A right old giggle to drive, oodles of drive mode options
Firm, thirsty... and heavier than an equivalent hot hatch
What is it?
It’s the inevitable: a performance SUV from Hyundai’s burgeoning N brand. After nearly four years with just one model in Europe, the superb i30N hot hatch, the South Korean brand's feisty performance offshoot has added another two almost at once. Just as the i20N hot hatch has gone on sale – a healthy waiting list soon following – we now have this, the Kona N.
Not only is it inevitable, though, it’s actually kinda welcome. While the small crossover crowd is a largely uninspiring place for a car enthusiast to shop, the stock Kona stood out at launch. Not only for its stark, amphibious front end, but for driving uncommonly tidily for its class. Albert Biermann was snared from BMW’s M Division not only to make the i30N (and follow-up Ns) fun to drive, but to make the rest of the Hyundai and Kia conglomerate’s cars handle with a base level of competency.
Which is precisely what the Kona did, especially in its wholly convincing Electric form. But there’s little semblance of saving the world distilled into this, a car that may be the last N product launched with internal combustion as its sole power source. All hints are that N will soon be electric, potentially making this near-300bhp chonk something of an unexpected send off.
An appropriate one, though?
It all looks good on paper. The powertrain from the Hyundai i30N is squeezed into the slightly smaller (though 50kg heavier) Kona, which means it stays front-wheel drive. That helps keep weight acceptable at 1.5 tonnes. A 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol engine provides 276bhp and 289lb ft, yielding a 0-62mph time of 5.5 seconds and a 149mph top speed.
If you’re buying into the SUV world for a pretence of off-roading nous, then supplementary to an N-honed stability control setup is a dial of sand, snow and hill descent modes which you’ll almost certainly never use. It sits beside the selector of your only gearbox option: an eight-speed twin-clutch paddleshifter with launch control and a multitude of extra modes – all with silly names like N Grin Shift – to help spice up the fact there’s no manual option.
Should I be unduly bothered?
Nope. Ignore the tinsel and this is a genuinely great twin-clutch transmission, one that’s evidently been developed by car nerds before having its functions named by marketeers. It shifts quickly and smartly and is probably more impressive left to its own devices than when you start tugging at the paddles yourself. Leave things alone and you’ve a better chance of eking out fuel economy, infamously an N division weak point thus far. Hyundai claims 194g/km of CO2 and 33.2mpg – expect the latter to fall into the mid 20s the moment you get excitable.
The performance SUV may be a modern phenomenon – titchier ones like this, especially – but plenty about the Kona is old-school. Turning the ESC off really does turn it off and there’s a traditional manual handbrake. And Hyundai has done a proper engineering job on it rather than just pump up the wheel size and drop the suspension; it actually rides no lower than a regular Kona but boasts additional weld points on its bodyshell and a limited-slip differential as standard. Oh, and it completed 489 development laps (equating to 6,308 miles) of you-know-where to properly earn that N on the back. It’s a proper job.
What's the verdict?
While we can expect future N Division cars to be electric (and perhaps hydrogen) powered, it’s currently providing an antidote to swelling technology by making rapscallion little cars like this; cars that draw their driver into mischief with little persuasion. Just with all of the active safety tech a family SUV needs a simple button press away.
It’s joyously silly. And if you can cope with mildly insatiable thirst and a firm ride, it ought to be more than capable of handling everyday life too. ‘Most fun small performance crossover on sale’ may sound like faint praise, but it’s a title true of the Kona N either way.