2022 Hyundai Kona N First Drive Review: Yep, It's a Big Hot Hatch

Hyundai's Kona N is the Veloster N's taller, slightly more spacious sibling. It's a strange car, but a fun one nonetheless.

kona n
Peter Holderith

Following in the footsteps of the undeniable hit that is the Hyundai Veloster N comes the 2022 Hyundai Kona N. It is the fastest version of the Kona compact crossover offered from the factory. With the drivetrain out of its smaller Veloster N sibling, a new suspension, and performance add-ons all over its body, Hyundai's turned it from an everyday grocery-getter into something decidedly different. In fact, you should think of it as a taller Veloster N, because that's essentially what we're looking at here.

I had the chance to drive a pre-production version of this angry little car during the Hyundai Santa Cruz media preview event in California last week. My time with the car was very limited, but if you're looking for an early take on what the Kona N is like to drive, this is it.

Peter Holderith

When I say my time behind the wheel was limited, I mean I had something like 15 minutes of seat time. Could've been a dream honestly, still not sure. In the interest of radical transparency, a Hyundai rep told me to take the car for a spin a few miles up a mountain road, turn around, and come back. That was the extent of it.

2022 Hyundai Kona N: By the Numbers

  • Base price (as tested): TBA
  • Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder | 8-speed DCT | front-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 276 @ 5,500 to 6,000 rpm 
  • Torque: 289 lb-ft @ 2,100 to 4,700 rpm 
  • Seating capacity: 5
  • Curb weight: 3,340 pounds
  • Cargo space: 19.2 cubic feet | 45.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded
  • EPA fuel economy: TBA
  • Quick take: With the Kona N, Hyundai turned a compact economy SUV into a hot hatch.

N Isn't Just a Letter

The Kona N is the latest in Hyundai's portfolio and its first SUV to get the "N" treatment. The car is small enough, in fact, that the drivetrain from the Veloster N is a good fit. The running gear from the front-wheel-drive Veloster was dropped in, the manual transmission option was removed—the Kona N only comes with the eight-speed dual-clutch—and suspension and aesthetic tweaks were made to tie it all together. Power from the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder comes to a claimed 276 horsepower, which represents a 129-hp difference between the N and the base Kona. 

One thing can be said for sure: This thing looks properly angry. The front end features a set of three nostrils that are sort of like more civilized hood scoops above the grille. Likewise, it has the same red accent trim as the Veloster. I was never a fan of this, but it works well with the blue paint. On other colors like white? Not so much. 

The Kona has a strange front end to begin with, but these new accents work well with it, as do the wheels. They make the 19s on the Veloster look rather plain in comparison. The back end of the Kona N leaves a bit more to be desired, though. There's a chaotic jumble of different shapes and cutouts and lines—but at least we get a few classic, big round exhaust tips. This car pops and burbles enough to justify them. 

Driving the Kona N

The first thing I noticed about the Kona N was the power and the transmission. Shifts were quick and sensible enough to be totally seamless, power came on strong after a minor delay due to the turbo spooling, and the whole package felt a lot more aggressive than the 2.5-liter, DCT combo found in the Kia K5 GT or the Hyundai Sonata N-Line. In fact, the car's sporty attitude seemed impossible to escape, which is a hallmark of a real performance car.

There's a price to pay, though. The turbo is loud. And the lag? It's noticeable below 3,000 rpm, which is either an old-school touch or a less-than-desirable quirk depending on how much you enjoy trying to keep the boost up as part of the everyday driving experience.

Meanwhile, the ride isn't one I'd call easygoing. The Kona has more suspension travel than the Veloster, and perhaps it's that in combination with the tighter springs that led to it bouncing around quite a bit. Some rougher corners felt a bit like turbulence on an airplane; there was some jouncing. The car never lost grip as a result of this jumping around—it seemed damped well enough to prevent that—but it was still something I imagine a buyer wouldn't exactly be a fan of if they weren't ready for it. 

Speaking of those dampers, the Veloster N is sometimes knocked for being uncomfortably stiff, and here the suspension isn't tuned to be quite as punishing, even when set for max performance in the car's N Mode. It's still very firm for a street car, don't get me wrong, but potholes are met with more of a bouncy thump as opposed to a spine-compressing smack. What's also notable is that there's also very little body roll—surprising for an SUV, even if it is a little one.

The Pirelli P Zeros inspired confidence at high loads. Turning into a corner, the steering communicated the road surface decently but I could have used a bit more feedback, which has historically been a weakness with Hyundai steering systems. It sent back snippets of imperfections and relayed the grip at the front wheels with relative clarity. I could feel something similar to torque-steer when it came time to exit a corner, but it wasn't torque-steer in the traditional sense. There was no jerking to the right or left when the throttle was pinned, but there was resistance—corruption I could feel through the wheel. I chalked it up to another inescapable, high-performance, front-wheel-drive quirk. 

Overall, the Kona N doesn't drive like a crossover, it drives like a 125-percent size hot hatchback. Maybe to some, the marginal increases in head and legroom are worth it, though ironically the Kona has a hair less cargo space (19.2 cu ft) behind the back seats than the Veloster (19.9 cu ft). The biggest appeal to others might be gaining a fourth door (remember, the Veloster only has three) without giving up much in the way of useable performance. Both will happily tear up a twisty mountain road, though only the Veloster offers a coveted manual transmission. 

Also, I just cannot get over how funny the Kona looks. Angry face and cool details aside, the rear end looks too narrow and squat. The photos above are the flattering shots. Here are some less-than-flattering ones below. 

The interior is comfortable, but this is still a small, inexpensive crossover at its core. It was pretty basic and straightforward in there. There was blue accent stitching, a 10-inch infotainment screen, and a manual handbrake. Most of the car's functions are still handled through buttons and dials, which was a relief. 

But what really sets the N apart from the regular Kona are the "look at me!" hot-hatch interior additions. It has massive, blue N buttons on the steering wheel that you can use to control custom drive modes or activate the car's built-in lap timer. There's also a big red button that looks like it could order an airstrike, but in reality, gives you a brief 10 extra horsepower and makes the car shift a little harder for around 20 seconds. (I couldn't really feel the extra power, for the record.) The whole image is rounded out by big shiny paddle shifters to slam gears up or down at will. All of that... in a Hyundai Kona.

Too Hot for Middle Ground

Hyundai has not yet announced official Kona N pricing, but I expect it to land somewhere north of $30,000. This is why I'm hesitant to count the Mercedes-Benz GLA, BMW X1, and Audi Q3 among its competitors. The Kona N is far hotter than those offerings and once you start moving into the respective AMG and M trims, the price delta between them will definitely rise stratospherically. In this sense, the Kona N is a bit of a loner.

Regardless, making a utilitarian car sportier isn't a new idea. In that world, everything from the Volkswagen Golf R to the Mercedes-AMG E63 wagon exists. But whereas those cars are well-known for their everyday livability, the Kona N isn't like that. It's sporty to the point where that element intrudes on all other aspects of the car. That's great if you want that sort of thing, but it can never turn that part of itself off, even in the calmer drive modes I briefly scrolled through.

Again, these impressions were all based on a short drive in a pre-production unit—keep that in mind if you encounter any purportedly firm verdicts on the car at the moment. There just wasn't enough time for a full shakedown. All I can tell you now is it's fast, angry, kind of uncomfortable, and it never runs out of grip. If you like turbo noise and compact SUVs, consider taking one for a test drive.

Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: peter@thedrive.com