Starting at $47,500, the 206kW Kona N has the affordable, performance-SUV market to itself.
Love them or loathe them, performance SUVs are here to stay. Most tend to be very large, very heavy and often quite German. Oh, and they are likely to carry a hefty price tag. Smaller, more affordable performance SUVs aren’t exactly thick on the ground. There’s Audi’s compact 221kW SQ2 ($65,300), BMW’s 225kW X2 M35i (from $68,900) and Mercedes-AMG’s 165kW GLA 250 ($75,268), but again, quite German and not exactly cheap.
Hyundai’s new Kona N can’t match the above trio on brand cache, material quality or overall refinement, but with a starting price of $47,500 (the Premium is $50,500), the compact Korean performance SUV undercuts them by a significant amount. With 206kW and 392Nm from its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the Kona N isn’t outgunned either. Of course, I’m not actually comparing the Hyundai with the German trio and I don’t expect many buyers will cross shop them either. But the arrival of the Kona N does highlight the lack of affordable compact SUVs with a performance focus.
With the market segment largely to itself, the Kona N is poised to be a sales success as it boasts strong performance, surprisingly entertaining dynamics, and a comprehensive equipment list all tied to that sharp entry price.
The Kona N’s engine is familiar to us from the i30N and it maintains the entertainingly gruff vocal character that’s present in the hot hatch. The 206kW peak is available from 5500-6000rpm, while the 392Nm is spread from just 2100rpm all the way through to 4700rpm. Unlike the i30N, there’s no manual option in the Kona N, but the eight-speed dual-clutch provides plenty of interaction and entertainment for those seeking it, while slipping quietly into the background for those that aren’t.
Unlike the above Germans, the Kona N drives only the front wheels. Obviously, this brings a penalty for outright traction, but has its benefits with the Kona N weighing just 1510kg in its lightest trim. Despite the lack of AWD-traction off the line, Hyundai claims that the Kona N will use its launch control system to scramble to 100km/h in 5.5 seconds, a figure that feels more than realistic. Top speed is quoted as 240km/h, which is seriously moving for a compact SUV.
The launch of the Kona N was held in conjunction with the i20N and featured a day of challenging and often rain-damaged roads, followed by a day lapping Wakefield Park Raceway at Goulburn. On the road, the Kona N impressively switched between providing transportation and entertainment. The chassis – strut front end, multi-link rear end – has been tuned locally and that work has paid off. Riding on 19-inch alloys wrapped in 235/40 R19 Pirelli P Zero tyres, the Kona N deals with Australian roads with a relaxed gait. Really big hits will transfer into the cabin but generally the suspension finds a happy medium between body control and pliancy – and this despite spring rate increases over the regular Kona of 52 percent at the front and 30 percent on the rear axle. Of course, the adjustable dampers play an enormous role here and there is a noticeable difference between their modes.
SUVs and race tracks are rarely happy bedfellows, but the Kona N spent much of its local-development programme based at Wakefield Park and that fact is immediately obvious. Even after lapping in the very impressive and engaging i20N, the Kona N entertained with both its speed and agility. In the middle setting of the three-stage ESC system (Sport), the Kona N was given enough rein to move around and even three-wheel into tighter corners on the brakes. The e-LSD does a good job of getting the power to the tarmac, though the mechanical LSD in the front of the i20N delivered a more pure experience. Dial ESC all the way off and the Kona is a riot, sliding on corner entry like an old-school hot hatch on stilts. And just like an old-school hot hatch, the remedy for such a slide is to throw lock and throttle at it and laugh all the way to corner exit. Though I can’t see many owners actually tracking their Kona N, those that do won’t be bored with the experience.
Two trim levels are available – Kona N and Premium – and both are well equipped. Highlights for the $47,500 entry-level car includes all the safety systems you’d expect, plus supportive sports front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, alloy pedals, Harman Kardon audio, and Track Maps and data recording for track driving. The $50,500 Premium variant adds LED lighting, 10.25-inch satnav system, DAB+ digital radio, wireless charging, tyre pressure monitoring, suede and leather interior trim, head-up display, heated and ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel and a glass sunroof.
Seven colours are available including the new matte-finish Gravity Gold (which is pretty much silver to my eyes) for $1000. Premium paint is the only other option at $595.
Both variants of the Kona N are genuinely good fun to punt along, but we can’t go passed the value of the Premium.