In this gotta-have-an-SUV market, we should be thankful that the new Hyundai Veloster N exists—whether or not it's any good. Scrappy little hatchbacks with stoked engines and Olympic-grade chassis are anything but a priority for manufacturers; they're following the money into the tall, boxy segments.
Ford, for instance, is currently in the process of dumping its Focus ST/Focus RS and Fiesta ST hot rods from the US market, along with the mainstream versions of those small cars, while it just introduced an Edge ST performance crossover.
Now along comes Hyundai’s new N division with its first entrant into the U.S. market—a pumped-up compact car aimed squarely at a pair of small, high-performance hatchbacks with unassailable credentials: the Honda Civic Type R and the Volkswagen GTI. Seriously, a Hyundai?
EDITOR'S NOTE: You're reading a story by American title Car and Driver. We're bringing you a handful of C/D stories each month, focused on vehicles we've either not yet driven, or models not offered in Australia. Where appropriate, we'll add metric measurements for reference, but grammar and terminology will otherwise remain unchanged.
But first attempts do occasionally work out, and we thought this one just might when we sampled a pre-production Veloster N on the Nürburgring and on German byways. And now, after spending hundreds of miles with an N on this side of the Atlantic, often on roads that squirm like a garden snake slithering into the bushes, we're impressed all over again.
The Veloster N possesses an elusive combination of fun-loving personality, all-around capability, and grit that puts a grin on your face and a tingle in your gut.
A performance package worthy of the name
Let us qualify that: The specific car we're talking about here is yet another pre-production Veloster N—although it presented well enough to pass as a production version—equipped with the optional Performance package.
The extra-cost go-faster equipment bumps the power of the N’s turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four from 250 to 275 horsepower (205kW) at the same 6000 rpm; the torque peak remains 260 lb-ft (352Nm) at 1450 rpm.
The package also brings meatier tires: 235/35R-19 Pirelli P Zero PZ4s on our test car versus 225/40-R18s with the standard N. There are also slightly larger brake rotors, and the rear discs are vented instead of solid.
And an electronically controlled limited-slip differential twirls the front tires through a slightly shorter final-drive ratio.
That’s a lot of meaningful mechanical improvement over the standard N for the $2500 (AU$3530) we expect the Performance package to cost (official pricing was unavailable as of this writing). Hyundai hinted that our test car would sticker at about $30,000 (AU$42,360), which means the standard N should start at around $27,500 (AU$38,830).
All N models benefit from significant hardware improvements over lesser Velosters. The car's body shell is reinforced with extra welds and structural braces. A six-speed manual is the only gearbox available, adaptive dampers are standard, and the engine exhales through an active exhaust.
Everything from steering effort to damping firmness is driver adjustable and is accessed through five drive modes: Eco, Normal, Sport, N (track), and N Custom, the latter allowing you to mix and match all the variables that affect damping, steering heft, stability control, diff locking, and the exhaust note.
Like any performance variant, the N also receives a handful of exterior pieces to distinguish it from its more commonplace brethren—though whether this is a blessing or a curse is up for debate.
Some of us think the new front and rear fascias, rocker extensions, red trim, and wing over the hatch go a little too far in the 2 Fast 2 Furious direction. Thankfully, though, the new bodywork isn't remotely as cringeworthy as the Hot Wheels–esque gingerbread plastered all over the Honda Civic Type R.
Not just fast but livable, too
Given that this is Hyundai's first shot at a serious sport-compact, it would have been understandable if the N with Performance package had turned out to be capable of great test-track results but as fun to live with as a too-tight pair of jeans.
Surprisingly—maybe even amazingly for a first-time effort—the N is an excellent all-around sportster, a decathlete that does many things well while also being a characterful, fun-loving teammate.
The N with the Performance package does indeed post very good performance numbers: zero to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, 0.97 g on the skidpad, and a 154-foot stop from 70 mph. That kind of acceleration and cornering grip places it squarely between the Civic Type Rs and Volkswagen GTIs we've tested—with the Honda the undisputed champ.
Happily, the N wraps its substantial performance in an engagingly aggressive persona that never wears thin.
The N's punchy turbo four responds quickly and pulls strongly from the tach's low ranges to its 6750-rpm redline, and it sounds sexy doing it. Tap the steering wheel button into N mode, and the exhaust goes from a subtle hum to a rich, insistent baritone bawl that pop-pop-pops between shifts.
It has one of the best-sounding four-cylinder exhaust notes this side of a vintage Alfa.
The N's sharp steering and nimble chassis don't just slice up two-lane roads, they help the Veloster to roll smoothly across all but the very worst pavement, snuffing out most harsh impacts before they can clang through the cabin—even despite the car’s rubber-band-thin low-profile tires.
This combination of refinement and feistiness makes it both a lively companion and an easy car to live with on a daily basis.
It may be imperfect, but It's still delightful
Yes, there are still a few things the N could do better. The steering's feel and feedback get distant in extreme driving. The clutch take-up is abrupt, though still manageable enough to operate smoothly in traffic.
There's a bit of slack at the top of the brake pedal travel. Since our test car is a pre-production unit, we'll excuse the fact that one of the turbo system's hoses blew off when a clamp broke.
More concerning was that the brake pedal sank precipitously when we pushed it after just one high-g, tire-chattering fling around our favorite interstate on-ramp—possibly a result of the front disc-brake pads being pushed back by lateral forces in the corner. (Knockback can be exaggerated with worn brake pads, and this happened near the end of our loan, after almost two weeks of hard driving with the N.)
There was still enough reserve braking to slow the car, but it was unnerving. It recurred every time we tossed the N around that long ramp, although we never experienced the issue in any other driving situation. Still, it shouldn’t have happened.
Also surprising for a Hyundai—especially one that will cost about 30 grand—is that a couple of expected niceties were missing. Our test car lacked navigation, for one thing, and while we had no problem with the cloth that covered its deeply pocketed front buckets, we would have hoped for seat heaters.
The cabin is handsome, but it’s as rife with plastic surfaces as the interior of a base Veloster—a car that costs about $10,000 less than the N with the Performance package.
Still, that's a short list of criticisms against an arm's-length scroll of positives. In almost every way, the Veloster N with Performance package splits the difference between the raw ferociousness of a Civic Type R and the refined athleticism of a GTI—which turns out to be a delightful balance of attributes.
It excels in a class where the best are superb. If that's not enough of a compliment, consider this: The Veloster N is good enough to make you believe Hyundai has been building cars like this for a very long time.
NOTE: The Veloster is expected to make its way to Australia later this year in its regular form, but the N model, currently engineered specifically for left-hand-drive markets only, is not looking likely.