Nearly four and a half years have passed since we had that “oh shit, this is actually really good” moment when driving the new Hyundai i30 N. This was a company’s first effort at making a proper performance car, and in the process Hyundai came up with a surprise world-beater.
Other very good ‘N division’ products have followed, so by now, we should be used to the idea of exciting performance Hyundai models. And yet, it still feels brilliantly absurd to be behind the wheel of something from this once humdrum brand as it wildly torque steers under full throttle.
For our driving pleasure today is the Kona N, which I’ve decided should be referred to as KonaN: The Barbarian. It’s probably the feistiest N thing we’ve seen yet, with a willful disobedient attitude when it comes to putting its power down cleanly, even in bone dry conditions.
Giving the Kona N’s front-most bespoke Pirelli P Zeroes such a hard time is the same 2.0-litre inline-four found in the i30 N Performance, still producing 276bhp. There’s no manual option here - it’s only available with an eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox. This does however make it suitably brisk off the line, with a 0-62mph time of just 5.5 seconds. With enough space, it’ll keep going to 149mph.
After leaving the transmission, engine torque makes its way through a bespoke electronically-controlled locking differential Hyundai has decided to call an ‘N Corner Carving Differential’. Sadly the names get worse - there’s also something called ‘N Grin Shift’ which is a little like Porsche’s Sport Response button, livening up the shifts for 20-second bursts.
The ride height is the same as a standard Kona, but there are some new adaptive dampers, plus additional welds on the shell to stiffen things up. The steering rack has a faster ratio (2.14 turns lock to lock), and the electric power assistance has received a software fettle.
All of this comes together to make something pleasantly unhinged. Once that wild front end settles down, the inline-four provides punchy performance that’s only slightly diluted by the Kona’s additional ride height and weight relative to the i30 N. This feels every bit as quick as the numbers suggest and then some.
It’s a muscular-feeling engine with a brawny mid-range and even a half-decent soundtrack. Yes, the firecracker exhaust on the earlier i30 Ns can’t appear here thanks to the advent of petrol particulate filters, but it’s not something I’m missing greatly. With the slightly more grown-up exhaust, I feel like less of a yob.
I’m also not pining for a manual gearbox as much as anticipated, with the DCT suiting the car well. The shifts are quick and seamless, and - praise be - you get a really nice set of paddle shifters. Certain German rivals that insist on sitting miserable little bits of plastic on the back of their steering wheels really ought to take note.
The steering feels almost unnervingly quick for a car like this, but the front end is capable enough to back up the faster rack. You just need to be ready to tame that torque steer, particularly on uneven road surfaces.
Much like the i30 N, there’s a bewildering amount of choice on offer for anyone wanting to come up with a custom drive profile. There are multiple settings for the dampers, steering, gearbox, engine and even the trick differential. To save you some time, I think I’ve come up with the perfect combination for the road - turn everything up to full apart from the steering and the suspension.
The steering’s much too heavy in Sport mode, as we’ve found with other Hyundai N cars, so the middle setting is a better bet. For the suspension, Sport mode is too firm, giving a bouncy ride that never settles. Whack it in Comfort, and body roll remains a non-issue, yet the damping flows far better on the typically awful surface of a British B road.
You will still find that the low-speed ride of the Kona N is firm even in this slacker setting, but it’s nothing too offensive so long as you take it easy over speed bumps. It’s a pleasant car to biff around in normally - the cabin’s nothing particularly special, but it feels nicely solid and everything is in the right place. You also still get that increasingly rare thing in 2022 - physical climate controls.
For all of this, you’re looking at a starting price of £35,395, which can only be inflated slightly via some different paint options. You could spend a lot more on a VW T-Roc R or Audi SQ2 for a more premium-feeling product, but that’ll be at the expense of fun. A Ford Puma ST is quite a bit cheaper and has a sweeter chassis, but it doesn’t channel the same shock and awe as the Kona.
The Kona N is the best of its small yet expanding class, but more than that, it’s one of the most exciting affordable-ish performance cars we’ve driven in a while.