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Hyundai RM19 prototype quick drive review: Race car heart, road car ambitions

A mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 390-horsepower Hyundai Veloster? Yes, please.

The RM19 handles like no Hyundai has before.

Hyundai

This isn't just some Hyundai Veloster with a big wing and a body kit. No, it's far more than that. It has a partial roll cage integrated into the chassis. It has a racing seat with a proper five-point harness. The rear wheel wells are filled with fat, 305-section tires. Oh, and did I mention the engine sits behind the cockpit?

Hyundai's RM19 prototype is a rolling showcase of the automaker's performance potential. It takes lessons learned from the production Veloster N hatchback, as well as the Veloster TCR race car, and kicks everything up a notch. The result is a sports car that isn't just good for a Hyundai, but one of the best-driving hatchbacks I've ever sampled, period.

The RM19, which made its debut at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show in November, is the fourth iteration of Hyundai's RM, or "racing midship" project. Each of the four RM cars have been based on the Veloster hatchback, and each have had their engine mounted behind the driver, in the middle of the chassis.

For its latest RM, Hyundai used the aero kit from the Veloster N TCR race car, complete with a massive rear wing that sticks out the back of the hatch. Hyundai says that all of this body work, combined with a closed underbody and rear diffuser, make the RM19 far more aerodynamic than a regular Veloster while providing up to 419 pounds of downforce at 124 mph.

Compared to a stock Veloster N, the RM19 is 2 inches longer, 5 inches wider and almost 2 inches shorter in height. The track is wider, and the RM19 rolls on 20-inch wheels, wrapped in 245/30-series front and 305/30-series rear tires. Behind the front wheels, you'll find 14.9-inch brake rotors with six-piston calipers; at the rear, the RM19 uses 14.4-inch rotors with four-piston calipers.

The suspension is comprised of a MacPherson design up front and a double-wishbone layout in back, with three-way adjustable dampers. Lots of added chassis components, like the aforementioned partial roll cage, all work to make the RM19 significantly stiffer than any other Veloster. All this chassis and aero work is hugely necessary, considering the car's massive power upgrade. The RM19 uses the 2.0-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine found in the Veloster N TCR racer, which is actually a reworked version of the 2.0T engine you'll find in the production Veloster N, just with a bigger turbocharger, a new exhaust manifold design and reinforced components.

The RM19 is a full 5 inches wider than a standard Veloster N.

Hyundai

In the Veloster N, this engine is good for 275 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, but in the RM19, those numbers are bumped up to roughly 390 hp and 350 lb-ft. A six-speed sequential transmission replaces the manual gearbox of the Veloster N, and power is set to the rear wheels rather than the front. All of this means the RM19 should be able to accelerate to 60 mph in under 4 seconds.

It also means the RM19 is an absolute firecracker. A sub-four-second 0-to-60 time doesn't sound too impressive in a world where a Tesla Model S can do the same sprint in 2.9, but in a compact hatchback like the Veloster, and with that blown 2.0-liter engine sitting right behind you, the initial off-the-line blast hits like a bolt of lightning. Then there's the way this thing sounds; loud in all the right ways, and with enough snaps, crackles and pops to make a cereal company jealous, this is the sort of aural quality that reminds you the RM19 is born from motorsports engineering.

The race-style transmission has a clutch pedal but no shift lever, just a pair of carbon-fiber paddles mounted behind the race-spec steering wheel. You use the clutch to engage first gear like you would with a traditional manual car, but the subsequent upshifts don't require you to use the third pedal. In fact, you don't have to press it again until you shift from first gear down into neutral, as you slow to a stop.

As far as race cars go, the RM19 has a relatively small learning curve. Once you master the initial start, it's pretty easy to drive, with predictable power delivery throughout the rev range of each gear. Upshifts and downshifts are immediate and jarring, the whole car jerking a bit as the transmission slams into the requested gear. Thankfully, the throttle isn't touchy, so it's easy to modulate all of that turbocharged force. The brakes are also plenty robust for this setup, though the pedal of my prototype test car is decidedly spongy -- something the Hyundai engineers tell me is just a byproduct of this car being in development, and absolutely does not reflect the intended experience.

Performance buckets, a five-point harness and a race-spec steering wheel prove that this isn't any ordinary Veloster.

Hyundai

Following several laps around a road course at Hyundai's proving grounds near Mojave, California, the things I'm most impressed with are the RM19's steering, overall balance and level of grip. Hyundai says the steering tune itself is largely unchanged from the Veloster N, which is fine since I love the way that car is set up. The racing wheel is a perfect diameter and thickness and feels great in my hands. Plus, the fatter tires communicate more of what's happening at road level through the chassis.

While cornering, the RM19 stays super flat at all times, and the huge contact patches from the tires give you more leverage to carry lots of speed through turns. Go into a corner too fast and the RM19 can still scoot its little butt out for some quick moments of oversteer, but it's easy to snap everything back into line with a little throttle and steering input. This car isn't so precise that it's lost any of the Veloster N's hooligan spirit.

If you've ever doubted Hyundai's performance cred, the Veloster N will change your mind. And if that, somehow, still isn't good enough, a brief drive in the RM19 will prove that the folks in South Korea can build a world-class sports car. But what does it all mean?

"There's no decision this car will ever go to the marketplace," says Albert Biermann, head of R&D at Hyundai. "But we will make further steps with this RM."

The RM projects could soon be electrified, as Hyundai works to bring more EVs to market.

Hyundai

Specifically, Hyundai is developing a new performance engine based on the 2.5-liter turbo-four engine that'll launch in the new Sonata N-Line. Hyundai is also creating an in-house, eight-speed, dual-clutch transmission for its N products. Expect both of these to find their way into a racing application, too.

Another possibility is to evolve RM into a test-bed for high-power electrified powertrains. After all, Hyundai is planning a bunch of new electrified models, and according to Biermann, "RM will serve to prepare steps into electrification for [the] N [brand]."

Either way, the main goal with the RM projects is to find ways to bring the know-how from motorsports into Hyundai's road-going performance cars. We may never see an actual production version of the RM19, but if it serves to open up a whole new world of performance possibilities for Hyundai's street-legal cars, then as far as I'm concerned, it's a project worth doing.

Now playing: Watch this: Hyundai shows off the next-level Veloster in the RM19...
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Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.