Hyundai's rowdy little subcompact crossover is the most fun-to-drive car on sale.
The most fun-to-drive car on sale isn't a droptop sports car or mid-engine supercar. If maniacal laughter and absolute thrills are what you're after, you need a front-wheel-drive crossover with an automatic transmission. Specifically, you need the Hyundai Kona N.
I'm serious. This weird little SUV is one of the best vehicles I've ever driven, taking everything good about the Veloster N and applying it to an overall nicer package. It shares its turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 engine with Hyundai's other N cars, putting out 276 horsepower and 289 pound-feet of torque. That's an increase of 29 lb-ft, and the Kona's peak torque comes on a little later. Hyundai's eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is the only option for the Kona N, which is fine by me as the Veloster N's standard six-speed manual kinda sucks. The DCT is smooth in operation but fires off quick, satisfying shifts.
Around town, the Kona N is an absolute blast. The noise from its giant dual exhaust tips is a little quieter than the Veloster's, producing fewer pops and bangs on overrun, but the Kona N is antisocial in its sportiest drive modes. You can hear the turbocharger better than in the Veloster, too. Despite technically being an SUV the Kona N isn't offered with all-wheel drive, and honestly that would make the car heavier and worse. With launch control engaged Hyundai says the Kona N will hit 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, which is completely absurd: That's as quick as a base Porsche Taycan. Even with launch control engaged the Kona N hilariously scrambles for traction, but an electronic limited-slip differential helps distribute torque between the front wheels to maximize grip.
I barely bothered to try out the Kona's Eco or Normal drive modes, opting to have the powertrain in its most aggressive setting pretty much all the time for maximum hilarity. Though I will note that, in one highway stint in Eco, I crested 31 mpg, besting the Environmental Protection Agency's highway rating by 4 mpg.
Its 19-inch wheels with Pirelli P Zero summer tires are standard fitment, and the Kona N's 235/40-size rubber has slightly more sidewall than the Veloster's 235/35 tires. The Kona N's ride is stiff as hell even with the adaptive dampers in the softest setting, and its shorter wheelbase makes it a little more unsettled over bad surfaces than the Veloster, but it's not unbearably rough. The 14.2-inch front and 12.4-inch rear brakes are 2.2 and 1.2 inches larger than a normal Kona's, respectively, and the N also has ventilated rear discs. After an hour of hard driving there's no fade or squeaking from the brakes, and it's got a physical hand brake, a rarity these days and vital if you enjoy drifting your hot hatchbacks around parking lots.
Even when cornering lightly the Kona N will kick its inner rear tire into the air like a puppy peeing on a tree, and it's prone to controllable lift-off oversteer. There's a bit of initial understeer and plenty of torque steer under acceleration, and the Kona has more body roll and dive under braking than the Veloster. That wouldn't normally be a positive, but it all adds to the Kona's enhanced sense of excitement and driver involvement. Instead of going after perfect dynamics, the Kona N is all about being in tune with what the car is doing, with the more prominent body motion adding to the experience. It's the same reason we love the Mazda Miata so much.
The Kona N's electronic power steering is phenomenal, heavy and direct with sharp turn-in and virtually no dead zone, delivering far better feedback than any new BMW M car. (Ex-BMW M boss Albert Biermann's influence as the head of Hyundai's R&D division is immediately apparent.) It helps that the perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel is great, with a thick rim, metal shift paddles, two large drive mode buttons and a satisfying red button for the N Grin Shift function, which is essentially an overboost mode.
While it's obviously based on a cheap car, with lots of hard plastics throughout, the Kona N's interior is nicer than the Veloster's. The Kona N has a 10.3-inch digital gauge cluster with configurable performance pages and awesome graphics, while the Veloster makes do with physical gauges that have a tiny 4.2-inch display in the center. The Kona's 10.3-inch center touchscreen is much better than the Veloster's 8-inch screen, too, and uses Hyundai's latest infotainment system, which also has cool performance data pages that are less complicated than the Veloster's. Navigation, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and SiriusXM are all standard, and the Kona N's eight-speaker Harman Kardon sound system is awesome.
Hyundai fitted the Kona N with nicely bolstered, suede-trimmed bucket seats that sadly lack the illuminated N logo, but unlike the Veloster, the Kona's driver's chair is power adjustable. The more upright driving position won't be for everyone, but I think it adds to the visceral enjoyment and reminds me of the plucky Fiat 500 Abarth . The Kona is more practical than the Veloster, too: Rear-seat passengers have more headroom, legroom and shoulder room. With the rear seats folded the Kona has more hauling space than the Veloster, and the shape of its cargo area is more usable.
One oddity is that the Kona N doesn't come with adaptive cruise control, and it isn't an option despite its availability on other Konas -- blame the N's large, open front grilles. The Kona N also doesn't get parking sensors or a 360-degree camera system, which is a shame. Blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping and lane-centering assist, automatic high beams, automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear cross-traffic alert and a rear occupant alert are all included. You also get heated front seats, a wireless device charger, automatic climate control, auto up/down front windows, keyless entry and pushbutton start.
Like Hyundai's other N cars, the Kona N comes in just a single configuration without options or trim packages. There are only four available colors, with my test car's Sonic Blue being the most interesting. Including a $1,245 destination charge the Kona N costs $35,445, only $400 more than an automatic Veloster N. The Kona N is also $2,020 cheaper than an automatic, mid-range Volkswagen GTI , which isn't as well equipped and isn't nearly as exciting to drive. Best of all, Hyundai's 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty isn't voided by track use. Hell yeah.
The Hyundai Kona N is silly and ridiculous. It doesn't make sense on paper, yet it's somehow practical and justifiable. It transcends what you expect from it, making every journey an entertaining and exciting one. I've had more fun in this front-wheel-drive crossover than any sports car or supercar I've had the pleasure of driving, with even grocery runs sending me into a fit of giggles. The Kona N is, in a word, sublime.