WILLOWS, California — The day went by like a movie montage: Laps at Thunderhill Raceway Park, drivers scaring the sewage out of themselves on the fast off-camber turns. Then we’re on the autocross, chasing down a pro driver’s low-39-second run, knowing the car will do the first S-bend flat-out—but not sure we can. And now here is a lonely back road; jump off the gas to hear the popping of the exhaust, then hammer through bumpy corners to see if see if anything can flap this suspension.
We long ago thought we were done with the following thought, but here it is yet again: “This is a Hyundai?!”
Specifically, it is the 2019 Veloster N, a car that should have hot-hatch pros Volkswagen, Honda, and Mini scared: after 30 years, Hyundai has finally cracked the code. It’s an old-school hot hatch taking advantage of new-school technology, and a car that reminds us that maybe the future isn’t entirely electric.
According to Hyundai, it’s only the beginning.
Savvy enthusiasts know the story behind the Veloster N: After decades of struggling with its driving dynamics, Hyundai-Kia hired BMW M alumni Albert Biermann, Thomas Shemera, and Fayez Rahman to work on it for the company. We’ve already seen the fruits of their labor via the Kia Stinger and Genesis G70, but the Veloster N and its European-market sibling, the Golf-shaped i30 N, are their first front-drive hot-hatch efforts. (For those who want to see the i30 N come stateside, rest assured that we’re getting the better end of the deal—the Veloster is lower and lighter, and should prove quicker.)
In the pre-Biermann days, Hyundai might have merely dropped in a Sonata engine and grafted on Optima brakes to create a quicker Veloster, but as you can imagine, under Biermann’s direction, things went way further. The engineers added additional welding and reinforcement to the body shell to increase torsional rigidity, stiffened the engine mounts to prevent powertrain movement from shifting the car’s weight balance, and massaged the aerodynamics to increase rear downforce as speed builds. They increased the front suspension’s roll center, and decreased it at the rear. They replaced the Veloster’s column-mounted power-steering motor with a rack-mounted unit, quickening the ratio in the effort, and they beefed up the six-speed manual transmission (a twin-clutch automatic is still a couple of years away). And they programmed a rev-matching mode that sets the RPMs when you downshift, eliminating the need to heel-and-toe.
And, of course, they doctored the electronics. Along with the standard Normal, Eco, and Sport modes, there’s an “N” mode, which sets every parameter (suspension, steering, throttle response, rev matching, sound enhancement, relaxed stability control) to the max, along with a custom “N” mode that lets you set each parameter to your liking.
Hyundai also developed two flavors of the car: The basic Veloster N develops 250 horsepower and rides on 18-inch wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires; the Performance Package increases horsepower to 275 (torque remains unchanged at 260 lb-ft, though the peak rev range stretches 700 rpm higher) and adds bigger brakes, 19-inch wheels, specially-developed Pirelli P-Zero tires, an electronic limited-slip differential, and a valve in the muffler that opens up the exhaust in N-mode. The results, as with any good performance car, are way better than the sum of the parts.
We began the morning with a Performance Package car on the roads just outside Thunderhill. You could happily spend the entire day enjoying the fusillade of pops from the exhaust during gearshifts, but duty called and a clear patch of road beckoned, so the Veloster N pushed onward: 100 MPH in fourth gear and no drama from the suspension.
The ride is hard as a rock when the suspension is in its stiffest setting, causing the car to bounce like a 10-year-old Honda Civic with chopped springs. Softer settings provide a ride that is surprisingly comfortable; in fact, perhaps few cars offer so much differentiation. Go ahead and setup N Custom with full noise activated, rev matching on, soft suspension, and lighter steering—with the big “N” button featured prominently on the steering wheel, right by the driver’s right thumb, it was easy to flick between the two, turning the super-stiff ride on and off at will.
We found several bumpy corners and hit them as fast as seemed prudent, but nothing threw the Veloster off its line. That said, it would be nice if the quick-ratio steering wasn’t quite so quick, at least right off-center; the car isn’t exactly twitchy in a straight line, but it’s close.
Another cool discovery: Selecting Normal mode causes the car to go soft and silent, to the point you may as well be driving a base-model Veloster. This ability to morph between weekend racer and weekday commuter is arguably one of the Veloster N’s best features, as anyone who drives a Mini JCW daily might agree—fun is fun, but it isn’t fun all of the time.
Back at Thunderhill on the autocross, Hyundai’s engineers recommended N Custom mode with the softer suspension setting. The tight turns proved the mettle of the electronic limited-slip diff: the Veloster’s unit kept the inside-front tire in check without any noticeable power loss. However, any hopes for a little power-off oversteer (a rarity in front-drivers, but the Focus ST does it), evaporated quickly.
Finally, it was time for the track. For those unfamiliar, Thunderhill Raceway is a horror show of blind crests, way-off-camber turns, and big, fast sweepers. Here, the Veloster N showed its flexibility and raw talent. Power and chassis felt well matched, and the stiff suspension kept the chassis strapped down tight—very nice for those panicky moments when the pavement went in an unexpected direction. The rev-matching feature was a real boon, making for the easiest downshifts this side of a paddle. And the grip—oh, man, the grip! Thunderhill has several turns that can be taken at generous speeds, and the Pirelli rubber kept the Veloster glued to the track. The cars designated for on-circuit driving were fitted with track-ready brake pads, available from Hyundai dealers, and though the pedal softened a bit, braking action remained consistent and strong.
By the end of the day, the inkling present from the very beginning had proven to be legitimate: The Veloster N is the real deal, a serious hot hatch that can run with the best.
Let’s compare it to the heavy hitters: VW GTI and Golf R, Honda Civic Si and Type R, Mini Cooper S and JCW, Ford Focus ST and RS. Styling-wise, some will certainly consider the Hyundai the winner: Its sports-car stance, tasteful red trim, and reasonably restrained rear wing make the Honda and Ford look childish and the VWs look too subtle. (The Minis are a toss-up, since a billion customization options let the owner pick how it looks.) Power-wise, the Hyundai comes up right in the middle between the 200 and 300 hp cars, though its engine loses a few points to the rev-happy Hondas. Biermann reminded us the Veloster N’s engine is “nothing special,” Hyundai’s work-a-day 2.0T with the boost turned up, and it shows. But the Performance Package wins those points back for its delicious exhaust note.
In terms of handling, it’s likely a toss-up for a lot of drivers. It would be nice if the Veloster was as easy to rotate as the Focus ST, and the front-drive Civic Type R continuously amazes us with its ability to run with the all-wheel-drive cars—the best being the Golf R, which seems to give its driver a day pass from the laws of physics. The Veloster N doesn’t quite generate that level of magic, but its electronic limited-slip diff works well and it shakes off the abuse of the track like a pro. It’s not out of its depth in such esteemed company, that’s for sure.
Hyundai hadn’t announced pricing at the time of our drive, but it said the Veloster N will come in at less than $28,000, including destination fee, while Performance Package cars will list for less than $30k. Consider that the 220-hp 2018 VW GTI starts at $27,310, and the 2018 Civic Type R lists for $35,595, and the Veloster N is one hell of a performance bargain. Perhaps it isn’t so hard to believe this is a Hyundai, after all.
The Korean manufacturer has promised even more, with additional full-on N models coming, along with an N-Line trim package for most of its cars, and racy N accessories for all. A promising future, but if the whole shebang stopped with the Veloster N, we’d be perfectly happy. This is an honest performance hatchback from the last place we expected, and it’s bound to change enthusiasts’ opinion of the brand.
2019 Hyundai Veloster N Specifications
|ON SALE||Early 2019|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4 /275 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 260 lb-ft @ 1,450-4,700 rpm|
|LAYOUT||3-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||22/28 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||167.9 x 71.3 x 54.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.0 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|