Driven: Hyundai’s Mid-Engine RM19 Concept Is Shockingly Friendly

Could Hyundai build it for real? Based on our experience behind the wheel, we sure hope so.

Aaron GoldWriterThe ManufacturerPhotographer

MOJAVE, California—Meet the Hyundai RM19, a Veloster-based mid-engine performance concept that made its public debut at this year's Los Angeles auto show. After its reveal, Hyundai invited us out to its California Proving Grounds for a quick stint behind the wheel. And, yes, the RM19 is as amazing as you might expect a 371-hp mid-engine compact car to be—but for reasons we didn't expect.

First, some background info: The RM19 is the latest in a series of mid-engine concept cars from the South Korean automaker. Hyundai started the RM (Racing Midship) project in 2012 and describes the cars as rolling labs to experiment with new technologies and expand the brand's performance envelope. The RM19 (numbered for the year of its release) is the fourth such concept, and earlier RMs have been used to experiment with lightweight materials, space frames, and electric superchargers.

Every RM looks like a Veloster, but the RM19 is arguably the closest to the real thing. It uses a standard Veloster body shell with one major change: It has just two conventional doors, rather than the funky three-door setup of the production Veloster. The shell is mated to new front and rear subframes, the latter extending upward to form a partial roll cage. The bespoke suspension uses struts in front and control arms in back. The brakes are bigger, but the electric power steering is lifted from the Veloster N.

The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is based on that of the Veloster N TCR racing car, which Hyundai Motorsport builds for the Pirelli World Challenge and IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge series. The RM19's version gets a horsepower bump from 350 to 390, with torque rising from 332 lb-ft to 350. (That's on 95-octane racing fuel, by the way. When we drove the RM19, it was tuned for 93-octane pump fuel, with an output of 371 horsepower and 325 lb-ft.) And, of course, the engine is mounted behind the rear seats rather than under the hood.

The transmission is a paddle-shifted six-speed sequential manual racing 'box. The RM19 has a clutch pedal, but it's only used to get the car rolling; once on the move, all shifting is done with the steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Curb weight is 3,120 pounds, about the same as a Veloster N, and top speed is 162 mph.

Hyundai gave us three quick (very quick) laps on its road-racing-style circuit, barely more than a fast handshake, but just enough to get a basic feel for the car. Getting started wasn't easy; the racing gearbox has an absurdly high first gear, and there's a very narrow envelope between stalling the engine and glazing the clutch (we chose the former before getting it right). Once on the move, the RM19 is very quick, and the modified engine has the same flexibility and flat torque delivery we've come to love in our long-term Four Seasons Veloster N.

The RM19 wore street-ready rubber, a specially designed Pirelli tire that offers enough grip for corner heroics but not so much stick that you can't play around. Wider rubber at the rear (305 versus 245 up front) helps keep the back of the car in line, but a quick lift off the throttle—or a good stab onto it with the revs nice and high—will break the rear end loose. It's not a sudden snap, but rather a gentle loss of traction that's easy to catch and correct.

Hyundai had two RM19s on the track, and we were told that one had a better braking setup than the other. We perhaps were in the worse of the two, though this author's sloppy driving should be blamed for carrying too much speed into one of the sharper bends, braking too late, and spinning the car. Oops. A quick check showed no harm done to the RM19, so we went back on the track for a more controlled—and significantly more enjoyable—third lap. It's a bummer that we had so little time to learn the car and the track, because it quickly became obvious that it wouldn't take much seat time for even a just-okay driver to make the RM19 sing.

Truth be told, we expected speed, we expected grip, and we expected balance—but what we didn't expect was the refinement of the RM19. Hyundai's reps cautioned us that the car would be noisy, but we found it to be quite civil. The interior, made largely from what looked like stock Veloster bits, was rather complete and very tidy. Nothing felt badly assembled, and the driving experience was surprisingly well integrated and holistic. The RM19 didn't feel like a cobbled-together experimental racer; it felt like a near-production-ready car.

Are there plans to build something like this? Hyundai didn't say yes, but it also didn't completely rule out the possibility—at least, not in the long term. We can't really see Hyundai rolling out a mid-engine, race-ready sports car, but if you would have asked us three years ago, we couldn't have seen it launching the All Stars-winning, Civic Type R-chasing Veloster N, either.

For now, Hyundai will continue to experiment with RM cars. The next version will get the eight-speed wet-dual-clutch transmission slated for the Veloster N, as well as the 2.5-liter turbo four that will appear in the upcoming Sonata N-Line. Hopefully Hyundai will let us try that one, too.

We'll keep our fingers crossed for a production version, but even if the RM's job is merely to whet our appetite for future Hyundai performance cars, consider its mission accomplished.