2022 Hyundai Kona N goes beyond hot hatch to wild child

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Sometimes enthusiast engineers get their way and automakers develop a vehicle we never conceived and didn’t know we wanted. The 2022 Hyundai Kona N is one of those vehicles. A performance version of an economy crossover, it goes beyond hot hatch straight to wild child. It can fade into the background (with the right paint job), yet still deliver more fun than you’d ever expect out of a vehicle line usually bought by your aging parents.

After recently spending a week with the Kona N, I was surprised and delighted with its frisky character. But it’s so high strung that it’s not for everyone. Here’s where it hits and misses.

2022 Hyundai Kona N

2022 Hyundai Kona N

2022 Hyundai Kona N

2022 Hyundai Kona N

2022 Hyundai Kona N

Hit and Miss: N mode

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of Hyundai’s N mode has its time and place. It’s best used on a racetrack or a smooth road, though engaging it on a pockmarked street could save you money on healthcare costs by pulverizing your kidney stones. The system turns every response up to 11, or in this case, Sport+, and I’ve never experienced a crossover with a worse ride on broken Midwest pavement than the Kona N in N mode.

N mode can be accessed through a dial on the center console or through two light blue buttons on the steering wheel. It picks the most extreme version of every drive setting, which gives an already responsive car the alertness and snap reactions of a Navy seal on a seek-and-destroy mission.  I recommend setting the N1 and N2 steering wheel buttons to two types of sporty driving—say, everyday sportiness and hey look, racetrack—to choose the settings you want for the engine, steering, suspension, electronic limited-slip differential, transmission rev matching, stability control, and exhaust in any given situation. For example, the Sport+ damper setting may be (and probably is) too firm for anything but a racetrack, and the Sport+ exhaust sound may be too rowdy for your neighborhood. Experiment with each setting, create two individual sport modes, and choose what works at any given time.

2022 Hyundai Kona N

2022 Hyundai Kona N

Hit: Amazing crossover handling

Hyundai’s enthusiast engineers have endowed the Kona N with waterbug handling matched only by far more expensive crossovers from luxury brands. Quick, direct steering, immediate turn-in response, an ability to send its high-set weight from one direction to the next, an electronic limited-slip differential to maintain traction out of corners, and surprisingly flat cornering make the Kona N the closest thing to a sports car you can get in a vehicle set 6.8 inches off the ground. (Fun fact: the Kona N oddly has 0.1 inch more ground clearance than other Konas.) It’s fun any time you get behind the wheel, and if you balance the modes right, you may find a sporty setting that works for everyday driving.

2022 Hyundai Kona N

2022 Hyundai Kona N

Hit: Frisky turbo-4

The Kona N uses the same 2.0-liter turbo-4 as other N models. It makes 276 hp and 289 lb-ft of torque. Max torque arrives at a low 2,100 rpm, and horsepower increases to 286 for short bursts with an overboost function that opens the exhaust and quickens shifts of the standard 8-speed dual wet clutch automatic (you have to wait 40 seconds before using the overboost button again). The transmission cracks off quick shifts either automatically or through the standard paddle shifters. The Kona N isn’t a rocket, but its quoted 0-60 mph time of 5.2 seconds is plenty quick and fits with the car’s playful character. It also feels quicker than that in the engine’s Sport+ mode, which gives the engine a high-strung character by keeping the revs high and setting the throttle response to itchy trigger finger.

2022 Hyundai Elantra N

2022 Hyundai Elantra N

Hit and Miss: It’s not an Elantra N

For as well as the Kona N handles, it still sits fairly high, so it doesn’t have the ultimate autocross and track handling prowess of the lower 2022 Elantra N. Conversely, it’s about as much fun as you can have in a crossover, and the body style also gives it cargo versatility. It has 19.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second-row seats, and that opens up to 48.2 cubes with the seats folded down. You could make a run to Home Depot in the Kona N, but I wouldn’t recommend it in the Elantra N.

2022 Hyundai Kona N

2022 Hyundai Kona N

Miss: Built to a price

Like other N models, it appears Hyundai put all of its effort into the Kona N’s engineering and opted for budget-grade materials on the interior. The cabin is covered in a sea of hard plastic befitting a Nissan Versa. However, Hyundai does provide some nods to the car’s sporty nature. Sport bucket seats come standard and the N’s version of the 10.3-inch touchscreen offers N-specific readouts, including track maps, lap times, and performance data. The N mode in the digital instrument cluster also shows boost pressure, throttle position, and engine/oil temperature.

2022 Hyundai Kona N

2022 Hyundai Kona N

Hit: Performance bargain

The Kona N starts at and ends at $35,495 including destination. It offers no options, only the choice of red, black or white paint. That’s about $10,000 less than the average transaction price for a new car, and it ensures you get a fun little crossover that can be somewhat tame or a whirling dervish as your mode of daily transportation.

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2022 Hyundai Kona N

Base price: $35,495 including $1,295 destination

Price as tested: $35,495

Powertrain: 276-hp 2.0-liter turbo-4, 8-speed dual-clutch transmission, front-wheel drive

EPA fuel economy: 20/27/23 mpg

The hits: Strong turbo-4 power, great handling, cargo versatility, performance bargain

The misses: Cheap interior materials, hard ride, not as agile as Elantra N, must find balance in modes

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