+ Hot hatch performance
+ Practicality of a crossover
+ Great infotainment
- Harsh ride
- Rivals have more boot space
- Front-wheel drive only
Verdict: The Kona N is endlessly fun to drive thanks to the fact it’s basically an i30N on stilts, but in the hot hatch the permanently brittle damping is more forgivable than it is in a family crossover. The Volkswagen T-Roc R is calmer around town, but then you’ll pay a lot more for it.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, you had more chance of seeing Simon Cowell shopping at Aldi than you would a family crossover lapping the Nürburgring…and lapping it fast.
But what followed the stratospheric rise of the crossover was the arrival of the hot crossover, and where better to hone the engineering of what is effectively a hot hatch on stilts than Germany’s legendary circuit?
Hyundai’s new Kona N was perfected during nearly 500 laps of the ‘ring before it was launched as a Korean alternative to the Ford Puma ST and Volkswagen T-Roc R. It actually sits in the middle of these two cars, being over a second quicker from 0-62mph than the Ford, but almost a second slower than the VW.
It also shouts louder about its performance credentials, with a brutal-looking rear diffuser housing twin exhausts, a prominent rear spoiler and bulky splitter on its nose. While it has a slightly wider track than the standard Kona to increase stability it sits no closer to the road, so it’s easier to climb in and out of than the hot hatch it is based on, the i30N.
The interior is similar to the standard Kona’s, only infused with familiar N-touches, such as the sports steering wheel with drive mode shortcut buttons, alloy sports pedals and a manual handbrake which, in the words of Hyundai, has been included instead of an e-brake to “allow adventurous drivers to enjoy slides”. We like.
Hyundai’s latest 10.25-inch infotainment system, which partners a 10.25-inch digital driver’s display, is very good indeed. What sets it apart from systems found in other Hyundais is the Performance Driving Data functionality which records your best efforts on the racetrack for review later, and even includes a lap timer. Perhaps you could set a personal best time for the school run (joke, do not try that).
With the same elevated height as the standard car, getting in and out of the Kona N is easy and headroom is plentiful. Where it falls down is the boot space, offering just 361-litres - well short of the Puma ST’s 456-litres and significantly down on the T-Roc R’s 392-litres.
The Kona N gets the same joyously fizzy 2.0-litre turbocharged engine found in the i30N. Its default power output is 276bhp and 392Nm of torque, but it can be boosted for 20-seconds to 286bhp via something called the N Grin Shift system, activated via a button on the steering wheel. Childish name, adult fun: with launch control engaged the Kona N does 0-62mph in 5.5-seconds.
It also comes as standard with an eight-speed DCT automatic gearbox which features three different shift settings, depending on what sort of shenanigans you want to get up. Also important to mention is the limited-slip differential – the Kona N cannot be optioned in all-wheel drive, like the standard car can. This means those who want extra stability in snow and ice might want to look at the AWD VW T-Roc R or Audi SQ2.
The slip-diff does a superb job of keeping grip and there’s plenty of feedback from the wheels in corners. Like a good hot hatch should, the Kona N demands the driver’s full attention when being worked hard and feels very rewarding as a result.
More powerful than the Puma ST and not nannied by AWD systems, the Kona N is the most fun to drive car in this class. Its strong resistance to body roll and eagerness to punch in and out of an apex comes at the cost of the ride though – despite having three adjustable settings the damping is always teeth-chatteringly firm.
And that begs the question, what’s the point of hot crossovers? Small family wagons which drive like hot hatches: we get that the idea is to have the best of both worlds, but the Kona N’s harsh ride can become tiring.
The T-Roc R does a better job of dealing with the bumpy stuff, but it costs around £7,000 more than the £35,395 Kona N, and despite the faster 0-62mph time you won’t have as much fun on an empty B-road.
Thankfully the Kona N’s interior isn’t quite as in-your-face as the exterior, but there are still plenty of visual clues to the fact that it isn’t your average family soft-roader. Heated bucket seats come as standard, although it’s an optional extra to have heated rear seats.
The steering wheel is bespoke to the Hyundai N range, featuring two shortcuts buttons, one for the N driving mode (track) and the other for the custom driving mode, which is set up by the driver. The big red button you can see activates the N Grin Shift overboost function.
There are enough squidy plastics found in places like the door cards to instil a premium feel, although the VW T-Roc feels more expensive and solid. The Kona N’s build quality is of a higher standard than the Puma ST’s though, and everything looks classily understated, with none of the cheap chrome-effect trim you find in many hot hatches.
Hyundai’s 10.25-inch infotainment screen takes pride of place on the dashboard and offers crisp, bold graphics: it’s both easy to read and reach with your fingertips. Reaction time is excellent, something matched by the digital driver’s display which offers a broad range of customisable layouts.
It’s a more intuitive system than that found in the Puma ST and looks prettier than VW’s system. As standard the Kona N gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as a head-up display which has N-specific graphics and even shows the rev counter.
Also thrown in for the £35,395 starting price is a reversing camera, smart cruise control, blind spot collision avoidance assist and lane keep assist, as well as many more safety systems, making it very good value for money.
While it’s true the Kona N’s appeal lies in the fact it offers hot hatch performance with crossover practicality, the crossover it’s based on isn’t the most spacious in its class. Legroom in the back of the standard Kona, and therefore N model, is a bit tight for anyone over six feet tall.
But while it might not be as spacious as the T-Roc in terms of legroom, when it comes to headroom it’s much more even, both have plenty.
Storage isn’t brilliant either: the door bins are tiny front and back, but they’re compensated for by some usefully-sized storage space in the driver console, plus a respectable glovebox.
Because the Kona N rides as high as the standard car, getting in and out is easier than it is in the i30N hatchback, plus the driver commands a good view of the road. Visibility is better than it is in the Puma ST.
Among its small batch of rivals – Audi SQ2, Puma ST and T-Roc R – the Kona N’s 361-litre boot is the smallest. Even so, it’s around the same size as an average family hatchback so you’ll still be able to pack enough for a weekend away as a family of four.
The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine which powers the Kona N is a very impressive unit. Its default power output is 276bhp and 392Nm of torque, but it can be boosted for 20-seconds to 286bhp via the N Grin Shift over boost function.
It’s still down on power compared to the T-Roc R and SQ2, which both produce around 300bhp, and it’s nearly a second slower than those cars from 0-62mph because only the front wheels are driven, but it’s more eager to rev than the VW Group engines, which gives it more character.
On our test drive the best we managed was 24mpg, so this is something you will have to keep in mind. If your performance crossover will spend more time being a family wagon than an apex-hunting track tool, you might want to ask whether the higher running costs are worth it.
Unlike the i30N there is no manual option, just the eight-speed DCT auto’ ‘box. It’s as slick and incisive as anything Germany makes, plus it offers three settings, depending on how you want to drive. Above the standard setting is N Power Shift mode, which engages automatically once you are using 90% of the throttle, sharpening up the gear shifts.
The N Track Sense mode, according to Hyundai, optimises the gearbox for track driving, allowing the driver more time to concentrate on steering. We can’t comment on its efficacy because we’ve only driven the Kona N on the road so far.
Hyundai has done a very good job of making a crossover that drives like a hot hatch, and a very good hot hatch at that. Naturally you can feel its slightly top-heavy nature on fast corners, but only a little, and without taking it to a racetrack it feels almost as agile as the i30N.
That’s a lot to do with the fact it has an electronically controlled slip differential on the front wheels which pushes power to the outer wheel in a corner so imperceptibly that you wonder why anyone would bother with a heavier AWD crossover. Of course, in the snow and ice the VW or Audi would be a safer pair of hands, although the Kona N does have mud, sand and snow driving modes which fettle the stability control settings for optimum grip.
Speaking of driving modes, the Kona N has a mind-boggling number of them. As well as the low-traction modes there’s Eco and Normal mode for day-to-day duties. Then comes the fun stuff: Sport tightens everything up for fast road driving and N mode is a shortcut to the ideal track setting. Finally, Custom lets the driver individually adjust the steering, exhaust note, suspension and ESC.
When driven hard the Kona N is frenetic, revving merrily with a raucous soundtrack as well as rev-matching for you on the downshift so you can focus on hitting the apex right. It’s unflappable in a corner, although it will happily wag its tail if you lift off the throttle on the turn-in.
From a standstill there’s a hint of wheelspin, unless you have launch control engaged of course, and you’ll even notice a little torque steer, but these are the things that make hot hatches so exciting.
The fast and fun stuff isn’t the Kona N’s problem, it’s the everyday driving tasks which it struggles with, and considering it’s a family crossover that’s a bit annoying. The damping may be adjustable but there’s no setting that softens it off enough to not be constantly jiggling up and down on the UK’s notchy roads. It rides on 19-inch wheels as standard, which don’t exactly help matters.
The VW T-Roc R and the Audi SQ2 both wear the hat of a daily family driver better, they are more refined when things get slow and bumpy under wheel, but that comes at the expense of fun and, most importantly, they cost significantly more.