The key to being cool – or so I’ve been told – is not to talk about it, but simply do it.
In Hyundai’s case, the it has been building some competitively quick sport compact cars, with the quirky Veloster N introducing the automaker’s performance sub-brand to North America a few short years ago. The two-part sequel came in the form of the Elantra N sedan and Kona N crossover – something of an unlikely set of fraternal twins that pack a little extra torque than their three-door sibling.
While the styling of each of them may not be for everyone, these cars are unquestionably cool. Rather than talk about it, Hyundai had a handful of these hotted-up models waiting for me and a few other automotive media types at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP) in Bowmanville, Ont., for an evening lapping session on the grand prix circuit – a true test of any car’s performance prowess if there ever was one.
An N Line Appetizer
To get there, I first had to drive the decidedly less intense N Line version of the Elantra, which is a bit like having a flatbread appetizer before diving into a proper pizza entrée: fundamentally, they aren’t so different, but it’s all in the ingredients – and the way they’re prepared.
The reality of the 2022 Hyundai Elantra N Line is that it probably makes more sense than the full-fledged N car for the average shopper – not that I’m here to dissuade anyone from such decisions, but it’s something to consider at the very least. Beyond a simple styling kit, it’s got more performance chops than the average Elantra, with a turbo motor and sport-tuned suspension.
The drive is more fine than fun, but it has the kind of commuter car quickness that can make the drive home just a little more enjoyable – all without a hefty fuel bill to match. Across a route made up of some highway to go with a few cascading hills, the Elantra N Line was just charming enough, which is exactly as it should be.
Elevating the Elantra Experience
Switching first into the 2022 Hyundai Elantra N, what became immediately apparent is just how much more amped up it looks and feels than the N Line. Inside and out, this sport sedan plays the part to perfection – not that its styling is for everyone, but it’s not shy about showing the world exactly what it’s made of, either. Not-so-subtle cues suggest that this is more than the average economy car, and that’s because it is.
Now, before we dive into what the Elantra N was like on the track we first need to go over the track itself. While the shorter driver development course at CTMP is tight and technical, the four-km grand prix circuit is all about big speed. That means it’s tailored for big power – not that more humble numbers won’t do the trick, but it’s a bold vote of confidence for an automaker to put a pack of front-wheel drive sport compacts on a course that’s considered among the fastest around.
I’ve been lucky enough to lap the big track at Mosport in 600-hp machines that felt tailor-made for the fast corners and epic elevation changes, not to mention the Mario Andretti Straightaway, which is why I was so impressed with the aptitude of the Elantra N on this high-flying track. With racer/instructor JC Trahan providing laid-back, actionable guidance from the passenger seat, I was able to wring about all the performance possible from this pocket rocket after a rather brief familiarization period.
While a sport compact car like this one would normally be prone to torque steer thanks to the 289 lb-ft of it being channelled to the front wheels, a masterfully made limited-slip differential (LSD) leaves nothing but usable pull to work with when rocketing out of corners. It took more than a few reminders from Trahan for the concept to register that I could jump on the throttle rather than roll onto it, but the results were spectacular: a top speed of 207 km/h down the back straight – not far off the pace of the Daytona Prototype cars that race here as part of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series.
Beyond the lack of torque steer, what stands out about this sedan is how neutral and balanced it feels, with as much compensation for the understeer that’s typical of front-wheel drive machines as there is for the oversteer that’s common with rear-wheel drive ones. Late braking leads to sharp turn-in, while that LSD means even imperfect corner exits can be easily overcome. It’s a precise machine that’s still playful without feeling over-engineered, and that’s not an easy balance to strike.
The 2022 Hyundai Kona N comes with at least a couple of questions: first, is it a crossover or a hatchback? And second, does it even matter? I happen to think of it as the latter – and more specifically, a hot hatch – but either way, it’s even more exciting to drive than its sedan sibling. (Yes, you read that right.)
Not everyone in attendance at CTMP felt that same way. To some, the stubbier Kona was too twitchy – a result of chopping 120 mm (4.7 in) from the wheelbase. I happen to adore the added character and liveliness that comes with it, with the same general dynamics as the sedan to go with that dartiness that makes it rotate in ways most cars simply can’t.
For those interested, the Kona N wasn’t quite as swift down the back straight. Try as I might, the most I could squeeze out of it was 196 km/h, which is still more than respectable. That lost 11 km/h next to the Elantra N could easily be explained away by their aerodynamic differences, although just as noteworthy is the fact that the same top speed was reached in the Kona with a third occupant on board. I’d also openly speculate that the Kona would be the faster of the two around the smaller driver development course at CTMP.
Don’t Discount the DCT
Far be it for me to nitpick over a day spent at the track, but if I had to find something to complain about it would be an unlikely culprit: the Elantra N’s six-speed manual transmission. I know, I know – there’s a place in gearhead hell waiting for me just for typing such sacrilege. Now let me explain.
It’s not that the three-pedal setup is a bad one, and it pairs nicely with the rev-happy 276-hp motor. But what just didn’t do it for me was the shifter – and, more specifically, that it wasn’t as notchy as I’d like. And sure, maybe with more seat time we’d get to know each other better; but we just weren’t speaking the same language on the track, which is where it really matters.
There’s also the matter of just how outstanding the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic is – and it happens to be the only transmission offered in the Kona N. It’s predictive, running all the way up to redline when prodded, plus it has paddles for those impatient moments.
Four 20-minute track sessions, two in each of these outstanding performance machines, cemented my love for the Kona N – although it’s a bit like toppings on a pizza: preference is everything, but what matters most is that the base it’s built on is delicious either way. There’s nothing doughy or cheesy about either of these sport compacts, though; they’re crisp and fresh and simply spectacular. (Besides, there's really no such thing as bad pizza, just good and better.)
Taking the back straight at CTMP in the neighbourhood of 200 km/h is fast in any car. That these two did it without breaking a sweat – and with me behind the wheel – says it all about these maniacal marvels of modern engineering. That the regular versions of both feel so, well, regular makes what’s been accomplished here even more absurd in the best ways possible. And if that’s not cool, I don’t know what is.