If you aren’t already thinking of Hyundai as a capable performance brand, beat the rush and start now.
The Korean automaker has established a strong reputation (and sales volume, and market share) built on the concept of high value. We’ve seen this reflected over the past 20 years through increasing attention to quality, feature content and styling, all while maintaining competitive price points against more established brands.
Hyundai’s next area of focus? Performance, as represented by the latest additions to its performance division: N Brand
If you’re wondering where the “N” comes from, it’s not an effort to alphabetically snuggle up with BMW’s “M” brand, or get in front of Audi’s “RS” models. Hyundai says it comes from being born in Namyang, Korea (the city housing Hyundai’s R&D center), as well as the famous Nurburgring race track in Germany, where Hyundai has an embedded test center. If you look closely at the crossbeam in the “N” badge you can see a gentle curve, representing the well-known chicane at the ‘Ring.
What Drives Hyundai’s N Performance Brand?
The N Brand starts with a philosophy of “Never just drive”, which expands to “do more than simply drive — enjoy every second of it”. The brand’s core values include words like “exhilarating” and “accessible” and “everyday sports car”, reflecting the idea of creating cars that elevate the driving experience without compromising functionality. Company representatives also emphasized the idea of “a lot of fun for your dollar, without spending a fortune”. Hmm, that sounds like a familiar (and proven) approach for Hyundai.
How Does the N Brand Manifest in Hyundai’s Vehicles?
A stylish logo and thoughtful brand philosophy are fine, but how does Hyundai’s N Brand manifest in the vehicles you and I can buy? In terms of product strategy, the process starts with dedicated race cars participating in Hyundai’s motorsports programs, then flows to halo models that serve as early prototype test beds before landing on production models like the Elantra N, Kona N and Veloster N. It’s not a particularly unique approach, as that’s how most automakers leverage their racing and prototype efforts to drive production car innovation. But Hyundai’s been upping its effort in this process over the past 7 years.
The initial step — building dedicated race cars — has proven quite effective for Hyundai. In just the past 3 years the automaker has claimed multiple wins in multiple racing series, including the 2019 and 2020 World Rally Championship, the 2018 and 2019 World Touring Car Driver Championship, and the 2020 IMSA Touring Car Manufacturer’s Championship (Hyundai is currently leading the 2021 IMSA series).
That level of on-track success has been followed by a series of “rolling lab” (prototype) models built between 2014 and 2021. These prototype vehicles served as the bridge to volume production N Brand models, starting with the i30 N for the German market in 2017 and the Veloster N in the U.S. in 2019.
For 2022 Hyundai will add the front-wheel drive Elantra N and Kona N performance vehicles to its U.S. product line, giving enthusiasts three very different models to consider if they want to “do more than simply drive”. We recently drove the new Elantra N and Kona N on both public roads and at Sonoma Raceway, north of San Francisco. We also enjoyed a brief autocross stint in the company’s latest prototype vehicle, the all-electric RM20e.
2022 Hyundai Elantra N
The 2022 Hyundai Elantra N is the first N car based on Hyundai’s new K3 platform, which allows for a lower driver’s seat (which translates to more headroom for a helmet). The K3 platform also allows for larger wheels, which in the Elantra N and Kona N’s case means 19-by-8-inch wheels. The compact performance sedan also benefits from unique tuning of its electric steering system to manage torque steer, which Hyundai doesn’t completely tune out because it feels torque steers represents…well…torque, and it wants Elantra N drivers to feel that.
Powering the Elantra N is a 2.0-liter turbo four cylinder, offering 276 horsepower and 289 pound-feet of torque. A 6-speed manual transmission is available as well as an 8-speed dual-clutch automatic. Hyundai claims a zero-to-60 time of 5 seconds for this model, and expects it to hold its own against the Honda Civic Type R, Subaru Impreza WRX, and Volkswagen Golf GTI and Jetta GLI
We like the Elantra N’s exterior styling, which includes a unique front fascia, red accents, the aforementioned 19-inch alloy wheels, a rear wing spoiler, and large bore exhaust outlets. The cabin features a 10.25-inch digital gauge cluster and another 10.25-inch central touchscreen display. Both are under the same piece of glass, adding to the car’s premium, high-tech image. The Elantra N’s interior also boasts “N” badging, lightweight seats, alloy pedals, and a specific N steering wheel and gearshift.
Engine tuning since the initial Veloster N has widened the 2.0-liter’s torque band in the Elantra, while the rev-matching capability of the 6-sped manual makes it easy to leverage the engine’s full performance on a racetrack. The dual-clutch automatic is also quick to shift in manual mode and offers a launch mode. Both transmissions, along with the Elantra N’s larger, more capable brake system, stiffer chassis (by 29 percent), and confident suspension tuning, made quick work of Sonoma Raceway, with plenty of grip and predictable breakaway when pushing beyond the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S’ impressive level of grip.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the Elantra N is the level of customization it provides through its high-tech, N Performance display screen and range of settings. Everything from throttle response to suspension stiffness to transmission behavior and exhaust volume can be modified through straightforward touchscreen controls. Even the car’s electronic limited-slip differential has multiple settings. And if the standard 276 horsepower isn’t enough, a bright red NGS (”N Grin Shift”) button on the steering wheel provides an additional 10 horsepower and more aggressive transmission shift program for 20 seconds after being pressed (complete with a digital display countdown of time left). There’s a 40-second cooldown time required between each press of the button.
2022 Hyundai Kona N
With SUVs becoming more popular everyday, along with the Hyundai Kona’s established fan base, it made sense to produce an N version. At least that’s what Hyundai representatives told us, and we believe it given our own affinity for Hyundai’s small SUV. The Kona N includes the same engine and transmission specs as the Elantra N, though it only comes with the 8-speed automatic. It also features similar interior and exterior styling tweaks, larger brakes and improved suspension and steering tuning.
Hyundai says the Kona N brings high performance to a daily driving utility vehicle, without compromising functionality or flexibility. For example, the Kona N still has a roof rack and a 60/40 split-folding rear seat that creates a flat load floor for maximum cargo. It also features a sleek roof spoiler housing a stylish, raised brake light in the shape of a triangle.
Like the Elantra N, the Kona N proved extremely capable at the racetrack, with that same wide torque band and electronic limited-slip differential pulling it through corners quickly and confidently. This is already one of the most stylish and fun-to-drive small SUVs, even in standard form, so we honestly weren’t particularly surprised at how well the Kona embraces its “N” treatment.
When Can I Buy, and How Much?
Hyundai hasn’t released pricing or fuel economy figures for the Elantra N and Kona N, but they should be in showrooms in the coming months, and we would guess at a starting price around $30,000 for both. Whatever the price, both models will include Hyundai’s Smartsense suite of safety technology, plus the digital key tech that lets Android folks use their phone as a key, a wireless smartphone charging pad, an upgraded Harman Kardon audio system, and heated front seats.
Hyundai told us they don’t want Elantra N or Kona N buyers to have to think about which options to add. If you buy an N Brand product you only have to decide color and (in the Elantra N’s case) two or three pedals. For colors, the Elantra N comes in five shades and the Kona N comes in four, with N-exclusive “Sonic Blue” available on both.
What’s Next for the N Brand? Electricity
With the increasing push for electric vehicles across the industry it’s not difficult to imagine where Hyundai will go next, and company reps confirmed the future involves pairing performance with sustainability. Hyundai began competing in the Electric Touring Car race series this year. And its latest prototype vehicle, the RM20e, is the first all-electric test car for the brand.
We were allowed a few laps around a tight autocross course in the RM20e, which also leverages all-wheel drive and torque vectoring to enhance performance, stability and driver control. Will these features eventually show up in production models? One can only hope, because with 810 horsepower and 708 pound-feet of torque the RM20e was an unmitigated hoot to drive. The instant torque that comes from electric motors, along with all-wheel drive, made it easy to rotate the RM20e like a traditional rally car.
If this is where the N Brand is headed we fully support the endeavor.