If there’s an award for best hard-not-to-smile story from the North American automotive world over the last few years, then that of the Hyundai Kona would have to at least earn a nomination.
This plucky little crossover from the South Korean corporation that counts everything from ships to sports cars as part of its portfolio looked a little strange, was part of a segment that was really only just gaining momentum upon its arrival for the 2018 model year, and had a name that was shared with both a part of Hawaii and a mountain bike company.
Nevertheless, it eventually became the brand’s best-selling vehicle in Canada, besting stalwarts like the Elantra, Tucson, and Santa Fe. Pretty impressive for a little subcompact hatchback on stilts, and it was enough to spawn a battery-electric version that’s good for a claimed 415 km of range, besting the likes of the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Bolt.
So what, then, do you do if you’re Hyundai and want to continue to evolve one of your most popular products?
Well, you make a performance version, of course! That may sound a little backwards but know this: the performance version, called the Kona N, is part of Hyundai’s N performance line. That line, according to the manufacturer, forms an important part of Hyundai’s identity going forward (to the point where they’re actually entering top-flite racing leagues under the N banner), along with EV power.
The Kona N comes equipped with a 2.0-litre turbo-four shared with the Elantra N, which also means that it’s shared with that car’s racing variant, the N TCR, built to compete in top touring car racing championships the world over. On paper, that translates to 276 horsepower and 289 lb-ft of torque, sent to the front wheels (there is no AWD option) through an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. That’s your only choice. The six-speed manual fitted to the Elantra will not be available on the Kona, which probably won’t surprise that many people.
Style-wise, the Kona N isn’t shy about its performance underpinnings. It gets special wheels wrapped in Pirelli performance tires, a unique Performance Blue paint option with red rocker panels (those exist no matter which of the six available colours you select, except for the Ignite Red seen here), somewhat gaudy roof spoiler and distinctive N badging on the rocker panels and grille. While it doesn’t ride any lower than a standard Kona (it is still a crossover, so it still needs to be able to conquer Canadian winters) this is not your Modo’s Kona, I can tell you that.
Inside, the N love continues with special N sport seats, Performance Blue detailing on the seats, gearlever and the two wheel-mounted N mode buttons as well as a big red button there with “NGR” stamped on it. That stands for the whatever-you-say “N Grin Shift” system, which provides a 10 horsepower boost for 20 seconds once pressed.
While the seats are a little more heavily bolstered than the items found in other Konas, even the wider-hipped among us – a category in which I include myself – will be perfectly comfortable. Back seat space, meanwhile, is about what you’d expect from a vehicle this size, which is to say that most will probably use it only for the kids, as it should be. Or for more storage as the seatbacks can of course be folded down flat.
The 10.25-inch digital gauge cluster is modifiable and gets an additional “performance” style that has you feeling like you’re looking at something in one of those touring car racers. There’s also a performance readout accessible from the main 10.25-inch display that provides data such as a G meter, lap time, and your oil and coolant temps. That is quite the sight considering the crossover environs in which you’re sitting.
Speaking of modifiable: there are a number of pre-baked powertrain and chassis modes, but you can also customize your own mode and map those profiles to the two N buttons on the wheel, just like you would in a BMW X3M, for example. Personally, I liked a Sport throttle with a slightly relaxed chassis, as it provided the comfortable ride you’d expect from a crossover, but with some nice added punch when it came time to dip in to the throttle. I don’t love the reciprocating knob used to flip through the drive modes, however. A simple button to press – as is found in the Elantra N – would be my preference. It’s just less finicky.
There is some real punch here, too. Torque comes nice and low in the rev band so you get some great zip right off the line, more so if you activate the launch control system via those performance pages. After that, each gear is banged home with deliberation and speed, and with pleasingly low shudder from the driveline. This is a proper dual-clutch ‘box that is a joy to flip through with the easily-accessible wheel-mounted paddles and it’s another step into moving the Kona N into a class above other subcompact trucklets of its ilk.
The handling, meanwhile, leaves said ilk in the dust because it is a well-sorted affair that gets the important addition of an electronic limited slip differential. I tested the Kona N on rain-slicked surfaces including Sonoma Racetrack in California and you can feel that eLSD working. Almost as soon as that inside wheel started spinning during a turn, power would be diverted to the outside wheel to help pull you through. It makes the Kona N feel that much more unstoppable in treacherous conditions and you have to like that from your performance crossover. The brakes have also been enlarged and pad material improved so you’re well covered on the deceleration side of things as well.
Indeed, you’re covered for pretty much everything when it comes to the Kona N. Yes, it’s too bad there’s no manual option, but at the same time, I’ve sampled the Elantra N with both transmissions and it isn’t as clear-cut a win for the manual as I thought it would be. That is to say the dual-clutch auto is a great ‘box and a good fit for the Kona, and would likely be the transmission of choice even if the manual were offered.
Gas-powered, electric, high performance– is there anything the Kona can’t do?
The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.