The Tasmanian devil is not a subtle animal. Loud, ferocious, and unabashedly carnivorous, this Australian marsupial often wears out its prey over a long chase, then devours it whole, bones and all. When trapped, its teeth are strong enough to chew through metal. Then there’s the animated Looney Tunes character, who expresses this surly demeanor through gloriously inhuman noises. Fire up the 2022 Hyundai Kona N and you’re greeted with a similar level of auditory insouciance. As the latest vehicle to come from Hyundai’s N performance subbrand, this civilized subcompact crossover has been transformed into a rowdy, rambunctious creature. But what it may lack in subtlety it makes up for with a highly competent and enjoyable driving experience.
Give the Kona N a foot full of throttle and it absolutely rips. It blasts forward in a gleeful melee of snorts and pops that would make a Tasmanian devil proud. With 286 horsepower on overboost (more on that later) and 289 pound-feet of torque routed through the front wheels, torque steer is present yet manageable. Its eight-speed dual-clutch automatic, the only transmission choice, is almost always in the right gear; grab one of the appropriately large paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel to orchestrate its crisp action yourself. Sadly, there is no manual-transmission option as in the mechanically similar Veloster N. But with only a claimed 150-pound weight disadvantage versus its hatchback sibling—the automatic version of which weighed 3186 pounds on our scales—the slightly larger Kona N should be only a hair or two slower to 60 mph, likely hitting that mark in five seconds or less.
The Kona’s slightly taller profile versus the Veloster doesn’t affect its handling much. Chucking the N through corners reveals a mostly neutral balance with just a touch of at-the-limit understeer. The steering transmits a fair amount of feedback through the wheel, but its tiller could stand to be a touch quicker and more direct. In tighter and off-camber turns, the electronic limited-slip differential works well to put the power down, helping to keep the Kona tight to apexes. As with the Veloster N, this hot Hyundai might not be as unflappable as a Honda Civic Type R, but in a way, it’s more fun.
Push it hard and the Kona N is smart enough to respond in kind. The dual-clutch’s N Track Sense Shift programming automatically activates after multiple high-g inputs and adapts the shift points and gear selections to best support performance driving. The system also primes the brakes to make the most of the available pedal travel. Unsurprisingly, we activated it several times during our drive and found it particularly useful when we forgot to select one of the car’s N performance modes, which are engaged via two dedicated N mode buttons on the steering wheel. In addition to the default N mode, there are two fully customizable programs that allow you to dial in the right balance of reflexes, responsiveness, and sound. You’ll definitely want to crank up the responsiveness of the front diff and, of course, the active exhaust, but we found the stiffest setting for the adaptive dampers to be way too brutal over even the slightest of bumps—so, similar to what we observed over 40,000 miles with a 2019 Veloster N. Accessing N mode through the 10.3-inch touchscreen provides even greater adjustments and information. A readout for brake-pedal travel displays just how hard you’ve been pummeling the 14.2-inch front rotors. Other data includes performance graphs, lap times, and track maps.
If instant gratification is what you’re after, there’s also a large red button on the steering wheel simply labeled NGS, which stands for N Grin Shift. Available regardless of the drive mode, this feature provides 20 seconds of overboost and a 10-hp bump over the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four’s usual 276 horsepower. Think of activating NGS as poking a Tasmanian devil with a sharp stick. Even with its exhaust in the most subdued setting, the Kona N refuses to fully shut up. Generous turbo whistles are ever-present, as if the impeller is determined to scrounge up every possible bit of air and cram it through the intake. We’re glad Hyundai saw fit to retain this endearing quirk, even if it’s not to everyone’s tastes.
It’s only when you get the Kona N up to highway speeds that you discover other, less appealing sounds. Air rushes loudly over the side mirrors, while road noise creeps in and reverberates throughout the cabin. The Kona N suffers the same curse of countless economy-cars-turned-hot-rods: There’s simply not enough sound insulation to keep all of the unwelcome frequencies at bay. Fortunately, the performance tradeoff makes this acceptable, and the Kona N remains easy enough to live with day to day.
No one will mistake the Kona N for one of its lesser-powered siblings, though. Its chunky wheel wells are filled with 19-inch alloys wrapped with Pirelli P Zero summer tires, and an arching roof spoiler sits prominently atop the rear hatch. Up front is a trio of nostrils above the grille and a massive lower air intake. Moving from the Veloster N up to the taller, boxier Kona N is like loosening your belt a notch, though the increase in interior space is less dramatic than you might think. Two proper rear doors and a higher step-in height allow for easier access to the Kona’s innards, but the three-door Veloster is down only about an inch of rear legroom and two inches of headroom. At 19 cubic feet, the Kona even gives up one cubic foot of cargo space to its sibling.
Pricing has yet to be announced, but we expect the Kona N to cost slightly more than the Veloster N when it goes on sale this fall, probably starting around $35,000. Competition will be limited—and pricier. Crossover-like alternatives include the BMW X2 M35i, the Mercedes-Benz GLA35 and GLB35, and the Mini Countryman John Cooper Works All4, all of which cost north of $40K to start and come standard with all-wheel drive. While we need no excuse to celebrate the obnoxious nature of this Hyundai, our feelings are further justified by how well it goes, stops, and turns. In an era of evermore popular electric vehicles that promise a future of soothing silence, the Kona N is determined to do the exact opposite.
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