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New Hyundai Ioniq 5 N prototype review

We get an early taste of the new Hyundai Ioniq 5 N performance EV ahead of its official arrival

Verdict

Development might not be quite complete, but the Ioniq 5 N already feels like the car that will redefine driving fun when it comes to fast EVs. Up to now, most electric performance cars have boasted massive acceleration but not much in the way of engagement. The Hyundai looks set to change that, and while it's undoubtedly down to some very clever tech working behind the scenes to deliver an impressively natural-feeling result, the role of the people working to develop this – pulling all of the systems together – shouldn't be underestimated either.

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If you believe Albert Biermann, executive technical advisor to Hyundai's N division and the man who masterminded the brand's i30 N hot hatch and superb i20 N sporty supermini, the Ioniq 5 N is “not about the numbers”.

The brief for this car – Hyundai's first sporty EV – is to put fun at the forefront of the driving experience. And the new car certainly has plenty of technology on board to do so, as we’ve just experienced from an early first taste of an Ioniq 5 N on track at the Nurburgring GP circuit and the roads around the famous German venue.

Key to this is Hyundai's N e-shift system. It's a clever piece of tech that modulates the as-yet-undisclosed torque output from the car's pair of electric motors to simulate eight ratios, making the Ioniq 5 N feel like it has a dual-clutch gearbox. It'll even interrupt the motors' drive to deliver a little jolt, just as you'd get with an upshift in a combustion-engined car, while the torque modulation also closely simulates a petrol-powered car's power delivery and gives a greater sense of engagement as a result.

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It works in conjunction with the N Active Sound+ system, which plays one of three artificial sounds through the car's stereo. The first is called 'Ignition' and simulates a conventional, sporty four-cylinder turbo engine note – a sound signature synonymous with N, according to Biermann. A V8 or V10 soundtrack wouldn't have been authentic, he tells us.

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The next – 'Evolution' – is a progressive sound, while the third, 'Supersonic', is a kind of spaceship noise. Neither of the latter two makes much sense.

While the profile of the sound still needs work and is the focus of final development, the principal is spot on. Sat stationary in the pit lane of the GP track, the bassy idle from the car's subwoofer – also played outside through active sound generators – could just about fool you into thinking you're in a high-performance hot crossover.

Rolling out onto the circuit, as the revs rise it's a little less convincing, but by snicking the right-hand paddle the 'revs' drop on the digital dash in front of me, drive pauses momentarily, I feel a slight bit of pressure in the small of my back as performance returns and the soundtrack's pitch deepens again as we go from 'second' to 'third'.

You know it's all simulation – and you can prove as much by toggling the N e-shift system off, where the Ioniq 5 N's personality returns to that of a regular EV. The powertrain goes quiet when you do and the car reverts back to a single-ratio electric car with easy one-pedal regenerative braking and strong refinement, even wrapped in our test car's airflow-disrupting camouflage.

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Toggle the setting back on and you're immediately transported back to the driver's seat of a hot hatch (albeit a big one); the tech is natural enough that very quickly you could be fooled into thinking the car had a petrol engine – except for the sound.

Pull the left-hand paddle to go down the gears, and while the noise simulates a downshift with a 'blip', what actually happens beneath you is that the motors' regenerative braking effect is ramped up to give the impression of greater engine braking as you slow down.

In fact, according to Tyrone Johnson, Hyundai's European R&D boss, the Ioniq 5 N produces most of its retardation from its motors – 0.6g, in fact – with the car's 400mm front brake discs and four-piston callipers working in conjunction with the rears to provide the rest.

The team behind the Ioniq 5 N says that regenerative braking will characterise performance EVs in future, and it's been a key area of development. As a result, there's another clever system called N pedal; info on this is limited so far, as the settings for both Level 2 and 3 have still to be calibrated, so we weren't allowed to use it. But we're told that this will provide aggressive levels of engine braking and therefore weight transfer onto the front axle to help turn-in and handling.

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There's already a lot of weight transfer, because the Ioniq 5 N is not a small car, and nor is it light. Given all of the systems and a revised radiator arrangement at the front, the N weighs a little more than a big-battery dual-motor Ioniq 5, which comes in at a max of 2,125kg.

Adaptive dampers and bespoke Pirelli tyres help to keep the mass in check. With the suspension set to its sportiest mode, on track it does a decent job of controlling the car's weight and the energy this creates. The Ioniq 5 N is even keen to tuck in tighter if you lift off the throttle mid corner, or tighten its line on the way out of bends, thanks to clever torque-vectoring tech. However, through the fast uphill Schumacher S section, the weight is apparent. If you miss your turn-in point the mass will drag the car off line. Slow and mid-speed corners are where the Ioniq 5 N feels at its best.

The mass is therefore less of an issue on the road, where the car feels firm in Sport+ but nicely fluid and absorbent in the default setting, delivering a good level of comfort, despite the focus.

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The steering is sharp but not loaded with feel, while the performance seems even more explosive with road furniture such as trees and signposts to frame the acceleration.

Hyundai won't reveal full performance numbers until the Ioniq 5 N makes it debut at the Goodwood Festival of Speed next month, but expect it to outgun its Kia EV6 GT sibling, which produces 577bhp and 740Nm of torque from its dual-motor system.

That car uses a similar 77.4kWh battery to the Ioniq 5 N, but here Hyundai has developed special pre-conditioning modes for the electrical energy source to boost performance. Part of the new radiator set-up behind the Ioniq 5 N's front bumper is to help cool the battery, while you can also pre-condition it with one of two modes.

'Drag' sets the cells' temperature range to between 30C and 40C for maximum power delivery, while 'Track' sees this target range drop to 20C to 30C. In the N driving mode, drivers can keep an eye on battery temperature through a special readout on the digital dash.

The N Race feature then allows drivers to select between 'Sprint' and 'Endurance' modes, depending on the type of driving required. The former is for hot laps with max power available, the latter prioritises longer stints on track and more consistent performance combined with the lower battery temp. While exact figures have still to be determined, maximum power will likely be backed off by around 10 per cent in this mode.

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From our test, this didn't feel like a problem, as the Ioniq 5 N rockets out of slow corners, and even at higher speeds – nearly 130mph through the quick kink on the back straight – the big, blocky-looking car still forces the air aside with considerable punch.

Braking is solid too, and the transition between energy recuperation and friction braking is nicely managed. However, alongside the significant weight transfer we experienced, it also felt like the car's nose rebounds and rises quite quickly when you come off the brakes. This could be do to with driving style and it is possible to drive round it, but it's worth mentioning.

Other points of note also include the cabin. While much of our test car's interior was cloaked, the 5 N's supportive bucket seats were representative of the production items. While we'd like to sit a little lower (something Johnson agrees with us on, but an issue that's hard to get round because of the positioning of the car's battery), the seats offer plenty of support and fix you in place through fast corners.

The deep bolsters still offer enough cushioning, so it's comfortable on longer road journeys too, and the car's basic platform means there's a very good level of legroom in the rear.

When you just need the N to be a quiet, refined road car rather than a sporty, always-on hot hatch, it can do that too, helped by the above attributes. This is part of Hyundai's brief to cover three key performance pillars: corner rascal, racetrack capability and everyday sports car.

Turn N e-shift off and it's as swift and as easy to drive as any other EV, proving that, done right, the breadth of operation when it comes to performance cars in the future could be even greater than the best on offer today.

The last few kilometres of our road route are completed in near silence and without touching the brake pedal, the N's i-Pedal set-up it's inherited from the Ioniq 5 meaning minute modulation of the throttle is all that's needed to trim speed.

As we role back into the car park, Tyrone Johnson sat alongside me, our conversation turns towards a potential Nurburgring lap time, given our test location. “We had a time through this morning that's very impressive, we're pleased.” But of course, this car isn't about the numbers.

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Sean’s been writing about cars since 2010, having worked for outlets as diverse as PistonHeads, MSN Cars, Which? Cars, Race Tech – a specialist motorsport publication – and most recently Auto Express and sister titles Carbuyer and DrivingElectric

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