Hyundai’s third N-branded performance model – and its first fast SUV – is also Australia’s most affordable fast small SUV, broadening the Kona range even further
As far as performance branding is concerned, Hyundai’s burgeoning N line-up ranks right up there with some of the most successful re-engineering efforts in modern history – transforming relatively mundane products into highly appealing driver’s cars. And none have been more mundane than the Kona small SUV.
At launch in 2017, the base Kona 2.0-litre was little more than rough-riding, underperforming rental fodder, while the AWD 1.6-litre turbo was quick but also ropey and lacking in polish. But Hyundai has persisted with the Kona, resulting in the promising Kona Electric version, followed by a comprehensively improved range that debuted in early 2021. And now we have this hot-shot N version with a classily executed makeover and a Nurburgring-honed chassis to crown one of the most diverse model ranges in Australia.
From a performance viewpoint, the Kona N currently stands alone as the only non-premium-brand fast small SUV – at least until the Cupra Ateca arrives in Australia towards the end of 2022, though this hot-shot Seat is hardly mainstream. Likewise the Audi SQ2 that the Ateca is related to, which costs $15,400 more (before options!) than a fully equipped Kona N Premium.
Hyundai says only 110 Kona Ns will be coming to Australia in 2021, even though 250 people currently have their name down for one – so demand is clearly outstripping supply for this swift, striking, stocky little performer.
Sharing its platform and running gear with the i30 N, but with a 50mm-shorter wheelbase, the taller Kona N brings a dynamic flavour all its own – enhanced by additional spots welds in its A-, B-, and C-pillars, as well as new floor structures added to increased body strength.
Keeping its body control tight means the Kona N’s adaptively damped suspension is pretty firm, but in Normal mode there’s acceptable compliance and even the mid damper setting – our preferred choice on twisty country roads – provides a decent blend of liveability with agility.
Going another step further to the full Sport setting provides an ‘on rails’ level of handling precision but the trade-off is a pretty brutal ride, meaning it’s only for short periods on the road but potentially long periods on the track … which is something the Kona N is definitely capable of.
Its uprated brakes – 360mm ventilated front discs (up 55mm over a regular Kona) and 314mm ventilated rear discs somehow manage to not cook themselves when consistently hauling up the 1510-1569kg Kona N, though pedal travel does increase quite a bit and you can sense they’re working super-hard.
On the road, using N Custom mode (accessible by the steering wheel’s left ‘N’ tab) we chose Engine in setting three, Steering in two and Dampers in two for the best mix of connection and handling control, though the Kona N’s steering only really comes alive when there’s lock wound on or there’s power being channelled through its electronically-controlled LSD to its excellent 235/40R19 Pirelli P Zero tyres.
For much of the rest of the time, such as fast corners on country roads, you find yourself relying on the feel transmitted from the Kona N’s tyres to your arse cheeks rather than anything fed through its steering wheel to your fingertips, which is a little disappointing – particularly given how impressive steering feel and response are in an i20 N and i30 N.
Where the Kona N remains firmly on its game though is the level of performance on offer – a claimed 5.5 seconds from 0-100km/h courtesy of a direct-injection 2.0-litre turbo four shared with the i30 N, tied to Hyundai’s excellent eight-speed ‘wet’ dual-clutch transmission.
Packing 206kW from 5500-6000rpm and 392Nm from 2100-4700rpm, with an overboost function (accessed via the red ‘NGS’ button on the steering wheel) that spikes power to 213kW for 20-second periods, the Kona N delivers rapid and rewarding acceleration, backed by some fruity exhaust crackle.
Admittedly, the exhaust theatrics are nowhere near as overt as they are in an i30 N hatch but there’s still plenty of personality here, combined with a genuine lust for reeling in the horizon as quickly as possible.
Safety-kit wise, the Kona N brings blind-spot collision avoidance assist, driver attention warning, front AEB with pedestrian/cyclist detection and rear cross-traffic AEB, lane-following assist, lane-holding assist, auto high-beam, adaptive cruise control and safe exit warning.
As for its NCAP crash-test rating, the regular Kona was awarded five stars, though this was against less strict criteria back in 2017.
The regular Kona upon which the N variant is based has never been known for its cabin plushness – more its hard, dark-coloured plastics and utilitarian feel. But the N version does a respectable job livening up the place.
The entry-level $47,500 Kona N features superb cloth-covered, all-manual sports bucket seats and all the other accoutrements that make the Kona N better (N sports steering wheel, 10.25-inch centre touchscreen with N modes and a robust eight-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo) but it’s the $50,500 N Premium version that is both nicer to sit in and better value.
That extra $3K brings leather and perforated-suede seat upholstery, electric front seat adjustment (10-way driver, eight-way passenger) with seat heating and fan cooling, a heated steering wheel, an N-specific head-up display, front parking sensors and a fairly small glass sunroof.
All that combines to make the Kona N Premium seem significantly more upmarket. The fantastic front seats and sexy trim are the stars of the show, but there’s been plenty of detail work too. Cue the multimedia screen’s piano-black surround, the squidgy dashboard fascia, metallic-grey door handles, neatly arranged controls and its classy ‘eyeball’ outer air vents.
The back seat is similarly well-suited to carrying adults, with an elevated position, decent vision and good legroom, though the rear doors will only take a 600mL water bottle as opposed to the one-litre slots in the front doors.
And while the 361-litre boot is only hatchback-sized, it includes a built-in luggage net and full fold-flat seat capability via the 60/40-split rear backrests. There’s also a space-saver spare under the rear floor, which is definitely better than nothing.
The official ADR81/02 government combined fuel consumption figure for the Kona N is 9.0L/100km, though we averaged 11.1L/100km after several hundred kilometres of enthusiastic driving.
Recommended servicing for the Kona N is every 12 months or 10,000km, with the five-year capped-price service amount totalling $1675.
Hyundai’s warranty is five years/unlimited kilometres.
What the Kona N gains in practicality and vision over its N-badged hatchback cousins it does lose a little bit in the driving experience, though the outright difference in handling and pace isn’t much.
It can still smash out hard track laps with the best of them – carving through corners as keenly and precisely as anyone could rightfully expect – though the Kona N’s brakes have to work hard pulling up its 1500kg-plus kerb weight and its steering doesn’t feel as connected as it should, unless you’re pushing hard.
If we had to pinpoint its greatest flaw, it would be the Kona N’s muffled steering feel and connection around straight ahead, followed by its surprisingly firm ride. But when the chips are down, this high-performance SUV covers ground with tremendous pace – supported by terrific N detailing and impressive value for money.
Given that demand is already far outstripping supply, the fact the Kona N even exists is probably enough. But for the most part, the appeal of this likeable small SUV on steroids is much more than skin deep.
Variant tested N PREMIUM
Key specs (as tested)
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