Hyundai Kona N review: Hot SUV with performance to spare
Souped-up SUV impresses with the 0-60 time of a hot hatch and handling to match
There are quite a few silly things about the Hyundai Kona N.
The unfortunate similarity to the name of a famous barbarian aside, there’s the ridiculously titled “N Grin Shift” function, a “Corner Carving” differential and the “Tomato Red” paint accents on its far-from-subtle body kit.
There’s also the small matter that this is a compact SUV that’s directing more than 270bhp to the road via its front wheels.
Yes, if you thought Hyundai was all about planet-saving EVs and practical but plain family transport you’ve clearly not been paying attention to the antics of its N division.
After the rapturous welcome for the i30 N hot hatch, the boffins at Namyang under the guidance of ex-BMW M Division boss Albert Biermann have been beavering away finding other Hyundai models they can play with.
We’ve had the i20 N rival to the Ford Fiesta ST and now we’ve got the Kona N, ready to take on the Puma ST as well potentially challenge larger rivals such as the Cupra Ateca.
It’s a fairly simple recipe. The Korean brand’s engineers have lifted the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine from its smash-hit i30 N hot hatch and shoe-horned it in where you’d normally find a 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit.
They have also fiddled with the car’s chassis and suspension to make sure it doesn’t turn into a wobbly, understeery mess. The Kona N features electronically controlled adaptive dampers, new steering calibration, a retuned stability control system with a track mode and proper off switch, and that ridiculously named Corner Carving Differential - an electronic limited slip differential that can split the torque between the front wheels to minimise understeer and ensure you get the best drive out of corners.
The eight-speed dual-clutch transmission has also been calibrated with specific modes for different situations, including N Grin Shift, which gives a 20-second burst of maximum engine and transmission performance, and Track Sense Shift, which detects “on-track” driving and optimises gear selection and shift times. There’s also a paddle-operated manual override option if you think you know better than the car.
It all amounts to a properly sorted, performance-focused machine. In Sport mode, the Kona N feels taut, direct and responsive in a way that we expect from our hot hatches but not necessarily our SUVs.
It hunkers down on its dampers, dealing with corners with very little roll and gripping remarkably. The steering has a real heft to it but responds sharply while the eLSD marshals the 276bhp and 289lb ft.
Sixty-two miles per hour comes up in just 5.5 seconds from a standstill and the DCT rifles through shifts accompanied by not entirely convincing pops and bangs from the sports exhaust.
The only downside is a ride that in Sport mode has a very distinct sharp edge and in Sport+ mode is simply too firm for on-road use.
Overall, it’s what you would expect from the team that developed the brilliant i30 N and i20 N but it’s always nice to be proved right.
What’s almost as impressive as its dynamic abilities is the almost dual personalities of the Kona N. In Sport mode it’s a fierce, snarling thing but drop back into Normal mode and things settle down and you can pootle around quite happily. There’s still a slight compromise in ride quality but the noise from the engine settles down into the background and the transmission softens shifts to go largely unnoticed.
In fact, were it not for the dedicated sports steering wheel with its massive red NGS button and the grippy sports seats, you could almost be convinced this was a run-of-the-mill Kona. The seats are supportive and grippy when you’re making the most of the N’s performance but aren’t unduly tight or firm when you’re simply doing the school run. Apart from that, the cabin is largely standard Kona, which means it’s not particularly stylish but looks and feels built to last. It’s also not the last word in practicality, with tight rear space and a relatively meagre boot, especially compared with the Puma ST.
If not much has changed inside, a fair amount of tinkering has gone on outside. The regular Kona is a pretty out-there looking thing but the N chucks a load of touches that just scream “performance”. From the broad, gappy black grill to the double spoiler and vivid red trim that encircles the bottom of the car, it’s clear that the Kona N means business. It’s an impression enhanced by 19-inch forged alloys and prominent twin exhausts poking out from under the rear diffuser.
At £35,000 the Kona N faces a mixture of competition. The Puma ST is cheaper but less powerful while the similar-sized VW T-Roc R and larger Cupra Ateca cost a bit more but have an extra 20bhp and all-wheel-drive. Each has its own appeal but the Kona N is delightfully lively and engaging while offering everyday usability.
Silly, then, but not stupid.
Hyundai Kona N
Price: £35,29; Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol; Power: 276bhp; Torque: 289lb ft; Transmission: Eight-speed dual-clutch automatic; Top speed: 149mph; 0-62mph: 5.5 seconds Economy: 33.2mpg; CO2 emissions: 194g/km