop, and those Ns had to get there somehow. Would I like to drive one?
I’d be happy to, I said, even if it meant weird looks from the rest of our gathered group. As one journalist I know joked when I pulled up to the first break stop: “You know we’re here to drive the Santa Cruz, right?”
Whatever, man. I may have flown four hours to drive the new minitruck, but seat time in the N seemed like it might be a nice bonus. And, for the most part, it was.
(Full disclosure: Hyundai flew me out to Palo Alto, California so that I could drive the Santa Cruz, and apparently, the N. The company offered nice meals and a gift basket in the hotel that included snacks, which I ate, and a backpack, t-shirt, and coffee mug that I left behind.)
The 2022 Hyundai Kona N isn’t just a trim with some performance badging, it’s hopped-up. If the regular Kona is a bland piece of chicken, and the higher-trim Konas are well-seasoned pieces of meat, the N has been doused in hot sauce.
Yes, that metaphor is a bit tortured, but you get the point. This compact crossover has a 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder that makes 276 horsepower and 289 lb-ft of torque. That power gets to the front wheels via an eight-speed wet-type dual-clutch transmission that Hyundai says is specifically calibrated for the N model, with quicker shifts. An N Grin Shift mode offers up 20 seconds of turbo overboost at the push of a button, temporarily raising horsepower during those 20 seconds to 286.
Other performance-related additions include an electronic limited-slip differential, 19-inch wheels, performance-tuned suspension, upgraded brakes, and upgraded tires. There’s launch control, a variable exhaust system, and five drive modes including Eco, Normal, Sport, N, and Custom. Changing modes can adjust how the engine, stability control, exhaust sound, and steering behave.
On the road, it all works to bring forth a Kona that’s more than a little high-strung. As if the car had imbibed in too much of the coffee that comes from the Kona area of Hawaii. Its exhaust note gives away the game – it’s much louder than that of the standard Kona, though still acceptable for commuting until you hit one of the “N” buttons on the steering wheel to summon one of the N modes (my test vehicle had two modes setup, with one being more aggressive than the other).
Hitting that button summons a different screen for the digital gauge cluster, and you can also summon more performance data from an N display for the infotainment screen.
Whatever mode you’re in, the N feels quite quick, at least relative to the type of vehicle it is, and the NGS button helped me blow by a slow-moving semi on the 101 freeway with ease.
Our drive route started out on the boring freeway, before taking us on a four-lane highway with gentle curves and lots of elevation change towards Santa Cruz. After trundling through town, there was a quick run up the coast and back, then a turn towards the mountains and the redwoods, including a stint on the famed Skyline Boulevard. I flew to California to drive the Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz – and in the end, I didn’t.
Which, as you’ll see shortly when my Santa Cruz first drive drops, may have worked out in my favor. While the little trucklet is no chore to drive, the Kona N can do things that it cannot.
Things that surprised me. I was concerned that the Kona N’s crossover shape and higher center of gravity relative to a sedan (or the Veloster N hatch) would keep it from being fun, but it handled better than I expected. Body roll was muted to the point of almost non-existence, and transitions flowed with ease. My speed picked up as I got more comfortable with the road – I’ve tackled parts of Skyline before, but it’s been years – and also with the car. I found that I could get more and more aggressive without running into bad behavior from the chassis. I am sure if I pushed it a bit harder I’d generate some understeer, and I did hold back a little because Skyline isn’t a place for mistakes, but at the pace I was moving – quite a good clip – the Kona N was quite competent when it came to enthusiastic driving.
This, of course, comes at a cost. Wind and road noise were ever-present and too loud for my taste, even when I cranked the radio. Some of that may have been a result of a specific match between the tires and the type of pavement being used locally. The exhaust note burps and burbles, even in the quietest mode, and that will rankle some when commuting.
Still, it’s a better daily than the Veloster N, at least in some respects – the seats aren’t quite as bolstered and feel more comfortable, and even in N mode, the Kona N doesn’t feel quite as tightly wound as the always-on Veloster. The DCT is a bit more pleasant to use in this application – I didn’t pick up on too many harsh shifts. It’s also willing to hold onto gears, at least in N mode, which made the run through the redwoods that much more entertaining.
Hyundai gets credit for the steering here – it’s nicely weighted and appropriately firm. Hyundai lists the power steering as rack-mounted, motor-driven. My only complaint was that the feel of what the tires were up to was a bit too muted.
The freeway ride was stiff but acceptable, at least on California’s roads. I wonder how the Kona N will handle Midwestern potholes.
For those wondering, the front suspension is a MacPherson strut with coil springs and electronically controlled gas shocks, while the rear is multilink, also with electronically-controlled gas shocks. The N is one-tenth of an inch higher than its non-N brethren.
Available features include arear spoiler, heated front seats, navigation, satellite radio, premium audio, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, dual USB ports, wireless device charging, BlueLink telematics, blind-spot collision avoidance assist, rear cross-traffic collision avoidance assist, forward collision-avoidance assist with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, lane-following assist, driver-attention warning, high-beam assist, rear-occupant alert, and safe-exit warning.
Pricing and fuel-economy numbers have not yet been released.
The Hyundai Kona N is an odd duck. There’s no real need for a full-on N version of a compact crossover. I don’t really know who the buyer for this is – maybe the Veloster N intender who needs more ground clearance and four doors, or who is put off by that car’s constant urge to play? The Kona N is a tad more relaxed than its hatchback stablemate, though still more high-strung than the regular Kona.
Maybe the buyer here is the person who loves the idea of surprising passengers and nearby traffic by using the flick of a switch to turn Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.
I don’t know who will willingly make the trade-offs in ride and NVH to check the box for a Hyundai Kona N. I do know those who do will be pleasantly surprised.
[Images © 2021 Tim Healey/TTAC]
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