Road tests

New Hyundai Kona N 2021 review

The new 276bhp Hyundai Kona N proves that the brand’s N is just as capable when it comes to SUVs

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.5 out of 5

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The Kona N is arguably the most appealing N model Hyundai has made yet. It’s civilised enough to use every day, yet on the right road it’s more thrilling than many hot hatchbacks on sale. You do have to accept a few small sacrifices – we’d like a little more practicality, for one – but they’re easy to make for the breadth of ability on offer here. Many rival hot SUVs cost more yet offer less, certainly in terms of enjoyment. The Kona N proves Hyundai’s N division is on a roll.

Hyundai has a brilliant breadth of products on offer at the moment. From our Car of the Year, the all-electric Ioniq 5, to its hot N models, the Korean company’s span of the marketplace is broad – and with this new Kona N performance SUV it’s covering yet another base.

The i30 N and i20 N proved Hyundai can do hot hatchbacks, but a performance SUV has to be subtly different; it needs to offer a more liveable side to compliment the thrills we know the brand’s Nurburgring-developed models can deliver. But does that mean the Kona N is also a compromised car? Not really – or not from any of the changes resulting from the transformation into a hot N model, at least.

The Kona’s compromise comes from the basic car. Room in the rear is fair but not class-leading, while the 361-litre boot isn’t anything special, either. There’s enough space and versatility, it’s just that some cars in this class offer more.

But what none can come close to is how the Kona blends its acceptable but not outstanding level of usability with a fun attitude – something it nails without the seriously raw edge of its i20 N and i30 N siblings.

A lot of that comes down to the subtle engineering details. Adaptive dampers that serve up a taut, controlled platform for enthusiastic driving, while still returning an acceptably comfortable ride in their softest setting really help.

Of course, tune them up to their sportiest setting through the Kona N’s 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system in the special N app and the car takes on a hardcore attitude we’ve come to know and love from Hyundai’s N models. 

In fact, it has the ability to sense S-bends using the sat-nav or by road sign recognition and goads you into selecting N mode for maximum fun. This tautens the suspension up to the point where the Kona N bounces around on bad rounds until you start to drive with more aggression, where the extra energy to control means the set-up then starts to make sense.

However, dive into the N Custom driving mode, and you can tailor individual elements of the experience to your liking – softest suspension, raciest engine mode, most aggressive setting for the electronic limited-slip diff and engine sound, sharpest gearbox parameters. Like this, the Kona N feels really on the money on a typical B-road – the fun factor on offer here would give some established hot hatchbacks something to think about.

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There’s little roll for an SUV, and what body lean there is in corners forces the sticky tyres into the tarmac for extra grip. The steering is sharp and engaging, but the speed and rate of response is nicely in tune with the chassis set-up. 

The engine plays a supporting role to the chassis. The 276bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged unit pulls eagerly, with strong punch low down. Fierce traction, helped by the clever differential, and launch control help the Kona N sprint from 0-62mph in 5.5 seconds, which is rapid for a compact SUV like this. If the conditions aren’t perfect though, just make sure you guide the car with a firm hand, as in its sportiest mode the diff does cause some torque steer on uneven, patchy surfaces.

That motor is mated to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, which feels sharper and swifter to shift both up and down than the unit we tried in the i30 N; maybe it’s because you don’t associate this kind of hardcore approach with a small family SUV, but the powertrain is a solid element of a strong package. 

It boasts a suitable soundtrack, too; the noise emits from a pair of gaping exhausts set into a deep rear bumper. There’s a prominent spoiler for the tailgate and chunkier wheel arches that house black 19-inch forged wheels to save weight. At the front there’s a deep bumper, three slots for extra cooling and slim running lights that give an aggressive look, with plenty of N badging and red accents to contrast with the new Sonic Blue paintwork.

Inside, it’s just as racy, with bucket seats that support you; despite the higher-set driving position than a hot hatch, you don’t feel like you’re ever about to slide out of the seat.

Quality is fine but far from the premium league, but then at £35,395 for this level of performance and technology, it’s more than £10,000 cheaper than a BMW X2 M35i, which is admittedly more powerful and also four-wheel drive, but certainly no more fun to fling down a country road. It’s also not the last word in quality either.

The Kona N lays claim to being good value too., then Factor in the smart infotainment that’s full of features, such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, plus the 10.25-inch digital dash and a head-up display, and there’s ample technology on offer.

Heated and ventilated seats (and heated seats in the rear), automatic climate control, wireless phone charging, LED headlights, front and rear parking sensors, a rear-view camera, lots of N-specific touches and as much safety and assistance kit as you’d expect on a top-spec family SUV, including adaptive cruise with lane follow assist and autonomous emergency braking, means the Kona N is pretty much the least compromised mainstream hot SUV on sale today – and we mean that entirely as a compliment.

Model: Hyundai Kona N
Price:  £35,395
Engine:  2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol
Power/torque:  276bhp/392Nm
Transmission:  Eight-speed dual-clutch automatic, front-wheel drive
0-62mph:  5.5 seconds
Top speed:  149mph
Economy/CO2:  33.2mpg/194g/km
On sale:  Now

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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