And so the era of Korean accessible performance begins.
There’s a momentary mental disconnect as the pace car in front of me has just taken off – I depress the clutch, row into first, and the 19-inch 235/35 Pirelli P-Zeros spin and I enter the world’s most daunting track, Germany’s famed Nürburgring.
Almost immediately we’re in second gear, up to third, fourth. I lift-off before downshifting past Hohenrain and burbles and pops immediately engulf the cabin. This isn’t an Mercedes-AMG or an Aston Martin making that sound, mind you, it’s a Hyundai. More specifically, it’s the first of Hyundai’s performance models, one we’ll see later this year in the U.S. and elsewhere: the Veloster N.
Europe has already launched its version, called the i30 N (known here in the U.S. as the Elantra GT), and it’s been well-received from the outset over there in performance-hatch, wagon, and coupe dreamland. And what about the Veloster N? How did we get here exactly? It merits a quick glance back.
Seven years ago, in 2011, the Hyundai Veloster arrived. It was a quirky, front-wheel-drive, three-door (coupe on the driver’s side, traditional two-door hatch on the passenger’s side) entry with alluring Euro-hatch styling and a bit of promise. It delivered in the way all Hyundais were starting to at the time, laden with features and value, but its performance was a little underwhelming, beyond a get-about-town car.
A Veloster Turbo soon followed that, spruced up with a 1.6-liter inline-four that was good for 201 hp and 195 pound-feet of torque. It featured upgraded suspension and chassis tuning, as well as a six-speed manual transmission. This was a much better effort, and the engine was fantastic, but it still fell somewhat short in dynamics and feel, especially compared to the vaunted Volkswagen GTI, let alone today's crop of super hot hatchbacks, like the Ford Focus RS.
Now, we’re flying into the Flugplatz, much too focused on the track to play with the Veloster N’s 5 driving modes – that will come the following day on the roads surrounding the Green Hell – but one underlying impression cannot escape us: we’re in a front-wheel-drive Hyundai that can handle, and we’re having fun.
Despite a 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbo that cranks 275 hp with the Performance Pack – a 250-hp version will be standard – the Veloster N is never exceedingly quick or fast, but it does tap into usable, fun performance. The exclusive transmission is a six-speed manual, another nod to enthusiasts, though an "eight-speed" CVT is in the works down the line. Hyundai says the six-speed model can hit 62 mph in 6.1 seconds using the Veloster N’s launch control feature – yep, it’s got one – and we can assume 5.9 or 6.0 seconds to 60 as a fair estimate on the 19-inch P-Zeros, though it may vary slightly on the standard 18-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires.
For the first time, a car bearing the Hyundai badge isn't afraid of corners.
Perhaps most importantly, for the first time on a car bearing the Hyundai badge, it’s not afraid of corners. There’s relatively little understeer, and there’s a beautiful sensation when powering through those corners, thanks to some dedicated tweaking of the ECU. Former head engineer of BMW’s M brand, and current vice president of Hyundai Group R&D, Albert Biermann, said this was deliberate.
Biermann told us that while the N brand stands for Namyang – Hyundai’s research and development home in Korea – it equally stands for Nürburgring, as all N cars must have their final tuning done at Hyundai’s facility at the ‘Ring. The “N” logo itself is supposed to evoke a chicane; some of that may be marketing speak, but what’s undeniable is that legitimate work was done on the dynamics, to make this a worthy consideration.
Interestingly, Hyundai has eschewed Brembo brakes for an in-house, Korean-supplied setup.
“We could have easily fitted Brembos, but then the cost goes up. We want this car to be accessibly priced, and we’ll offer the Brembos on the upmaket cars,” Biermann said.
The Group’s Kia Stinger and Genesis G70 both have Brembos available on their 3.3-liter turbo models, and an in-house setup for their 2.0T versions. Biermann insisted we could judge for ourselves, but he thinks the work done with the Korean suppliers produced a good result.
The Veloster N therefore borrows the Kia Optima’s 13.6-inch front discs with two-piston calipers, and 12.4-inch single-caliper rear brakes. We got initiated with the brake feel early and often on the Ring, where perhaps even more important than getting up to speed, is being able to scrub it in a hurry. The verdict? They pass the sniff test. In fact, they’re downright impressive, both in feel and effectiveness. The engineers have developed a braking system they can be proud of.
The following day is when we had a bit more of a window into what this car truly was. While you can learn a lot on the ‘Ring in just two laps, we wanted to be able to go at our own pace, and play with all of the modes in varied driving conditions. This would help us more fully understand the car when it was not just in all-out mode.
The engineers have developed a braking system they can be proud of.
This also allowed us to take in the styling, beyond a snapshot first impression. Our test models were in a baby powder blue dubbed Performance Blue, which is a unique and attractive color, flogged by Performance Red accents – you’ll no doubt recognize this color scheme from the Veloster N’s debut.
There’s also large mesh-grille, a sharp LED DRL graphic, air intake ducts up front to help with brake cooling, a pronounced rocker on the side profile, a light wing that essentially becomes part of the roofline in the rear, and a noteworthy rear-LED taillight design that is truly striking. At the bottom are the twin mufflers, one at each end, spread far apart to emphasize the width, says Thomas Bürkle, head of Hyundai’s European design center. We imagine it’s also to distinguish the N from the center-exit setup on lesser Velosters.
In the interior, true to Hyundai, there’s a cohesiveness and premium aesthetic, including an attractive eight-inch touchscreen with unique N graphics, a dedicated N steering wheel with drive mode selectors on the wheel, a sporty shifter—that also feels nice to shift, short, and a little notchy—and sport seats that hug but are not uncomfortable. The backseats are usable, too, with plenty of legroom, and just enough headroom for most adults.
Once situated, we set out on the roads surrounding the circuit and got to play with the different modes. Interestingly, three of the modes can be selected via a button on the left side of the steering wheel—Eco, Normal, Sport. The other two “N” modes can be selected via a button on the right. One is N Custom, which allows you to modify the settings to your preference, while the standard N mode is the most aggressive across the board, including steering, acceleration, suspension, and most definitely sound. N mode also has an anti-lag function programmed in that makes the car predictably quicker, at the cost of fuel economy.
Unlike previous Hyundais, the driving modes here really do offer some differentiation.
Unlike previous Hyundais, the driving modes here really do offer some differentiation. With limited time, we didn’t really play with Eco, but we did drive in Normal. This is a sufficient mode to get around town. Not especially sporty, here the throttle is dialed back, the sound noticeably more quiet, and the steering more disconnected and soft. Sport mode, it turns out, may be the real sweet spot. Everything firms up, the sound is amplified, the car is quicker, and—drumroll—sportier.
While the best speed and sound can be achieved in N, we were also bouncing all over the place. The suspension is not really ideal for the country roads we were on, but perhaps best for the track. This might be where the Custom mode can earn its keep, with the suspension of Sport—where the MacPherson struts with coils up front, a multi-link hydraulic setup in rear seem their best—and with the sound, electronic steering, and throttle response of N.
While our overall time in the cars was short, it was enough to understand that Hyundai is onto something good here. The company announced and established the N brand at the 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show, and quickly began assembling the necessary characters to bring its performance arm to life.
The resulting Veloster N is the most fun car yet to come from Hyundai, and another sign—along with the Stinger and G70—that the Group is improving driving dynamics at an aggressive clip. What may be most important here is where Hyundai can price Veloster N. If it can offer a relative savings against similarly equipped competition such as the VW Golf GTI, or pricier cars like the Civic Type R, then it will be a promising start for Hyundai’s fledgling performance brand.