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A true hot hatch with a dash of extra ride height, the Kona N offers plentiful performance – if you can accept the trade-off in comfort that entails
James Attwood, digital editor
18 August 2021

What is it?

Given the growth of the Hyundai Kona line-up to span multiple powertrains ranging from mild hybrid to full electric and the simultaneous expansion of the firm’s N performance division, it was perhaps inevitable the two would metaphorically cross over into this Kona N.

While high-riding hot crossovers might not please purists, they certainly make sense from both an economic and philosophical standpoint, given the increasing popularity of SUVs. And with the likes of the Ford Puma ST and Volkswagen T-Roc R on the market, why shouldn’t Hyundai get in on the act?

To Hyundai’s credit, it hasn’t used the inherent contradictions of a performance SUV as an excuse to not take the Kona N seriously. Alex Eichler, Hyundai’s executive expert for performance vehicle testing, said that the goal was to imbue the Kona N with “performance as close to the i30 N as possible”.

That aim is clearly felt when driving the Kona N - which is both a positive and a negative.

The Kona N is easy to distinguish from its mild-mannered siblings through a host of bespoke N design features, including a bespoke mesh grille, 19in wheels (wrapped in bespoke Pirelli tyres), a rear spoiler and large twin exhaust pipes. It’s something like an automotive honey badger: it’s all very cute, but with a hint of the aggressiveness that lurks under the surface.

What's it like?

And it can be aggressive. While the body is classic Kona, the underpinnings have far more in common with the i30 N. It’s not a straight swap, of course, with a series of modifications to account for the Kona being both 120mm shorter and 118mm taller than the hatch. So there’s extra welding to boost stiffness (particularly vital to compensate for that extra ride height), retuned electronically controlled suspension, extra powertrain mounts and more responsive rack-mounted power steering. 

The Kona N also gets the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine from the i30 N that produces 276bhp, sent entirely to the front wheels - because in ethos this remains more hot hatch than SUV (although there are some off-road driving modes, should you get the urge). For now, the only gearbox offered is an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic, which probably speaks to the different target market for hot crossovers and hatches. Next to the auto selector on the centre console you’ll also find a handbrake, should you fancy doing some sharp turns on the school run.

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The interior of the Kona N is a similar blend of practicality and perceived performance. You get that slightly elevated seating position, a spacious rear, a decent boot, good all-round visibility, a well-laid-out, relatively plush dashboard that mixes physical controls with a touchscreen, a head-up display (the first in an N model) and a clear digital instrument display. 

To remind you that you’re sitting in a performance model, there’s also special stitching and N logos dotted about. But most notable is the leather-covered steering wheel, which features large paddle shifters, two N buttons that employ the various drive modes and a big, red button marked NGS that drops the car to the lowest usable gear for 20 seconds to allow for full, and very noisy, acceleration. It’ll keep the kids entertained on occasion, at least.

Hyundai expects Kona N buyers to be hot hatch fans who have a family: people who need something approaching a sensible car but still want performance. And such buyers will find that the Kona N succeeds in feeling more like an i30 N than a crossover. The N division has done a fair job in limiting the dynamic compromises inherent in a high-riding crossover, with the responsive handling giving it a decent feel on corners and flowing roads that definitely has more in common with a hot hatch than an SUV. The short wheelbase helps it change direction fast, and it feels pleasingly stable given its comparatively high stance.

The trade-off is through the stiffened ride, which is on the firm side even in the softest Comfort mode. It’s not unbearably so, but there are more comfortable ways of doing the school run.

Moving up the drive modes firms up the steering and suspension, while adjusting the engine delivery, ESC and exhaust sound. The Sport setting is best saved for relatively smooth roads, and things become even more jittery and brittle in N mode. As with the i30 N, you’ll be hard-pressed to find somewhere smooth enough to use that. The best results are likely to be found using the custom mode to keep the suspension soft while boosting the steering response.

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Should I buy one?

It’s to Hyundai’s immense credit that it’s taken the slightly daft idea of a performance crossover and delivered an earnest, proper performance machine, one that feels very much like it belongs in the N line-up.

That said, part of the appeal of crossovers is their duality of purpose. In its pursuit of raucous, pure performance, you wonder if the Kona N’s singularity might limit its appeal.

But there’s little else like it at this price point of the performance SUV market, and for that reason you suspect it could become a cult classic among those prepared to accept the compromises inherent in the concept.

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Comments
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catnip 19 August 2021

High riding, so you have to compromise the ride quality? Why not just buy a hatchback?

567 18 August 2021

Another SUV that people don't want. The i30N is all people need which is bigger than Kona N.

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