2021 Hyundai Kona N Prototype Review

Hyundai’s high powered SUV will be here soon, and we get our first taste of the new Kona N before its Australian arrival.

I have a lot of time for Hyundai’s N performance cars. The i30 N flirts with being the best mid-size hot hatchback and the upcoming i20 N, which we’ve driven before in prototype form, is set to give the competition an equally hard time. Hyundai takes it so seriously that the i20 N will even receive additional body structure stiffening and welding over the regular i20.

But sporting sub-brands can’t live on hatchbacks alone, so inevitably attention now shifts to a crossover: the Kona, a funky-looking vehicle that, shorn of the cladding of this development car, could look quite endearing on 19-inch wheels and with the right stance, like a pseudo-fierce little action figure or a child yelling ‘raaa!’ while impersonating a tiger. Go with it.

Anyway, if R is good enough for the Volkswagen T-Roc and ST for the Ford Puma, then N is apparently good enough for the Kona, and it gets some suitably impressive hardware. As in the i30 N, there’s a 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine, driving the front wheels through an eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox. There’s no word on a manual version yet. Same for power and torque outputs or performance figures, or price, but you can imagine it in i30 N terms – around 186kW and a similar amount of Nm’s.

The Kona N you see here is a development hack, but I’m told the ride and handling, while not finally signed off, are close to representative.

The interior isn’t even that close, but that’s fine; we’ve seen the inside of enough Konas to imagine it will look and feel quite good, and it will get added performance touches, like aluminium pedals, coloured highlights and a thick-rimmed steering wheel. There’s probably a big handbook somewhere that all manufacturers turn to when specifying performance derivatives: ‘don’t forget a nice bit of stitching and even consider a seatbelt highlight’.

Nothing about the driving position particularly shouts ‘sport’, but the instruments turn red if you push a button of that name. There’s an N driving mode, a configurable mode and a Comfort mode, too.

Alas, I’m not convinced that either ‘comfort’ or ‘sport’ give a true reflection of the Kona N’s driving dynamics. This isn’t a tall car in absolute terms but perhaps it’s not the best place to start, no matter how talented your engineers. The ride, on 235/40 R19 Pirelli P Zero tyres, is exceptionally brittle, especially over bigger lumps and bumps; there’s a whole bag of road noise and it’s skittish and trampy under hard acceleration. Quite hard work.

The steering is moderately weighted and quick, not unpleasant, and if torque steer and some notable self-centring counts as feel, it has that too. But it’s in control of a fairly ragged chassis that doesn’t seem to change too much if you press through the different driving modes. The ride seemed no harsher around town in Sport to me. The firmness is perhaps the inevitability of trying to keep movements well contained when there’s a higher body to contend with than on the i30.

It’s a bit of a shame, this. I get the appeal of widening the N brand, and if there’s a market segment in need of enlivening, it’s the crossover, too few of which are any good to drive for us to get particularly enthusiastic about.

Ultimately, though, this one is frustratingly unsatisfying and curiously raucous.

Matt Prior

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